Integrity, income and ideology

contemplating the fait of the world

How do you loose integrity as an artist? When looking into the field of street art, one is likely to soon stumble across thoughts and accusations about ”selling out”. To sell out seems to relate to a loss of integrity, or rather to the trading of integrity for money.

This assumption begs at least three questions: How does the integrity come about and what does it consist of? How can it be jeopardized by receiving income? And whose responsibility, and hence fault, is it if street art sells out?

The short answer to the first question is undoubtedly that the integrity of street art is seen as strongly connected to its roots in political slogans and murals, protests, anarchism and general scepticism towards the establishment. It is quite rare that a complete art form is associated with one particular political stance. A situation paralleled possibly only by punk rock. It is rather strange that with such diversity in style, technique and medium, the broad range of artists are all labelled as anti-establishment, anarchic protesters. Underneath this lures another question, what is street art (and is it art)? Failing to clarify this fundamental issue, one has no alternative but to lump street art together, as a concept with very blurry edges and an unclear affiliation to the rest of the art scene.

With street art established as protest, and since protest has to be against the ”system”, and further since the system is our beloved late capitalism – street art is viewed as anti-capitalistic. The next assumption is that if street art is anti-capitalistic, then the artists have to be anti-capitalists. As should be clear by now, the range on unasserted assumptions is starting to get long. Still, the case is that the integrity of street art, and by that that of its performers, is connected with anti-capitalisticness.

Catch 22

The question of how integrity can be jeopardized by receiving income now seems easier to understand. Anti-capitalists have to be poor and unemployed. If you have an income, and good forbid a good one, you are obviously profiting on the capitalistic world order, and as such are in no position to criticize it – at least not at a fundamental level and with your integrity intact. This is of cause convenient for the establishment – you need a certain position to be heard, you need some means to sustain a position, and if you have means, you are disqualified as a critic.
So when a street artist is a sell out, she looses the right to be anti-establishment (which she’s maybe not), and thereby loosing her integrity as an artist (which she may have build on other principles), by receiving payment for her work (which she needs to make a living, alongside academics, other artists, teachers, journalists, and others whose integrity is not questioned by them being actually paid for their work).

”CBS promote the Clash, but it ain’t for revolution, it’s just for cash”

And whose fault is this? The artist has a choice. Do pro bono artwork and city revitalizing – or try to be able to live from it. In an existentialist interpretation, this is a free choice (and an angst-provoking one in a kirkegaardian sense). However, in a real, contextual world one has to be a diehard capitalist to consider this as a free choice, or a fair one for that matter. The late capitalistic system is penetrating more or less all aspect of the lifeworld with a force and ideological monopoly unprecedented in the history of political economy. To think one can resist such a system from outside is hubris. One could even argue that there is no real outside any longer. Counter culture is inherently dependent on and swallowed by mainstream culture, the same way as counter hegemony depends on, and hence legitimizes the hegemonic position.


No, to earn money do not compromise integrity. And, yes, one can criticise a system from within. And, no, it is not the artists who are responsible for the capitalist system crunching in on their turf.

If one is to discuss how and to what extent integrity is compromised, one has to look at the stated individual principles, and to see whether tailoring art towards commercial buyers, is actually happening, and if it does, whether it is at odds with these principles. A first step towards such an analysis would start with a closer look at street art and a differentiation between the diverse forms of street art and practitioners.

Wikipedia: Year 3 was a common year starting on Monday or Tuesday of the Julian calendar and a common year starting on Monday of the Proleptic Julian calendar.

Integrity, income and ideology

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