I Want to be a Sellout by Mike Rooney

Thats right, you heard me correctly. I want to be a sellout! Let me explain.

I'm Mike Rooney, a plein air painter, living on the coast of NC. I have about a dozen galleries representing me in NC and Cape Cod, and I also teach workshops and make instructional DVD's sold at Jerrys Artarama. This is the first of many monthly contributions I'll be making to this blog. Sometimes it'll be instructional, sometimes it'll hopefully be inspirational, and sometimes it'll be editorial. But it'll always be about making art or the business of art. So here we go.....

I've been fulltime in the art biz now for about four years and I'm continually baffled by the apparent (to me anyway) misconceptions in it.

Take for instance the thought that an artist is a sellout if he gives thought to what the buying public might, or might not, buy. I hear the discussion come up everywhere i go among my peers And there are (in my opinion) two schools of thought, bandied about.

The first is that an artist has lost his soul if he is concerned with what people like or don't like when it comes to his art. He or she should only produce solely based on what he wants to paint, sculpt or whatever. Any compromise is taking you more and more into that bad place known as "selloutsville".

My opinion of this? Hogwash! Let's look at some facts and try to get a handle on reality here. I'm not saying there's no place for thought provoking, unpleasant to look at art, or that I don't get having "creative freedom" without financial constraints. It's just not my bag. I've got this nasty habit. It's called eating.

Seems to me ( oh, yeah....realize everything you've read up to this point, and from here on is not fact, but my opinion) that this camp is full of folks running around with berets on their head, hanging in cafes, smoking long cigarettes, espousing high falootin' (is that really a word, and is that how you spell it?) ideas about righting the wrongs of society through their art. They, and possibly their two collectors, think that art is lofty and idealistic, somehow above all the pettiness and evils of real everyday life. And like spoiled Hollywood celebrities, they fashion themselves as self-appointed change agents. When the reality is that if they didn't exist, the world would be no better, or no worse.
It's so easy to decry capitalism from elevated positions of wealth, gained solely by the very capitalism they despise. I'd think it would be easy to be elitist when you've got a huge bank account.

What was all that? Wow, that felt good getting all that out.

In my career as a professional artist (most of it in a down economy some say we haven't seen in decades) I've run into these folks, less the berets and long cigarettes, but with the same elitist mindset. Newsflash! The art business, in my case selling paintings, is just like any other. We are creating a product and people either want to buy it or they don't, plain and simple.

I guess in reality there are two groups of artists; those who want to "say" something with their art or right a social wrong with it, and those who want to paint AND make a living at it.

I've heard of artists that want to confront folks, make them uncomfortable when they're viewing the art, as if they'll change who they are by looking at something. Maplethorpe comes to mind with his sculpture of Jesus submerged in urine, that got so much attention when he tried to get public funding for his "art". Another newsflash! The public doesn't want to pay for depictions of their religious icons being desecrated. Imagine that. And I don't know for sure what he did after that, but I know his name never comes up these days in conversations about successful artists.

Then there are those content to do their craft and make a living at it, The old masters and the millions of artists like you and I.

My background was the sign business. It's amazing how similar the sign business is to the art biz. You find customers who need what you are painting. I'd go ask for people to part with their hard earned money for what I could do for them. I couldn't charge an arm and a leg because I was a sign painter. It wasn't any loftier a profession than the plumber I was lettering the truck for.

I had to produce so many signs every week to pay the bills. They had to look good and do what they were supposed to do. Things are no different today! Paintings of bloody train wrecks don't sell. Sculptures of Jesus in urine shock but they don't sell on a regular basis. There's a reason for that. If considering why they don't sell makes us a sellout then count me in. The electric company doesn't care what my ideology is. They just know its the end of the month and I owe them.

By the way, if you do a little research into the financial status of those who say you're a sellout if you paint what people buy, you'll find they don't need their art to pay the bills. I don't know about Soho in New York City, bohemian capital of the world, but around here they either have wealthy husbands, mom and dad are paying for art school, or they have a full-time job somewhere.

So, i guess what I'm saying is I want to be a sellout! Sell everything I've got, pay my bills, and paint some more. Because a bad day painting for a living is better than a good day saying "do you want fries with that burger".

To help me pay the electric company (LOL) come check me out at:

also feel free to comment below and get a dialogue going on this subject.

Comments (2) -


Mike, I agree with most of what you have to say here, but there's one glaring misrepresentation I thought you might like to clear up. Mapplethorpe certainly stirred much controversy, but the crucifix in urine was not his doing:

1989 – Piss Christ, Andres Serrano. The artist photographed a crucifix in a yellow substance that he described as his own urine. When the photo, Piss Christ, was entered in the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art's "Awards in the Visual Arts" competition, which was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, there was a massive political outcry that federal funds were going towards art that congressmen deemed obscene. The photo was ripped up on the Senate floor by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, and inspired Jesse Helms to declare, "He is not an artist, he is a jerk." Piss Christ also spurred Helms' campaign to cut the NEA's funding. (From


I love this post. When I was in school...later in my life, all the very young, bright eyed, idealist art students were disgusted with artists who painted/sculpted etc. with the aim of selling their work. Any artist who was making money, whether small or large, was made fun of by these young idealistic artists. I however, have always said, "I have no problem painting on canvas, wall or furniture anything that will match or blend a customer's decor or taste. Why? I am lucky and honored to be able to do so and to be alive to see the appreciation." Remember Van Gogh and the fact he didn't sell while alive and his tortured soul wondering why he didn't.....I think he would have been thrilled to sell a piece he had painted all ready or one a friend wanted because he/she liked sunflowers....roses....or anything else. He most likely would have been doing a starving artist happy dance to sell anything during his life.
Me? As I always say, " I will paint what I like, but I have no problem doing a piece to match your couch or duvet."   It isn't selling is selling...period.

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