M. Paramita Lin explains why it is necessary to make your art your business
I grew up during a time when “sellout” was one of the worst insults you could give someone. If you took any money for your art (I’m using this as a general term for creative work), you were a tool of capitalism who deserved disdain for betraying punk, Buddha, and Marx. When I was young, I completely bought into this idea, not realizing that this kind of mentality is actually a way for predatory capitalism to keep artists poor and dependent on the system.
Think about it: artists who are not being financially rewarded for their work are inevitably forced into shitty jobs which drain them of the energy, time, and even desire to do art or creative work. Otherwise, artists who refuse to get jobs end up being poor and marginalized unless they come from wealthy families, which is not a bad thing in itself, if used properly. (For those people who think it’s better to be poor to live an artistic life, as someone who grew up in Third World countries, I think it’s stupid and ungrateful to romanticize poverty. People who romanticize poverty are the worst because they have no interest in eradicating it; they support a terrible, cruel system for the sake of bullshit “authenticity”.)
It was when I spent a couple of years in the music industry that I saw very starkly that artists who don’t take responsibility for their work and treat it as a business get taken advantage of by a machine that doesn’t care about them beyond their value as moneymakers. And here’s what I also learned, very importantly: “selling out” doesn’t mean profiting from your work. It’s not even giving up your “principles” but rather, “selling out” means harming those who would follow you.
There’s a proverb “長江後浪推前浪” which translates as “The waves at the back of the Changjiang River drive forward the waves ahead.” It basically means that the new will always replace the old, but in this imagery, I also see something important: that the old must give way to the new and let them move forward. Selling out means you’ve fucked things up so much that those behind you have no chance to achieve their dreams. It means allowing predators to abuse their power and to use the system to force artists give up ownership of their work and any means to benefit from it.
I’ve learned that calling someone a “sellout” because they’re trying to have a career making art is really no more than victim blaming. Steve Albini wrote a great essay about the music industry, “The Problem With Music“, and notice that he never once blames a band for wanting to earn some money; he places the blame squarely on the predatory industry (and he’s not wrong).
When we say make your art your business, we mean that if you want to live your life doing art, you should treat your art with the same seriousness and value that good businesses treat their products. We’re thinking Patagonia, not Nike, by the way. Treating your art like a business means putting value on it and the people who are involved in it.
If you choose to make art your day job (we’ll have more posts about how to set this up), it doesn’t mean that you give up all creativity and personal expression. I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop by Mary Lee Hu, who said she didn’t see any conflict in making business out of art, or making art within business. Look at her body of work and tell me that she compromised any of her artistry. And remember, the Sistine Chapel was a commission, too.
There is nothing wrong with becoming successful; in fact, if you are able to do so, you should consider it your duty so that you can subvert mainstream narratives and desires (the Sistine Chapel frescoes did that, too, by the way). Do a Trojan horse:
Trojan-horsing” is a term beloved among show creators, who believe that network executives want a dab of originality, but mostly for marketing purposes. When Jenji Kohan explained to NPR why she’d created the prison show “Orange Is the New Black” around the character of Piper, an attractive, upper-middle-class white woman, she said, “Piper was my Trojan horse. You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women and Latina women and old women and criminals.”
This is from a New Yorker interview with Donald Glover, another person who has managed to make a business out of his art, and every artist should read it. In fact, even beyond doing a Trojan horse, BE a Trojan horse. Open doors for other artists who may not have the same access and privileges as you do.
Make your art your business and be a real punk.
Next week, Doretta Lau will weigh in on what this means for those who work in media and publishing.