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The Art of Selling Out
It's good, at least, to know you are doing it
There probably is no worse time than now to make an argument against “selling out.” We live in a culture that has grown incredibly comfortable with the concept, to the point that a once dominant aesthetic—the fastidiously anti-corporate indie artwork—is either relentlessly mocked or looked upon with great confusion. We live in the TikTok age, when everyone is a hustler and thou shalt monetize is the 11th Commandment. The artist who can successfully fold into a conglomerate is encouraged to do so—and even celebrated when it happens. None of this wrong, necessarily, and much of it is a function of precarity. In a world where musicians, screenwriters, novelists, and painters are forced to battle algorithms and broken business models to make any sort of living beyond the federal poverty line, there should be no censure for anyone who wants to get paid. Take one example: me. I want to get paid. I write for a living, which means I don’t do it for free, which means I care a great deal about the money I earn. I would welcome a large amount of cash from a publisher or a publication. I want to be comfortable. My goal is to even get you to pay for what I am writing here.
Richard Brody, the longtime New Yorker film critic, took to Twitter to defend Greta Gerwig, the former indie darling, for directing the new Barbie movie. “Gerwig made Barbie with artistic freedom and personal vision that's not interstitial or subtle but boldly manifest from beginning to end; selling out isn't entering the business (which she did), it's doing other than one's best, for the sake of money (which she didn't do),” Brody wrote. He was responding to a Guardian column that would have been lauded in the early 1990s and is now greeted with some mix of rage and befuddlement. The writer, Caspar Salmon, laments the rise of directors who, once proudly independent, now happily shepherd billion-dollar intellectual properties to the big screen. There is Barry Jenkins, the Moonlight auteur, who has directed a Lion King sequel. Mark Ruffalo, another erstwhile indie actor, plays the Incredible Hulk. “Mattel and Disney are two enormous corporations that would seem to stand for everything these directors are – or should be – in opposition to,” Salmon writes. “To anyone observing the state of cinema in 2023, it should be a point of utmost clarity that the might of these megabucks companies can do nothing but crush the smaller people.” He later asks: “Why has the concept of selling out lost so much of its cultural capital today?”
It’s a fair question, and it’s reflective of the current mood that Brody, an elite member of the literary intelligentsia, feels compelled to defend Gerwig for directing a Barbie movie. Imagine, for a moment, a critic of Brody’s stature in the twentieth century—Pauline Kael, perhaps—asserting that someone like Godard or Truffaut must be praised for deciding, at long last, to direct a live-action Yogi Bear film. There is nothing wrong with a mass culture or art that is popular. In a society with a thriving counterculture, a healthy tension can exist between the independent and the mainstream, the art sanctioned by corporations and whatever else operates outside of it. But countercultures are, largely, dead, and conglomeration has left most artists and consumers in the same bind: drink from the trough of a tech or a corporate giant. Serve Disney, serve Amazon, serve Apple, serve Meta, serve ByteDance, serve Paramount, serve Bertelsmann. They are, in one form or another, unavoidable.
Their dominance, in turn, speaks to the overriding view of cultural arbiters like Brody. An entire artistic movement, as the literary critic Christian Lorentzen notes, has now vanished. Kurt Cobain, before his suicide, genuinely struggled with the concept of Nirvana becoming a mainstream, corporatized band, fretting that he would be another Pearl Jam. The 1990s were abound with artists—musicians, writers, directors—who vowed, as their operating creed, to not chase the greatest dollars, to produce art that would be appreciated but not compromised by the dictates of corporate executives. There was, of course, a sizable amount of pretentiousness and privilege to this view—the upper-middle class kid can easily shun the payday that someone from a poor neighborhood never could—and the backlash, in time, would be fierce. In fact, it would be so overwhelming that future generations would come to openly cheer developments that would have once elicited little more than opprobrium. Today, we are all sell outs.
Better now, at least, to concede what it is you have done. In a healthier climate, critics like Brody could plainly state that the individual who directed mumblecore films has sold out by overseeing a movie with a $145 million budget. That, on its own terms, can warrant praise—Gerwig was talented enough to land the gig and she deserves to live the good life—but there’s no need to couch her decision in an artistic framework. It does not matter that Gerwig tried her best or was apparently permitted, by Warner Brothers, to follow her “artistic vision.” Doing “one’s best” for a billion-dollar corporate enterprise is still selling out. It’s not like the actors in beer commercials don’t put in an effort. The question, really, is why it’s so hard for Brody and others to admit the obvious. Why struggle with what’s in front of you?
There’s a poptimist bent to all of this. When countercultures shrivel, online groupthink proliferates, and corporations secure all the leverage, critical dissent fades. The powerful, at all costs, are venerated. I am reminded that there was a time when critics would delight, to a degree that would appear unseemly to the 2020s consumer, in tearing down the gods of their era. A music critic was unafraid of panning “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in the New York Times. The “Good Vibrations” era Beach Boys, darlings of 1966, were eviscerated in 1967. These critical judgments, in my view, were ultimately incorrect—Sgt. Pepper’s is a landmark record, and the Beach Boys are one of the great bands to ever form—but they were allowed to exist. Critics debated one another in the public square, and there were many of them, all backed by print publications that could subsist on paid advertisements. The crippling of print newspapers and magazines in the twenty-first century led to the demise of a vibrant critical infrastructure. Those left standing felt compelled, in the face of an online onslaught, to praise and praise the new gods. What else could they do? No one wants to be on the wrong side of a juggernaut. That takes courage.