Help Desk

Help Desk: Selling Out

Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

I am a painter who rarely makes any money directly from my work. Recently a design firm approached me about a project that involves artists painting on small refrigerators from which energy drinks will be sold. There will be a gallery exhibition of these fridges before they are distributed to various retail outlets in major cities around the country. The pay is pretty good, though not what I would ideally get for a painting of that size, and the designer assured me that there would be a lot of exposure for my work as each artist’s name and website will be on their fridge. I don’t buy this particular energy drink so I’m a little uncomfortable with the implication that I endorse the product, but I would really like to get some money for my painting and I like the idea of national exposure for my work. I’m also afraid that I will be “selling out” and this will cause me to be judged negatively by my peers. Will I be committing an ethical transgression if I participate in this promotion? Will I be judged harshly? Is there some thing I am missing that makes this project qualitatively different from the old Absolut Vodka ads that featured fine artists?

Installation view: Tony Conrad. Two Degrees of Separation, Kunsthalle Wien 2014, Photo: Stephan Wyckoff: Grommet Horn, ca. 1970, Replik 2014, Courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne

Installation view: Tony Conrad. Two Degrees of Separation, Kunsthalle Wien, 2014, Photo: Stephan Wyckoff: Grommet Horn, ca. 1970, Replik 2014. Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Buchholz.

Let me start by saying that notions of selling out or being judged harshly should have no bearing on your decision. Instead, let’s ask a different question, one that’s lurking under the surface of the ones you’ve written: What kind of artist do you want to be? Because the answer to this question is also the answer to every other opportunity that will ever come your way, whether it’s pitched to you by an ad man hawking sports drinks or the Guggenheim Bilbao.

And you can answer the question—What kind of artist do you want to be?—by asking yourself some other questions: What’s most important to you? What do you think art is for? Who are your art heroes? Do you want to paint because it frees your soul and keeps you sane? Do you want to make work in service of other agendas? Imagine your paintings on a fridge or a T-shirt or a cellphone cover—how would that make you feel?

Whatever the answers to these questions are, you must own them. Don’t worry about what anyone else might think. If you decide that artistic freedom is really important to you, then you probably won’t feel comfortable working within the confines of an advertising campaign. If you decide that it would be fun to collaborate with designers and advertisers, then do it. When your peers judge you—and I guarantee they will, because their answers to these questions would be different, and because the art world is, at every level, filled with snobs—you can just chuckle gently to yourself while strolling to the bank to deposit another check. There is no right or wrong way to go about being an artist, and no matter which path you choose, someone will undoubtedly have the opinion that you chose poorly. Screw ’em.

Before you make a final decision about this particular ad campaign, let’s take a moment to talk about the realities of exposure. To be clear, I’m not against artists making money by creating product embellishments, but I am against misleading artists into thinking that an art dealer or gallerist is going to walk into a supermarket to buy an overcaffeinated beverage, see your fridge, look up your website, and offer you an exhibition or representation. And that gallery that’s going to show all the refrigerators together? Smart money says it’s not Mary Boone. If you decide to go ahead with this project, do it because you want to work commercially and you want the money, but don’t think for a hot second that it will lead to career rewards within the fine arts. At best, you might receive an offer to do more product design work, but that is all.

To address your final concern, yes, there is a qualitative distinction between an energy drink’s advertising campaign and the Absolut campaign, and the difference is social cachet and the sexiness of the narrative. From Fast Company:

[T]he now-iconic bottle caught the attention of Andy Warhol, who created the first of many commissioned Absolut artworks in 1986. […] Over dinner one night [at Studio 54], Warhol tells Michel [Roux] that he’s enthralled by the artfulness of the Absolut bottle. He reminds him that while he doesn’t drink alcohol, he sometimes uses Absolut as a perfume … Warhol proposes painting his own interpretation of the Absolut Vodka bottle … When Warhol was finished, [Roux] loved it and thought it would make a great Absolut ad.[1]

The Absolut campaign lasted over twenty-five years and featured the work of well-known artists such as Keith Haring, Robert Indiana, Nam June Paik, Ed Ruscha, and Lisa Yuskavage—in other words, it started at the top (Andy Warhol) in a sophisticated and power-filled atmosphere (Studio 54), and then moved on to other artists who had already accumulated a certain amount of prestige. The Absolut ads did not “make” anyone’s career through “exposure,” it was the other way around; in this case, the artists lent their chic provocations to a product that by association became fashionable and desirable. By contrast, the energy drink’s campaign was likely born in a corporate brainstorming session and no doubt passed the muster of a focus group. Energy drinks aren’t exactly sophisticated, and you’re not Andy Warhol. The reality here is that this ad man is dangling the carrot of exposure because he wants you to believe that this campaign will boost your career as a painter. It won’t. But it will bring you some money, and could launch you into well-paid work with advertisers and products if you decide that it’s the right path for you. Good luck!

Author’s note: This week’s question was edited for length.


[1] From “The Evolution of Absolut Vodka’s Advertising Strategy,” by Rebecca Greenfield,, accessed July 19, 2015.