The "Sellout Artist"
By Lauren Leslie
We would all naturally associate traditional artwork such paintings, drawings, sculptures, etc with the word art; but is graphic design just as much art as its traditional predecessors? One day, I heard a former acquaintance shamefully say that he felt like he was “selling out” (as an artist) by becoming a graphic designer. In another instance I was watching a TV show about a family in which a artistically inclined husband refused to do commercial work as a graphic designer for the same fear of “selling out” and instead worked as a dishwasher with a miserable attitude about his job. As a graphic designer, I wondered if this “sellout” concept is a one that some artists actually struggle with and why there seems to be a strange fear around the idea of making money as a creative person. Naturally, I decided to form a perspective on this term “sellout artist” and deconstruct this idea by discussing the similarities between fine art and graphic art with the idea that graphic designers are visual artists essentially.
“What is a sellout?” You ask. When we think of someone “selling out” we think of someone essentially going against his or her true nature of intent in order to gain money or some other materialistic or superficial desire—cheapening the value of individuality or originality solely for a shallow cause. But shallow causes aren’t that shallow when it comes to paying the bills and taking care of yourself, which applies to just about everyone.
Firstly, a brief explanation of visual art in general: Since the beginning of humanity, the purpose of art has always been communication. It is a way to capture attention in order to deliver or preserve a message—to tell the viewer something through a variety of media. No matter its form, art is a physically manifested response to the world and a testament to life, malleable by the unique mind of the artist as a creative individual.
The challenge of the visual artist is always the same: the endless ideas of one’s mind wrestling with the limitations of our physical reality. As artists, as designers we are deliberate with the act of creation. We work with what we have as a medium, and many times the tension exists not in what the message is, but how to convey the message through whatever medium that’s available. Mankind will continually invent new ways to create things and new media to explore, and much of that has to do with the needs of the world as it develops. With the invention of the computer our artistic media evolution has taken us from paint and paintbrushes to swatches and cursors, from traditional art to digital art. Just like oranges and pineapples are fruits by nature, graphic designers and sculptors are artists by nature. Every artist ends up specializing in a specific method and media of interest at some point based on one’s enjoyment, skill, or availability of a particular medium and forms a process around it. Thus denying that graphic design is art based off media type alone would be like telling a photographer that his product isn’t art simply because he or she uses a camera—a shallow judgment in itself.
Designers still use the same principles of art that a fine artist uses such as balance, composition, movement, etc…to successfully relay a message. Therefore, even if the media used is different between a fine artist and a graphic designer, the principles behind the work are subconsciously or consciously the same. Sure, the work of a graphic designer is used mainly for practical reasons such as marketing and other commercial use with work ranging from billboards to brochures, from logos to posters, from dropping text into a text box to arranging photos on magazine pages. However, that doesn’t that make it less or more inadequate to the work of a fine artist who is advertising his or her expression or perspective with his or her own process and art. Only unlike the more practical nature of graphic design, fine art has the freedom to be as subjective and obscure or as direct and literal as the artist desires, but this difference is only in conjunction with a work’s specific message. Therefore, with message set aside, would not the work of a graphic designer also be considered art if its purpose were the same as the work of a fine artist—to advertise a message?
The Pursuit of Income
Even the pursuit of work and income for a fine artist and a graphic designer can be very similar as there are many ways to go about finding income. For example, both designers and fine artists can make a living by freelancing for clients, being commissioned by clients, teaching, or working for a specific company for salary wages. Whatever the type of commission between a client and artist, the artist acts as a visual translator—a middle-man between the client’s vision and the audience. Defining art as the product of a creative process or experience, the artist (designer) gives up the right to decide whether it is successful or unsuccessful and lets the work speak for itself to the eye of the beholder. But to be a successful fine artist or designer requires a great level of empathy, knowledge or intent of their craft, and creativity that connects their work to the world or to the audience effectively. In other words, to assume that the pursuit of income is less challenging for graphic designers than fine artists is quite an ignorant assumption. It’s all about what connections an artist makes and what resources one taps into.
The truth is money has nothing to do with whether or not something is or isn’t art, so “selling out” is never a realistic way to look at being or becoming a graphic designer, as my pessimistic acquaintance feared. Everyone has to make income somehow whether it’s a graphic designer making a logo for a client or a fine artist selling a portrait to a patron. Even with all the philosophy and analysis set aside, no one should be ashamed of providing an income for him or herself. It’s just that simple. Do what you love and let it be known!