Art versus Product

Ever since I wrote my post on the economics of games, I’ve been thinking about the issues I raised. (Yes, apparently my writing is so good that it’s even thought-provoking for me.) In particular, I was thinking about my own approach to game design, which led me into thinking more about the economics of art, which led me back to the eternal question: “What is art?”

I don’t plan on answering that question. Or, at least, I don’t intend on offering an answer for the ages. However, it occurred to me that there’s a potentially helpful insight to be gained by considering this question from a certain perspective. It still won’t answer the question “What is art?”, but maybe it’ll help the artists out there who are trying to figure out how to make a living without “selling out”.

Let’s start there. What’s “selling out”, and why are artists so terrified of it?

I think the answer can be found in the idea of “artistic vision.” As an artist, there’s something that I’m trying to bring into existence that is, first of all, a form of self-expression. I’m trying to evoke some aspect of myself into the world. That slice of “myself” could be my internal emotional life, or it could be an insight I’ve had into the way the world works, or whatever. The point is that it is a part of me that I’m trying to externalize.

So, if I’m not evoking my own “artistic vision” and I’m instead implementing someone else’s vision, then I’m not being true to my art. I’ve sold out.

Does that sound right, fellow artists? It’s especially bad when money gets involved, because now you’ve prostituted your art for money. Of course, money lets you eat, which we all want. So how does that work?

But let me rephrase that mess more positively. You’re an expert, working with a client to create something for that client to use. You are in constant dialogue with the client, seeking to understand that client’s needs and ensuring that the item being created meets those needs.

Broadly, this is product development. But, really, what I’ve described is all the consultative professions: architects, industrial designers, software developers, marketers, and more. The same skills are in play; the only difference is the client.

In product development, the goal is to meet the needs of the client. In “art”, the goal is to meet the needs of the artist.

When I say it that way, it could be tempting to swing the pendulum in the other direction and accuse the artist of being selfish. But, really, I think that both approaches are valid. The world needs expert servants who can aid people with brilliant ideas and bring them into existence in order to serve the needs of the world. At the same time, the world also needs prophetic visionaries who evoke their insights in order to cause people to consider their souls.

It could even be the same person.

Now, the economics are going to be completely different for these two approaches. Given that money is the abstraction that we use to coordinate human effort, it’s not surprising that product development can easily earn money. Art is more…complicated. After all, the utility of a product can be measured in various ways: time saved, money saved, effort multiplied. The value of art is harder to define. After all, what makes your insight so valuable? It’s trickier to assert, which makes it harder to justify receiving money for it.

Which brings us back to the traditional way this is done: an artist “sells out” by using his skills to essentially create product for others, in order to earn the resources to express his own insights. This is true in our modern capitalist system, but it’s equally true in a patronage system like Renaissance Italy.

And, maybe, this isn’t a bad thing. Maybe it serves as a natural filtering process. It requires the artist to ask, “How valuable is this insight to me?” Enough that she’s willing to work hard elsewhere to birth its evocation? If not, then maybe it wasn’t worth bringing into the world in the first place.

(Now, this certainly doesn’t follow in its entirety. But maybe there’s something in here for all the artists out there–and the one writing–to consider.)

Anyways, this was an attempt to process these ideas out loud, so I don’t have a great summation. But, if nothing else, consider that maybe “selling out” isn’t always an act of treason to your art; maybe it’s an act of service to your fellow human.

5 responses to “Art versus Product

  • jon

    Short answer – You introduced me to Mike Montiero’s stuff a couple years ago. You should read his book “Design is a Job”. It tackles a lot of this stuff in a pretty straightforward way. To oversimplify it, you (as an artist) say “here’s the type of work I do. Here’s [insert reasons] why it’s superior to another option. If that’s not what you’re looking for, I’d be happy to refer you to someone else. And this works for fine art or commercial artwork. The emphasis being on pride in your ‘type’ of work, and exhibiting ethics and honesty above profitability.

    My Longer perspective – As an artist I’ve experienced all the emotions and issues you’ve brought up above.

    I think young artists worry about ‘selling out’ far too prematurely… before their skills are even developed. And as a consequence, it paralyzes many young artists before they can even do anything worthy of earning a livable wage.

    Young artists have such a hard time even figuring out what art means to THEM, that any extra influence leads to further reflection, and if they feel that their unique artistic voice is being threatened, they rebel.

    I think the fear of ‘selling out’ is more a matter of maturity… When you’re a young artist, you tend to think that “Art” is something pure and holy, and that anything that extends from it has some innate magical quality that is worthy of being praised and fussed over. If I’m honest with myself, Art was one of my early ‘gods’ that replaced Christ. And if you treat art as a holy self-entity, then yes… it’s easy to get lost in what’s truly from you and what’s “selling out” to another’s interests.

    As I get older, I think this kind of perspective is twisted and paralyzing. In reality, I think young artists should learn to ignore this notion of what’s their ‘true artistic voice’, and instead focus on learning to draw EVERYTHING. A young artist shouldn’t even have time to THINK about their own artistic voice. They should be too absorbed in learning a trade. When a young artist completes a work of art, he shouldn’t frame it and admire it from across the room. He should instead say, “That was fun. What’s next?” …or better yet “How do I do this better next time?”

    Young artists like Michelangelo are outliers. MOST refined art (commercial or otherwise) comes from mature minds. Great artists are usually well into their middle-age by the time they produce anything of value. Young artists should be reminded of this daily.

    I think the only REAL danger of ‘selling out’ as a younger artist is doing a type of art that compromises your morals (i.e. something pornographic or gratuitously violent). But most clients don’t even want that kind of art to begin with.

    In short, you can summarize it like this:

    1. Create! Draw, draw, click, paint, draw, build, sketch, and paint… Until your fingers bleed. Copy other artists for inspiration if need be. Forget you and your ‘artistic vision’.

    2. Once you grow up a little, take those skills, and develop your own unique art style

    3. Once you decide to earn a living making art, be a good, honest businessperson as well as a good human being. Even if you are doing commercial art, you’re not ‘selling out’ if you’re doing something unique.

  • jon

    Now that I’ve had time to sleep on it, I have even more thoughts on the issue.

    I’d like to dispel the notion I used to have of commercial artists as “sell outs”. It makes sense for me to argue this since I’m a commercial artist myself, but when you look at the artwork of Saul Bass, or Frank Lloyd Wright, (or any of hundreds other commercial artists), you don’t think “Sell out”. You think “unique style and purpose”. What makes them NOT “sell outs” is that they aren’t producing sloppy work at someone else’s insistence. They have the skill and self-confidence to only offer things that are in their style. And how do you find your style? …your “artistic voice”?

    Through exhaustion and frustration. And if you push yourself to create art non-stop for years at a time, you’ll find that exhaustion and frustration. Art is not easy. I feel a little lazy saying that, because I don’t even feel like I’ve put MY all into it. And if you are a fine artist and your art is attempting to say something profound… How much more profound will that statement be when you’ve lived a little life first? This is why I say great art comes from mature (usually older) minds.

    When I was a young artist, I drew and painted with FEELING, and tried to express my voice… And while some of it came out moderately interesting, I can look at it now and see how extremely shallow it all was. (Sexual frustration and inability to produce better art were as complicated as my themes got)

    And if you grow up thinking your art is precious and deep at a younger age, it also leaves you very fragile to weather the arrows of criticisms that are certain to come. A mature artist welcomes criticism and improvement. A young artist, worried about selling out withers at the first note of criticism.

    Long ago, I heard a great story of a master artist and his understudy. The understudy spent weeks working on a great work of art. When he finally finished it, his master looked at it and said, “This is truly a great painting…. now if you want to continue studying under me, burn it.” The only way to improve is not to get attached to what you see as ‘precious’. I heard this story probably 20 years ago, so I don’t know the reference or if it’s even true, but it stuck with me and has been oddly comforting in my most frustrating moments as an artist.

  • Keith Sears

    Art is one of those things that are highly subjective. Most people aren’t going to see game design as an art, not even those people that play games on a regular basis. Worrying whether what you do is “art” or not is a paralyzing state.

    One of the things I learned when I was heavily into art (especially cartooning) back in college, is that that there are two different types of artists, fine and commercial.

    Fine artists create what they want, go through the sweat and tears of making the thing, and hope that someone else likes it enough to buy it.

    Commercial artists already have someone that wants to buy their art before they ever begin. The art is presold before they ever begin.

    Both of these artists have Product they need to sell in order to make a living at being an artist. They simply go about it in different ways. I firmly believe that anyone that really and truly worries about “selling out” is little more than a dilettante.

    When creating art for a living, there will be days when you mechanically slap something together. It has no soul. It touches no one, But you still get to eat for another day because someone else thought it was pretty.

    But there will also be those days when your Muse whispers in your ear and the images flow. You manage to capture a little bit of your own soul into what you’ve created. Those are the days to live for.

  • jon

    Curse you for making me think so much about this, Seth! I’ve had this discussion stuck in my head all week. Also, Thank you for making me think so much about this.

    I was rethinking some of my earlier statements about art… which I still think are true, but by themselves are insufficient to describe what I believe about art. I feel like I led the discussion about art to a cold and unapproachable place… which didn’t feel like art to me. Art is VERY approachable, and gives freedom to so many people, but is also a very serious profession… and everything in between.

    HARD WORK (which I focused on) is still a key element of any successful artist, and I think I targeted in on it, because it’s the aspect that gets forgotten whenever artists are concerned about “selling out”. Working hard at art produces strong results, and that hard work should be paid. I no longer believe the ‘commercial’ vs. ‘fine’ art stuff I did when I was younger. Again, I point to any number of top “commercial” artists – Can you tell me they are not “fine” artists?

    If Hard Work is a key element of Art, then I’d say the other two (perhaps more important) elements are CREATIVITY and AESTHETIC.

    AESTHETIC is that sense of style, finesse, or indescribable beauty in a piece of artwork. It’s the piece that artists love to latch onto, and sucks them into art, but eludes many non-artists. It’s the lens through which artists see the world, and it inspires them to create. It’s the same sense that makes you look up at a billboard or a commercial or even someone else’s artwork and say, “I would have done THAT differently.”

    This is what Ira Glass calls “Good taste”, and he describes beautifully here:

    “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

    And since Aesthetic is such an ethereal concept, it’s hard to say how to refine it, but a big start would be to understand art that is already good. Go to museums, take art history classes, start Pinterest boards of inspiring artwork. Basically- surround yourself with what you see is beautiful or stylized art, and dig to understand what makes it that way, keeping in mind that it will never “snap” into place and suddenly make complete sense, but it will deepen and grow.

    The last element of Art (as I mentioned above) is CREATIVITY. Creativity is the great equalizer. The gateway ‘art’ drug. Creativity shouts confidently in grade school classrooms that, “EVERYONE is an artist!!” (regardless of skill level). And Creativity, just like the other skills can be strengthened with practice, but is very simple to understand. It can be summed up like this:

    “The world is made up of puzzle pieces– go find unique ways to recombine those pieces to create something new.”

    Boom. Done. Go create. It requires no aesthetic, and usually not even a lot of hard work. Now flip over a bar-napkin and go be creative. Every book I’ve read on creativity confirms that the most creative people in the world are the ones who step back and recombine familiar elements.

    Take the iPhone…. a marvel of modern technology, right? Not that amazing if you break it down.
    It’s a phone (a familiar technology) combined with
    a digital camera (a familiar technology) combined with
    a mobile computing device (another familiar technology in this day)…

    The list goes on.. and if you break it all the way down to it’s tiny components, for the most part it’s combined elements from other places. Even if you look at the manufacturing, it’s construction is the assembly of different, not-so-complicated pieces fused together. Now, the iPhone is (arguably) a work of art in it’s execution, as is shown by the amount of hard work and aesthetic also involved, but you get the idea.

    Try something simpler… look at the fishing rod. Essentially, it’s a stick and string, right? But they’ve combined things from grips, to winding mechanisms to line channels (all pre-existing technologies) that make the thing run beautifully.

    No one invents anything great without first pillaging a few other ideas. I’ve been doing a deep dive of creativity the last couple years, and obviously creativity with purpose goes a little deeper than that, but that’s a good round definition. And when it comes to art, the same holds true of stealing/recombining artistic styles, elements, etc. too.

    Another great resource for the element of creativity is the web series Everything is a remix.

    Again, if you’re an artist (or if you know a young artist), I’d have him/her focus on developing those things.

    CREATIVITY – recombining familiar elements to try to create something new.

    AESTHETIC – seeking the understanding of style and what makes things ‘beautiful’

    and HARD WORK – Working your tail off to the point of exhaustion to ensure that you have a chance of getting paid for doing what you love for a living.

    Sorry for rambling, and thanks for letting me monopolize your blog post. Hmmm… maybe i should do some of my own writing on the subject.

    • Seth Ben-Ezra


      I still want to sit down and read this comment with the level of attention it deserves. But if this post continues to produce the quality of content from you that it has, then I say: monopolize away!

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