The artist’s dilemma: what constitutes selling out?



The sell out is a vague derogatory term used to describe a person who betrays a cause for personal advancement. It’s a dilemma all artists face when on the brink of making it “mainstream.” This article by Yoav Litvin, The Rockefeller University analyzes the issues artists face.

Intellectuals, academics and artists play a unique role in society: they preserve and defend both freedom of expression and the morality of choices. Artists can use their work as a means to communicate messages of dissent and hope in the face of injustice, repression and despair.

Meanwhile, those in power who seek to control public opinion typically consider untethered freedom of thought and expression a threat.

But in any capitalist system, it’s difficult to survive as a full-time artist. Artists need to be industrious in order to make a living from art, and may choose to work with government organizations or corporations to supplement their income.

Herein lies what I’ve dubbed the “artist’s dilemma”: how does one cooperate with a large entity while ensuring moral ground? In other words, what constitutes “selling out,” arguably the worst insult that can be lobbed at an artist?

It’s an issue that has come to the forefront, especially for street artists, who seem to be increasingly collaborating with businesses and corporations. Companies will often seek to cultivate artists as a way to enhance their brand, and street art can have the effect of making a product look more authentic, edgy and gritty.

Recently, a blogger and a group of artists have partnered with Amazon to produce and sell a series of limited edition prints, and the USA Network commissioned artists to promote a new TV series by producing ads that look like authentic works of street art.

Meanwhile, in some instances, the boundaries between political activism and commodification have blurred. Earlier this year, the street artist Gilf! made headlinesfor wrapping yellow caution tape with the words “Gentrification in Progress” around shuttered buildings throughout New York City. But the caution tape can now be had for the price of US$60.

In response to these trends within the world of street art, some claim that the genre – specifically, its festivals – have “sold out.” Others make the puzzling argument that this debate is outdated because the genre of street art “has been recognizable since the ‘70’s and ’80’s.”

What is apparent is that with the growth of corporate control over public spaces – along with the relentless attempt of corporate entities to commodify anything and everything – the debate about street art and artists “selling out” is not only relevant, it’s necessary.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma: an analogy

In order to methodically tackle this issue, it’s useful to look at it through the lens of The Prisoner’s Dilemma, a game analyzed by use of principles of game theory.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma, developed by mathematicians Merrill Flood and Melvin Dreshner, is an analysis of a hypothetical situation. The police apprehend two accomplices for committing a minor crime, but they’re suspected of a greater offense. The evidence for the greater offense, however, is circumstantial. The police need their confession to convict.

For this purpose, the accomplices are separated and individually presented with the following options: squeal on your partner and go free (and be absolved of the lesser crime) or remain silent and risk your partner squealing on you, in which case you’ll get the maximum prison term for the major offense.

But there are two more possible scenarios: if both prisoners squeal, they each get an intermediate sentence. Lastly, if both prisoners stay silent, they’ll be tried for the lesser offense, and could still end up in jail.

Studies show that although game theory predicts that the rational choice for each prisoner (dictated by self-preservation) is to squeal on his or her partner, most humans will attempt to at least remain faithful to their partner once before giving them up, which demonstrates the tendency of humans to value social bonds…



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