Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Norman Rockwell recalled quite clearly the first time he sold out.

Humiliated by his family's poverty, Rockwell resolved to make money any way he could. It didn't take long for him to learn about "the depths of commercialism:"

Jack Arnold, my cousin, came home from Annapolis one holiday and offered me fifty cents to take my girl and him out in my boat. And I did it; I rowed facing the front of the boat while Jack and my girl hugged on the rear seat.
Rockwell quickly realized there were things he should not trade for money. Perhaps he was still smarting over his loss when he began sketching concepts for Saturday Evening Post covers a few years later:

Many people are quick to accuse commercial artists of selling out (unlike true artists who never compromise their art for money). Personally, I've never been very impressed by such claims. For one thing, charges of "selling out" are rarely leveled by people who have made meaningful contributions to the arts. Instead, it more often comes from gawkers and spectators with little understanding of survival in the market.

For another thing, "selling out" comes in all shapes and sizes but is rarely irreversible. I've never yet seen Mephistopheles assume the form of an art director and offer to buy a young artist's immortal soul. Illustrator Bob Heindel offered a far wiser and more practical view of how young artists start out making bad trade offs but can still redeem themselves:
We all got screwed around at the beginning. That’s how you learn. But you learn to protect yourself, and mostly, if you care about it you learn to protect your work. [An artist has to be] protective of his ability.... he [should] always want... the opportunities to do his very best.
Furthermore, even when an artist does succumb to crass commercial demands, the taint of commerce usually gets washed away by the passage of time. For example, nineteenth century symbolist painter Arnold Bocklin created a famous and haunting picture of the Isle of the Dead.

When a wealthy widow saw the painting in Bocklin's studio, she offered him good money to paint another version, but this time adding a woman and a coffin in the boat to represent the widow and her dear departed husband George. Bocklin responded with the German equivalent of "you betcha" and promptly painted the duplicate to satisfy her specifications. This version of Bocklin's painting is now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where nobody criticizes it as a "sell out."

Of course, some courageous artists never do compromise their art. For example, Monet refused to sell out. Rather than compromise his artistic principles to make his paintings more marketable, he lived off of others, begging money from his parents or anyone else he could persuade to give him a few francs. He was so principled that his family lived in abject poverty; his wife and children sometimes went without food so that Monet could be true to his art. Because he couldn't afford medical care, his wife Camille suffered through a long illness with tuberculosis before dying painfully at the age of 32. Some say she died of pelvic cancer, but others say she died of a botched abortion because she and Monet could not afford to raise a third child.

Don't think Monet's artistic dedication was compromised by Camille's tragic death; he told a friend that he was interested in the way Camille's face changed color after she died, so he recorded the change in a painting:

Now that's what I call principle.