The Destructive Career of the Artist

I started a flash fiction story recently. It's told in first person by an artist who is butting heads against the expectations capitalism has laid out. The character feels crushed by the weight of responsibilities, and the amount of self-sacrifice that is expected of the artist.

We live in a world of instant gratification and vast access to unlimited entertainment. We binge TV shows and consume movies by the multi-installment franchise. Fans have access to conversations with artists and creators of the media they consume, and aren't afraid to demand what they want.

In order to be an artist, one must endure self-sacrifice. To make money, artists must work jobs they do not want, or create art they don't want to create. This has always been the case; one may look to the Renaissance and see church/noble commission pieces were the main income of the most famous artists we study today.

Here's the question I pose to you: How much self can the artist sacrifice without losing oneself completely? In this, I don't simply mean "selling out." This also encompasses the paths that could be considered the opposites of selling out. These include: A. working a job that is unfulfilling to fund a life of creating are that is fulfilling, and B. devoting the art entirely to those who consume it.

The artist's first option (and the easiest, if the artist is able to catch the eye of the right person), is to sell out. Selling out is, in my opinion, an overly critical way of referring to an artist compromising their art's integrity in exchange for a large sum of money.

Why overly critical? The life of an artist is generally very financially unstable. Artists routinely have their work stolen, wait long periods of time for paychecks, and are disregarded as unnecessary. To accept a paycheck from a reputable company that has money to pay an artist well is enticing. Deciding who to sell your art to, and choosing between artistic integrity and a steady paycheck, is the hardest decision an artist has to make.

The second path for the artist is to maintain a fully authentic artistic portfolio, but work inauthentically in a menial job. The artist must work, often full-time, to pay for art supplies to create art that is not marketable to the masses. The paying job will get more time devoted to it, and the art will be created less as a result. If the artist attempts to work the paying job equal or lesser amounts of time than creating art, that artist usually must suffer financially as a result. Thus, the artist's selfhood is perpetually trapped in a sort of limbo between authenticity and inauthenticity, always wanting/needing more resources, or needing more time and energy to create.

The third and final path for the artist is to create entirely for the consumer. The fan base. One could call this simply another form of selling out, except most don't call it that because they don't want to demonize the practice. The artist will listen to a suggestion from a fan in good faith. Then more come, and the artist tries to appease them. As their demands increase and take hold, the artist starts to compromise what was originally intended for the art. It becomes art created, ultimately, by the fans and no longer created by the artist. The artist, to these fans, is simply a machine that cranks out the art. The artist is no longer a thinker. The artist is objectified and loses the joy in creating, because they are shackled to others' demands.

Is there a way for the artist to maintain a full, authentic sense of self? Is there a way to maintain artistic integrity and make a living as an artist? Does capitalism allow for the artist to truly exist as a whole person? And if not, what restructured economic system would?

Thoughts? Answers? Leave them below in the comments!

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