Artists, Self-Sabotage, Integrity, and Selling Out

by Christina Rees August 20, 2017

Oscar Issac as Llewyn Davis

Buried somewhat in this week’s awful national news was an item about the entire White House Arts Committee resigning in protest to Trump’s defense of white nationalists in Charlottesville. The committee was made up of 17 national artists who were appointed by Obama during the last administration, and hadn’t been called upon to convene at all during Trump’s time in office (and with Melania acting as honorary chair no less). This got me thinking about an artist’s sense of integrity, and what exactly we expect of them when, so to speak, the rubber meets the road.

A few months ago the New York Times made a list of movies its gathered critics consider the best made in this century so far, and number 11 on the list is Inside Llewyn Davis, a Coen brothers film from 2013. I was surprised to see it on the list, not because it’s not great (it won the Grand Prix at Cannes that year) but because it felt like the US didn’t like it much at all. I saw it by myself in a big art house theater in early 2014, walked out of it completely shaken and traumatized, and then thought about it every single day for the next two years. I still think about it.

The movie, which is really a very dark comedy, is about an artist who can’t reconcile his considerable talent with his own poverty, his disdain for mediocrity, and his lack of glamour. Oscar Isaac, in a career-launching role, plays Llewyn, an undeniably talented West Village folk singer-songwriter in 1961 who, while grieving the suicide of his writing partner, can’t seem to reach the next step on the ladder of success on his own terms. He’s so good at self-sabotage that you wish he could bottle and sell that, given that his albums aren’t doing so well.

The movie follows him over about a week of his couch-surfing life in a bitter northeastern winter. This is interspersed with his mesmerizing live filmed music performances, and so the movie audience is treated to an especially cruel rollercoaster of both the miserable and the sublime. The soundtrack, produced by T Bone Burnett, is so good it makes my entire body ache. (To this day I listen to it on my long road trips.) One of the only people I knew who at the time had also seen the movie in a theater told me he thought it was too emotionally manipulative. To which I ask: What great narratives aren’t? I think the movie’s American audience didn’t want to face its own hypocrisy about wanting The Real Thing without being challenged by the intentions of its maker (which in this case could mean either Llewyn or the Coen brothers).

A side plot of an endangered tabby cat possibly played a role in my own elevated blood pressure when I watched it, but the bottom line is that I felt like I was watching most of my closest friends up on that screen, negotiating the hard reality of being a sincere and practicing artist while staring down the greedy and merciless maw of late capitalism. Self-sabotage, in Llewyn’s case, is staying absolutely true to the music, and not changing his own public image or disposition to make the music, or himself, more palatable for a populist mainstream.

I had to brace myself to rewatch it recently, and frankly, Llewyn seemed far more relatable and lovable to me than he had even on first exposure. He’s punished again and again for not having any money in the first place (he has to make decisions on the fly that give him short-term and urgent relief instead of long-term reward), for not being generous enough to lesser talent, for not being shiny and new. He’s on the wrong side of the cusp of a folk-music explosion that Bob Dylan would usher in within a couple of years. There’s a scene early in the movie when Llewyn is watching another performer give a questionable performance in a small, dank club, and he’s not convinced. His friends at the table, on the road to selling out themselves, are validated by it. Llewyn’s environment is one of politeness and props, and it’s killing his sense of what really matters, which is the music itself. Everyone around him seems to have forgotten that in their rush to get a record deal. Like visual art, folk music turned out to be surprisingly gimmicky, and Llewyn wants no part of it. The end of the movie is intentionally vague, but many interpreted it as Llewyn missing his window. He’s over before he got started.

When I was starting out as a music, movie and art critic in the late 1990s, there was a consensus in the editorial offices where I worked that the best stuff always rises to the top and is discoverable, that there’s no such thing as the secret basement genius or the truly hidden talent. At the time I chose to believe that because the notion was a relief. But I don’t believe it anymore.

I think there’s talent everywhere that we don’t get to see, and I think that there are artists who are truly deserving and fascinating who we don’t discover, because they are poor and desperate, because they are bitter, because they don’t play the game of social media and consumerism, because they are uncompromising. A lot of people would label them “difficult” or “complicated,” but I think we should roll back our expectations that artists be well-rounded social butterflies and take a harder look at the work itself.

Artists are being asked, even by the art world itself, to make work that’s easy, digestible, good for short attention spans, Instagrammable, marketable. Even the political stuff needs to be something one can “get” through the equivalent of a Hollywood pitch. Where does that leave the majority of our most dedicated artists?

I’m certainly not saying that all successful artists are sellouts. I am saying that our world is increasingly eager for pre-disposed sellouts and marketable work, and that artists with any profound integrity or vision are more endangered than ever. Just ask the White House Arts Committee.




Hills Snyder August 20, 2017 - 08:59

I didn’t see the New York Times list, but if Under The Skin isn’t in the top 3, it’s bullshit anyway. And if it’s true that the US didn’t like Inside Llewyn Davis, the US is wrong.

Brandon Snow August 20, 2017 - 10:32

I myself have always related the journey of artistic success to the story of “The Tortoise and the Hare”. The “Hare’s” follow the trends and rule instagram but their careers and financial success are destined to be short. The “tortoises” are left behind in the beginning (due to a lack of attention and depth from the audience), often times giving up. The “tortoises” who stay persistent, true, and pure never get the instant success but eventually the audience takes notice and can become captivated with true originality from a real artist for decades to come.

Brown Miller (brownian) August 24, 2017 - 13:46

I completely agree with this clever analogy. Speaking as an arts marketer, I feel I have to add my two cents on this:

People have unlimited attention span for experiences that speak to them and resonate with their psycho/physiological construct’s harmonic signatures. Some of these are almost universal like images of sweet little babies, breathtaking sunsets, or gloriously idealized human forms.

The difference that technology has brought is not so much in the content, but the delivery. People won’t spend as much time looking at a picture of a sunset, or even a painting of one. However, an interactive virtual reality experience of a sunset that you and a partner can enjoy together from across the world could captivate the lovers attention for hours, especially if you could control the timescale so the sunset would actually last for hours.

As far as being marketable, that’s the domain of the arts marketer. The artist simply has to create something that resonates with people in format or medium that has a unique, novel, or engaging aspect to it. The marketer just needs to understand the work and who it will appeal to and craft a message that properly conveys that appeal to the right audiences at the right times and places.

The biggest challenge I see facing artists is finding marketers that grasp that concept. Too many marketers have come to see their work as a numbers game. They think they’ve done their job by getting butts in the seats or clicks on the posts.

Even sales are not a definitive measure of success for an artist. Artists need to touch people and change them through their work. Artists need people to absorb their work and incorporate it into their harmonic signatures, altering the course of their neural networks’ development, not merely consume it.

Arts marketers need to target audiences that will be CHANGED by the work they are marketing, not audiences that will consume and critique it. This is why some of the most successful arts collectives, movements, and communities have recently been forged with highly visible, large scale, often ephemeral public art projects and performances. This mode of expression disrupts individual reality and creates an alternate and shared reality between all the observers at a given moment. Depending on the location and time of day that can be a few people up to hundreds or even thousands. Adding social media to that shared reality can expand that reach into the tens and hundreds of thousands… if the content is provocative enough to the audience. A nude bathed in crude oil straddling a pipeline may get little notice in the din of a busy New York street, but may resonate strongly with residents near Standing Rock.

In conclusion:

Marketers need to specialize and take time to fully understand what and who they are marketing and think deeply about who they are targeting and why, avoiding trends and jumping on bandwagons while seeking to create communities around impactful experiences.

Artists need to let go of traditional constraints and embrace new forms of delivery and expression that engage and involve the audience, even to the point of personalization or co-creation with the audience.

And, both artist and marketer should seek the harmonic resonance between them and view the process of “marketing” as simply an amplification of that resonance. When approached with this mindset, the pursuit of goals can be organic and genuine and the achievement of those goals will be solid and immutable, etching a legacy via human senses into an ever growing collective neural network.

To relate your analogy, let the hares rule Instagram for the moment, their victories will be forgotten as fast as their posts. Be a tortoise, find a sincere champion who understands your work and can see you through the long haul to the finish line and write your legacy into the books of arts history.

Ok, that was more like a buck fifty then two cents. Sorry, got a little carried away

Julie Speed August 20, 2017 - 12:31

Exactly. What is the point of art that you can instantly get the point of? That’s what sound bites are for.

Andy Feehan August 20, 2017 - 12:53

Good points made here, thank you. I would add, however, that Chuck Close once said, while on a public forum, that there were no great but unknown artists. I disagree.

Brown Miller (brownian) August 24, 2017 - 13:29

That’s a thoughtless statement. If they are unknown, you wouldn’t know about them. The closest TRUE statement Mr. Close could make is that HE has never known a great and unknown artist. Anyone that would make a statement like that probably wouldn’t even know a great artist she were fingerpainting the Mona Lisa on his ass unless his elitist, institutionalist circle of friends were throwing money at her.

Colette Copeland August 20, 2017 - 17:04

I think there’s talent everywhere that we don’t get to see, and I think that there are artists who are truly deserving and fascinating who we don’t discover, because they are poor and desperate, because they are bitter, because they don’t play the game of social media and consumerism, because they are uncompromising. A lot of people would label them “difficult” or “complicated,” but I think we should roll back our expectations that artists be well-rounded social butterflies and take a harder look at the work itself.

I thought I had seen everything by the Coen Bros. It’s at the top of my watch list.

Jordan Roth August 21, 2017 - 11:55

Colette, YES!!!

Mark Babcock August 20, 2017 - 19:21

I saw this at the Director’s Guild at the invitation of the actress Rhoda Pell. I noted from the dates on the contract in the film that it was set the week of my birth. As I consider irony a call to action, I immediately resolved to write a song and try and play it for a big named bass player I know who also produces obscure musicians.

I started sleeping on a couch near where this big name musician often visits. Finally I was able to sing the song for her.


The governor’s governor
Is a chick named Sioux
She’s got eyes of red
And a hear of blue
She can pour the oceans
From cup to cup
When she’s through with you
You’ll know which way’s up

ma mama ma mama ma ma ma
ma ma ma
ma mama ma mama ma ma ma
ma ma ma

My brother’s lover’s
Got a cover story like no other
And he’s sorry for all the trouble
But the bubble’s the bubble
And the law’s the law
Like sand through the glass
Thank you very much
But I think I’ll pass

Ma mama, ma mama, ma ma ma.

SSharma August 20, 2017 - 22:09

Excellent piece. Making decisions based on need to continue existing certainly feels Sisyphean. I think though that on the art world side, the issue is less about instagrammable, easily consumptive art, and more that it costs artists to even attempt to show. The ‘plugging in’ to the art community costs time. And submission costs can be a tough hurdle, with no guarantee that they result in work being shown. Those free drinks at art openings are free to browsers of the event, but not to the artists, who may not even have art there.

Caleb August 21, 2017 - 15:15

Hang me, Oh hang me. Until I’m dead and gone.

Always a good one to put back on the radar, I rewatched last night. Criterion transfer is dope.

carolyn August 22, 2017 - 14:43

Thank you, Christina.

Bill Roseberry August 22, 2017 - 19:06

IMO like it or not, those connected to art schools are the worst. It makes no difference to me what an artist does with his or her own career but for the sake of impressionable students (who go into debt for an education) please let’s not perpetuate the scam.

Helena August 22, 2017 - 20:47

At the half century mark I feel the pain of growing up in a pre internet world always struggling to catch up…so relatable…

John Pomara January 14, 2020 - 11:55

I saw this film Christina when it first came out in a big dark theater with maybe 8 other people in the place. It blew my mind with its rich beauty and darkness. I walked out of the theater in a daze. It was also the ambiguity of what I think is a perfect ending. Bob Dylan’s music being heard in the background. The perfect ending and beginning at the same time. But, I kept thinking of the struggle and being an artist on the drive home. Not an easy life commitment.


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