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Is there such a thing as a capitalist artist?
July 20, 2021

A couple of months ago, I went to a ‘salon’ run by a company called Interintellect (which as far as I can tell just runs conversations on interesting topics with interesting people). The salon was called the Capitalist Artist: 

“Writer, painter, and Gumroad founder Sahil Lavingia explores whether real art and good business are really the moral opposites they’re taught to be.”

(Gumroad, if you don’t know it, is a tool to sell digital downloads like eBooks). I went along with some conflicting thoughts, namely:

  • No, being an artist and having a business aren’t moral opposites (even though some people still believe they are)
  • BUT running a profitable business does NOT mean that you are or have to be a capitalist.

I’m definitely not pro-capitalism, but I do believe that it’s possible to have a business that benefits yourself, others and the environment. Pure capitalism would say that’s not a successful business because it’s built on distributing wealth rather than accumulating it.

So, we live under capitalism and we can’t [currently] escape it, but we can resist it by reshaping it to suit our own needs, values and priorities. I’m not sure if you can be a true artist and a true capitalist at the same time, because I think art is about critiquing sites of power.

The session itself was a pretty interesting and wide-ranging conversation and while it wasn’t really about providing answers, I did pick up some interesting pointers on being a well paid artist that I thought you might like:

There’s less competition than you think

Sahil, the host, shared how many people on Gumroad sell the same kind of information (the example he used was personal trainers writing books). Conventional wisdom would say that there are already enough books by personal trainers, yet some of them are really successful.

The point is that you can do your own thing without worrying that someone else has done it, because you’ll do it your way and for your particular community. All the new ideas are taken so you can only iterate on them anyway.

Focus on making friends and growing your network

Before you start selling stuff, just cultivate a great network of engaged, interesting friends. Don’t treat them like resources to help you with your business, but be really curious about them and their work. Then when it comes time to ask a favour you’ll feel comfortable doing that, and they’ll be happy to help (but you have to be patient and work at your craft in the meantime).

Make it fun

Sahil talked a bit about enjoyment and passion for your work one thing he said was:

“If you want to get really good at something, find out how to enjoy it.”

Sahil Laviginia

and another was something to the effect of “if you want to make money from your passion, learn to love making money” – which I can’t tell if it’s just a good soundbite or actually good advice. I think that keeping things enjoyable is super important though.

Learn to love selling yourself

Sahil said that you have to learn to love selling yourself you’ll be able to promote your work without fear and shame, which I thought was great advice… but I know how much many of the artists I know die inside at the thought of “selling themselves”. 

And if we’re being capitalist-critical, the idea of “selling yourself” is kind of icky because we should be moving away from the idea of the self as something that can be bought and sold. A more appropriate phrase would be “selling your work/art/creative output”, but that’s obviously not as catchy. I think we can take the concept without engaging in the troublesome language. Reserve those parts of yourself that are just for you and not for sale <3 

…Because if you’re not selling yourself, you’re selling someone else

Now this is very true of capitalism. Any job you have that’s not your own business is always selling someone else’s work. It’s much easier to enthusiastically sell a book you didn’t write than one you did, for example. But I think it’s possible to retrain yourself to be able to do this, because—another thing Sahil said—you have to trust that the audience you’re building is there because they want your stuff and they like it.

So, what do you reckon? Can you be a capitalist and an artist?