ART AND FILTHY LUCRE: Does Making Art for Money Muddy the Artistic Waters?

My art’s bigger/better/purer than your art. So there!

Hierarchies come easily to many living creatures.

It can be a brutal process. For birds, hierarchy can mean life or death. That phrase ‘pecking order’? It’s real. I’ve lost chickens and cockatiels to the process. The bird on the lowest rung of the ladder may not get enough to eat. An even slightly injured chicken will be attacked, killed, even eaten by the rest of the flock.

We humans have hierarchies, too. Our fascination for English royalty, our obsession with celebrities, our own yearning for fame and fortune, all are social constructs based on hierarchy.

Artists and craftspeople are no exception.

People who make their own jewelry components sniff at ‘bead stringers’–people who use only purchased components in their designs. The people who do some wire work or only make their own beads, are sniffed at by silver- and goldsmiths.

Glass artists have been the top of the heap in the collecting world for several decades now. Before that, it was something else. Maybe clay. I dunno–I wasn’t in the biz then.

Fine artists look down on all crafts. Once I introduced myself to a small group as a fiber artist. “Hunh! That’s nice…” was the general response. Ten minutes later, a local oil painter’s name came up. “Now he’s a real artist!” someone in the group exclaimed.

But fine artists have their own internal order, too. Pastels are better than colored pencils, watercolors better than pastel work, acrylic paint is better than watercolor, and oils are better than acrylic.

And of course, across all media is the hierarchy of purity. Who makes money from their art, and who makes art purely for art’s sake? Who sullies their ethos for filthy lucre? Is teaching the purest form of sharing our art with the world?

It gets kinda confusing–and funny–after awhile.

If you are in a group of artists who sell their work, the mark of a ‘professional artist’ is your ability to make a living from your work. How much money you make is your achievement award. It’s proof that you are a serious, full-time artist.

Or people place you on the ladder by the prestige factor of the shows you do. Small local shows don’t count, of course. Why, they let just anybody in!

Being vetted by an organization helps, too. I’ve had people express polite interest in my work until I mention that I’m a doubly-juried member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. Suddenly, I’m treated with respect and deference.

But there’s nothing like the disdain amateurs–those who can’t-won’t-don’t sell their work–hold for an artist who actually, actively seeks sale–those artists who want to make their work and get paid for making it. The disdain the amateur holds for ‘professionals’ is huge.

They have history behind them. The word ‘amateur’ originally meant someone who pursued an activity purely for the love it of it. Now it ranks right up there with ‘dilettante’–someone who pursues an activity superficially. (ouch!) Amateurs, by definition, make their art without the requirement of making money from it. Art for Art’s sake. The purest state of making art.

The reality? Not for me to judge. It’s all good.

I’ve been everywhere on the spectrum in my career.

I began by making jewelry entirely from purchased components, and making traditional quilts. I did a very few small local shows, but mostly I gave my work away.

Then I dedicated myself to finding my own personal vision. It was a powerful step. I was grateful to even be making my art. The thought of being accepted into a show, or of someone even buying a piece, seemed too much to ask for.

As my skills and self-confidence grew, the next step was entering exhibitions across the country. Someone had told me they thought the phrase ‘nationally-exhibited artist’ sounded so wonderful, they made that their goal. I made it my goal, too. And I achieved it within a few years by methodically applying to as many opportunities as I could.

When ‘nationally-exhibited artist’ lost its luster, I turned to money as a measure of my success. It was important to me to make sales. The more money I made, the more successful I felt.

After years of making money, I wanted to be in the ‘good’ shows, the prestigious shows that look on a resume. With time and effort, I managed that, too.

And then I went back to square one.

I transitioned from focusing on these external goals, to thinking about the place in the world I occupy. I’m still selling–better than ever, in fact. But that transition came from a powerful place in my heart, and that is more important to me than ever.

Now, according to many people, I can be placed at every step in the art hierarchy. I’ve been ‘pure’, I’ve been ‘mercenary’, I’ve been ‘published/exhibited’, I’ve been hunkered down.

And yet, it’s the same work. And I am the same person.

Hierarchies evolved as a way for a species to survive. The weak, the sickly, were left to die, so that the flock/herd/group could survive.

We humans can–and do–choose differently.

We try to heal our sick. We care for the weak. We are present with the dying, to comfort them.

We’ve learned that even someone who is sick, or weak, or slow, or awkward, or fearful, or (gasp!) untalented, still has a place in the world.

And given that chance, and that place in the world, the gifts they offer can be profound and huge. At the vary least, they are happier for doing what they do.

So make your art.

Sell it, if that’s important to you. Don’t resent others if they sell theirs, and you can’t seem to sell yours.

Don’t excuse yourself by judging others. They are either on a different path, or (like me) simply in a different part of the cycle.

Recognize the hierarchy of who’s making ‘real art’ for what it is–a way to hide our jealousy of people who seem to have something we want for ourselves. A survival strategy we can choose to ignore.

Decide what you want, right here, right now.

And know that you can change your mind, any time. And do something different.

Author: Luann Udell

I find it just as important to write about my art as to make it. I am fascinated by stories. You can tell when people are speaking their truth--their eyes light up, their voices become strong, their entire body posture becomes powerful and upright. I love it when people get to this place in their work, their relationships, their art. As I work from this powerful place in MY heart, I share this process with others--so they have a strong place to stand, too. Because the world needs our beautiful art. All of it we can make, as fast as we can! Whether it's a bowl, a painting, a song, a garden, a story, if it makes our world a better place, we need to do everything in our power to get it out there.

19 thoughts on “ART AND FILTHY LUCRE: Does Making Art for Money Muddy the Artistic Waters?”

  1. This is something I have wondered about for quite awhile now. When I switched from fiber craft to polymer clay jewelry I was frequently asked by well-meaning (I think…) friends “So have you sold anything yet/lately?” Or alternately, trying to be helpful by pointing out what “most people would like to buy”. I listened for some time, probably longer than I should have. All it did was confuse me and make it harder to find my own style. Now I am taking a break from selling to just focus on experimentation and technique. Hopefully, I will come back with a renewed sense of what this is all about-for me, at least.


  2. Luann, I could have replaced the word artist with author and it would essentially be the same.
    If you’re an indie like me, the mainstream authors look down upon you. If you write fantasy (like me) or chick lit (not me) you are frowned upon. If you write soft historical fiction (like me) you are a disgrace to the name of historical fiction say the purists (both writers and readers). And if you write literary fiction that is published mainstream, you tend to look down on everyone.
    It appears not to matter to any who do the looking down that one has readers, that one has a following, that one is making a small amount of money, that one’s Kindle rankings might be higher than those mainstream writers.
    What I decided when I made the move to become an indie writer was firstly that it was my art and I could manage the outcome in any way that gave me pleasure (and freedom). That in giving ME pleasure it may well give others pleasure and was a very good reason to keep writing. And finally, as with anything in life, you can please some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.
    Thank you for the post.


  3. You’ll always do well to remember that when someone holds what they do in a higher esteem then what you do – it’s all about their own insecurities. Secure people do not feel the need to put other people down.


  4. This was a wonderful post! My family and friends have been pressuring me to try to sell my work, and I just don’t want to right now — not because I’m the amateur who thinks art for art’s sake is the purest, best reason to produce art (I actually really dislike that phrase, I think there’s no such thing, but that’s not my point right now…) but because I just can’t face all the WORK it would be to start making a profit, and with my finances the way they are right now, well, I really don’t feel like I can risk leaving my full time job to put in the time it would take to start making the kind of money I would need to make it worth it. Part of me wants to — I have SO much admiration for those who took the risk, believed in themselves enough and just went for it. When I start feeling that pressure to try to sell, I feel like they think I’m being lazy, or that I DON’T believe in myself enough. It’s not that at all — I’m just at a different point in the cycle you talked about. If I hated my job, I might feel more inclined to take the risk, but I like it, and with the economy the way it is right now… well, I just need my good, dependable, and consistent source of income. And, frankly, I really _enjoy_ giving my artwork away right now. Thank you for this post, because it articulates a justification for doing what’s right for me right now at this moment in my life. Like you said, I can always change my mind later!


  5. Luann, I haven’t sent you the manuscript yet, but this amplifies many of my points. Its’ about choice and indeed – you can choose to change anytime. I see a lot of the put downs any time I say making money is one mark of being a professional artist.


  6. This is something I’ve never understood… I do understand that there is a great deal more knowledge required to work in certain mediums – in oil there is the drying times and when/how to preserve them, and with metal smithing there is a greater equipment requirement and the knowledge of how to use it, but as far as I’m concerned, people can make something beautiful with a ball point pen on a piece of plain paper and they can make something ugly with sterling silver. The medium really only relates to the knowledge of the artist, not their talent or skill.

    I’ve always been low on the rungs when it comes to hierarchies so I guess I’m preprogrammed to dislike them, but it’s really about artists being able to follow their muse and their spirit rather than having to fit some sort of box to please everyone else.

    After all, the beauty of being an artist is that the things we create are unexpected… otherwise they wouldn’t have needed us to create them.

    They say beauty is in the eyes of the beholder but in this case, it’s in the hands of the creator.


    1. Amber – the hierarchies in art were created hundreds of years ago when an oil painter had to actually make their own oil paint so yes at that time in history oil painting was more difficult. But in the 21st century, no one medium is any harder than another, but this perception that oil paintings take more skill and are worth more than acrylics, which are worth more than watercolors etc. continues to linger on. When you think about it, water colors, pastels, colored pencil, graphite etc, cost more to produce because they have to be matted and framed under glass, but these artists cannot charge as much! It’s quite ridiculous really and it is slowly changing but we artists must do more by educating our collectors. As you stated, why should any artist be penalized by having to fit into some kind of box?


  7. A wonderful post. I really enjoyed reading and relating to it. I see myself as an artist in a state of perpetual evolution and choose not to judge/evaluate the talents or “successful” accomplishments of other creative people. I don’t know what stage they’re at on their journey to “perfection” and I’ve yet to define what that means to me.


  8. I carve wooden birds. There is a mainstream to bird carving that arose from from carving competitions that continue today. These competitions have strict rules and guidelines. I carve what I see, what I feel and what i want. I carve my stories. “Serious carvers” don’t take my work seriously and I’ve learned to avoid carving shows (except as a casual observer) .

    Though I find little success as a carver, I’m developing a strong following as an artist. Sometimes it’s a matter of directing the right message to the right audience at the right time.

    Thanks Luann! Your wit and wisdom are appreciated and needed!


  9. An excellent post. I sell jewelry. I paint for fulfillment. I’ve long since learned that my paintings would need to be put in front of a specific audience if they were to even have a chance at selling. They aren’t pretty, and usually gory and controversial. Paintings of faeries and mermaids sell, along with landscapes and deer. There’s nothing wrong with that. My jewelry is simple something pretty that someone can wear to look at, just as these pretty paintings are something a wall can wear and look at. I wouldn’t expect gory, controversial jewelry to sell: so i shouldn’t be upset that paintings of the same genre wouldn’t either.


  10. Hi Luann, I came across this post accidentally and I am glad that I did. I am a relative new artist who is a stringer and working on my wire work and making my own compents on jewelry making, and I am a knitter and crocheter as well. I am still working on finding what my exact niche is; however I feel that there is nothing with making money with what you make with your hands. In fact it should be encouraged. I find that older artists don’t even respond to some questions to the younger (younger artists is the wording that I am using for newer artists in the market), and this is a bit disappointing sometimes. I do find that for every artist that looks down on me… there are 2 more that are willing to talk. 🙂 I also find that it is important to respect an artist’s journey. Whether it be a stringer, or a posicle maker or whatever. This world was built through people who worked with their hands. And yes, I believe that artists should get paid for it, and that we should take out of our vocabulary ‘The Starving Artist’


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