Don’t Support the Sell Outs!

Image sold by “Allriot”

Art can be inspired by anything, or even nothing at all. What happens when art is accused of exploiting someone or some issue? Well, art is relative and really anything could be considered art regardless of who it effects. Most of the time it is concluded that art has no boundaries and can cross any lines it pleases but the times when it truly becomes an issue is when art sells out to companies which use it and exploit the content just to turn a profit.

An artists play on the Nike slogan “Just do it”

Over time it has become quite apparent that many businesses, especially large corporations, will go to any length to make money even at the expense of hurting others.

While I personally wish that big businesses would stop using methods that exploit people to make a profit, unfortunately that is the nature of the beast in our world today.

Understanding that it would be a battle one could never win, I would like to propose another angle where we could all do our part. Consumers should choose wisely and do their research before deciding what artists they support. If we all start researching the roots of what and who we support or spend money on to make sure we are investing in good causes and supporting the arts in a positive and productive manner for the good of the world as a whole, we could stop the exploitation of many around the world.

How can you tell if an artist is a sell out? The lines are very thin, and the argument is very tough to defend when looking at what point art becomes exploitation.


There was an art project done by Melissa Spitz who chose her bipolar mother Deborah as her subject and inspiration for a photo series entitled “You Have Nothing To Worry About.”

Deborah with a photo of her self at gallery show.

This project is ongoing and can be found on her Instagram account highlighting the tumultuous and fragmented relationship Deborah has with her daughter and with herself. Photos documented the struggles Deborah was having, the mass amounts of pills, moments when she was at her lowest and most out of her mind, as well as how she was affecting her daughter and those around her. Many followers were questioning weather this was crossing the line and if Spitz was actually exploiting her mother to promote her career as an artist. Spitz admits “toward the beginning of the series, Deborah was inebriated much of the time, leading me to worry about whether or not my project veered into the realm of exploitation.” However Deborah has since quit drinking and in fact claims it was seeing herself in Spitz’s photographs that pushed her to change.

Piece titled “All of Moms Perscriptions” 2014

While people can criticize all they want Spitz’s mother has been her most enthusiastic supporter. “Sometimes I feel like the work gets very sugarcoated, because she is not a victim. She likes to be photographed and she likes to do these woe-is-me things and I think that’s why she loves doing the project, because she gets to be on this stage. There is so much power in that.” Spitz comments. “I’ve read that I exploit my mom, and that my pictures suck, also that I offend those who are suffering from ‘real’ mental health problems, but in my opinion those comments hold no weight compared to the happiness and validation that it gives my mother and the people who reach out to me.”

Melissa Spitz photos Deborah getting ready.

Spitz is fighting to express herself and represent what it has been like to be the daughter of a mother with mental issues and a substance abuse problem. She has made this project as much about her as it is about her mother and while many could argue it is exploitation, which it rides that line quite closely, it is art and she is expressing her deepest self to the world.


Now knowing that it is almost impossible to go too far when considering art and exploitation, we come to the second argument about how some businesses have taken an artists ideas based on positivity and the betterment of the world and have turned them into profit margins.


An image of one of the graphics displayed on Obey’s clothing.

One example of this is the company Obey, founded by Shepard Fairey. Fairey has carefully nurtured a reputation as a heroic guerrilla artist waging a one man campaign against the corporate powers-that-be. Then he sold out to Wal-Mart, one of the largest corporate powers in the world. He boasted claims on street posters that read “Obey Giant,” sold shirts and sweaters with beautiful graphic art reading “Make art, not war.” Many of his images look like remakes of old war propaganda posters from the Cold War, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Black Panther Political Rally’s, and the Liberate Puerto Rico Now cries to name a few. Fairey argues that “my main reason for making clothes is that I saw it as an affordable, utilitarian way to share my art. I along with everyone at Obey clothing appreciate the support that has allowed us to live creatively. Affordable art is what I’m trying to provide.”

A shirt produced by Obey Clothing that reads “Obey, Never trust your own eyes believe what you are told.”

While sharing his art it understandable he has outsourced a large portion of his clothing line to Asia claiming that he is making it more affordable to the buyer. For a man who stakes his claims on “anti” movements and fighting the “giant” he is following every rule the “giant” has written. On top of selling out to Wal-Mart, much of his art has been suspected of being plagiarized from numerous other artists and propaganda posters over time. Mark Vallen of “Art for Change” commented that “Fairey has developed a successful career through expropriating and the artworks of others…Perhaps the most important falsehood concerning Fairey’s behavior is that it is motivated by some grand theory of aesthetics or weighty political philosophy- but I’m afraid the only scheme at work is the one intended to make Fairey wealthy and famous. When a will to plagiarize and a love for self-promotion are the only requirements necessary for becoming an artist, then clearly the arts are in deep trouble.” This display of art and the context at which it is selling out to the large corporations is dangerous for art as a whole and leads to its further dissolution.

A popular slogan used by Obey to sell clothing.

Consumers need to do their research before buying into a sell-out. While the message may be good and appealing, if the ground on which it was built goes against all it is trying to represent, then one needs to question that before supporting it.


Some people have no borders and will go to extreme lengths to raise a profit. In the Bronx recently there was an art show coordinated by Real Estate mogul Keith Rubinstein which exhibited art by Lucien Smith, a New York contemporary artist. The art was a compilation of fires burning in trash cans for warmth outside and sculptures of bullet-riddled cars inside. Many saw this as a representation of the violent past of the Bronx in the 1970’s when it was ridden with crime, arson and poverty.

Attendee poses in high fashion with centered art piece representing the painful past of the Bronx.

There was an extravagant party which highlighted the the negative images of the borough where “there were homeless people right outside and you’re wearing Louboutins and eating free food…a collaboration of everything that is wrong with New York City,” according to attendee and Bronx supporter Ed Garcia Conde. Many accused Rubinstein of exploiting the art that represented their violent past just to sell condos and gentrify the soon to be known “Piano District,” a stretch of the Bronx on the Harlem River. Rubinstein admits that the “show was intended to attract people to the Bronx to see for themselves that it was turning into a hip place to live.” This is gentrification at its realist; this is a way many corporations profit at others expense and using art as a attraction to show how hip and trendy an area is or will be is used very often throughout the cities of the United States and beyond. You can read more about this in a previous article “The Bronx Is No Longer Burning, Now It’s Pissed!”

While artists shouldn’t have to be starving to make a difference, many successful artists of today are accused of selling out or exploiting others. We should want artists to have no limits to their success and even fame for that matter. A famous artist is someone people pay attention to and can have a large impact on the world especially when it comes to raising awareness about social issues and injustices.

Piece by well known anonymous street artist “Banksy”

So why would we condemn artists when they become rich and famous? Truly finding that point where many could claim that an artist is a sell-out or has exploited others for personal gain is hard to do. Evaluating the whole purpose of the artist and what their intentions are as well as what they are supported by whether it be large corporations or large followings; this is the key. Negativity and evil can be considered beautiful and powerful art just as much as something done from a place of good intention.


So whose to say what is exploitation and what is not? The answer to that question lies within you. Each and every one of you gets to decide who makes a difference upon your life and only you get to decide who you want to support.

Piece by Banksy “Too many people put up a fake facade — we need truth”

The line of exploitation is drawn by you alone, by each individual who choses what point is too far for them; This is what art is all about. The freedom and creativity to express oneself any way they see fit regardless of the reactions of others. The most powerful movements in life became such because of the reactions of others. We as consumers have the power to lift those we feel stand for what we believe in. We as consumers also have the choice to feed the beast. What choice will you make?