When I was in art school, once a week during lunch break a working artist would come to speak to the painting and sculpture majors.
One such lecture sticks out in my mind over all the rest.
A painter, who became a master frame maker, explained that he found he could make a better living making beautiful frames than he could at painting. At first, he’d crafted them for his own work, but was then asked to make frames for friends. Eventually, this launched a profitable and meaningful career.
When asked if he felt he was selling out, he said, “The question isn’t will you sell out, but rather how many times a day are we selling out?”
He was clearly at ease with his choice, he understood that sacrifices in alignment with integrity are fulfilling and serving him well.
Somehow I found this comforting as I moved forward as an artist. There will always be compromises and sacrifices and as the saying goes, ‘no loss no gain.’
But something has come to my attention recently – the words ‘selling out’ and ‘sacrifice’ are often interchanged when in reality it is not just a matter of mere semantics. They’re actually opposites – opposite in origin and in true meaning. If anything, cultural connotation has reversed the meaning.
Today, people commonly view ‘sacrifice’ as a negative thing, something to be avoided. While ‘selling out,’ the compromising of a person’s integrity, authenticity, or morality in exchange for personal gain or money, was once seen as a point of shame or condemnation, it is now seen as a benchmark of success. An example might be painting offensive artwork for the lobbies of corporate hotel chains.
But, perhaps far more troubling is what can be considered the ultimate sell-out, of course, ‘selling one’s soul to the Devil.’
These stories go as far back as the New Testament, Matthew 4:8 to Luke 4:5. The Devil took Jesus to the high mountains and showed him all the kingdoms and their glory. “All of this I will give you,” he said. While in Matthew 16:26, Jesus himself stated “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”
The Devil tries to tempt and buy off Jesus unsuccessfully. But not all of us are as clear or resolute of mind and spirit as Christ, though it seems we should take heed.
It has become almost a cliché, what an artist feels they must do to work within ‘the industry,’ music or film, tempted by fame and fortune and all that goes with it. It’s illustrated really well in a story Eric Clapton based his hit, ‘Crossroads’, on:
Robert Johnson looks over in the ditch and sees the eyes of the dog reflecting the bright moonlight or, more likely so it seemed, glowing on their own, a deep violet penetrating glow, and Robert Johnson knows and feels that he is staring into the eyes of a Hellhound as his body shudders from head to toe.
A man says, “The dog ain’t for sale, Robert Johnson, but the sound can be yours. That’s the sound of the Delta Blues.”
“I got to have that sound, Devil-Man. That sound is mine. Where do I sign?”
The man says, “You ain’t got a pencil, Robert Johnson. Your word is good enough. All you got to do is keep walking north. But you better be prepared. There are consequences.”
It is surprising how many artists find themselves in this situation. Why?
Throughout the history of western art, artists have been the ones with the means to connect with people, to reach their hearts and minds, because artists are bestowed with an openness to inspiration. Many, going back to Greek mythology, have suggested that this is a channel to the Divine. But if one does not guard and cherish this gift, like all things precious, it might just be seized upon.
But the only way is with our permission, which is done knowingly or unknowingly. Perhaps it depends on the choices we make, based on the beliefs we align with, and the values we hold dear.
Because artists have often been in need of and accepted patronage and financial support, they are often susceptible to manipulation and exploitation. Their skills have often been usurped to promote the patron’s ideologies, politics, or brand, and often all three.
The idea of sacrifice today, however, seems almost a dirty word, something no one wants to do, when in fact sacrifice is something noble.
The definition, from the Latin ‘sacrificium’ derives from ‘sacer’ or ‘holy.’ To give up something valuable for a greater purpose, for the wellbeing of others, family and community, or for an ideal, like truth or righteousness, has always been seen as a great virtue.
Once, people gave themselves in service to God, like the iconic painters of magnificent gold-leafed devotional works. Today, we sell ourselves to the Devil for fame or money.
The first is selfless, while the latter is selfish.
Sacrifice may be hardship initially, but it ultimately enriches, elevates, and emancipates the true self. It takes often years of sacrifice to develop the skills of an artist. That is a life long sacrifice. While selling out may give immediate gratification, it nonetheless enslaves and impoverishes you in the long run.
“The artist is always the servant and is perpetually trying to pay for the gift that has been given to him, as if by a miracle. Modern man, however, does not want to make any sacrifice, even though true affirmation of the self can only be expressed in sacrifice,” said esteemed filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky.
“All of us are infected today with an extraordinary egoism, and that is not freedom. Freedom means learning to demand only of oneself, not of life and others, and knowing how to give: sacrifice in the name of love.”
And so, perhaps we must pause and reflect before accepting those 30 pieces of silver, and value the power and responsibility of our gift.