Monday, August 2, 2010

Selling Yourself without Selling Out: Part 1

Self-promotion. It sounds like such a dirty word. Is it sinful to promote yourself? Is it selling out to want to earn a living off of your art? Or, is promotion a critical component of a successful arts career? Redeemer Presbyterian Church's Center for Faith & Work in New York City broached this sticky subject in Selling Yourself without Selling Out: An Introduction to Marketing and Promotion. Led by Luann Jennings, the artists' professional development workshop, held on Friday, July 23, 2010, used Scripture, anecdote, guest speakers musician Melanie Penn and photographer Steve Williams, and Q&A to address the concerns many Christian artists have about self-promotion.

When asked what the hardest thing about promoting one's art--be it visual art, dance, music, acting, literary, etc.--the crowd shouted out a machine-gun round of answers: We're afraid of sounding cocky. We don't want to be prideful. We feel like we're manipulating people. We don't want to hound people. Our work is not quite ready yet (... and might never be because we're perfectionists). We don't value ourselves--or our product--to market ourselves. We don't want to sound desperate. We're afraid of rejection. We think it's unChristian to self-promote.

Being an artist and a Christian can feel like a bit like a double whammy--no, a triple whammy. As artists we're repeatedly, lovingly cautioned to have something "practical" to fall back on in case--though implied: when--our arts careers fail. In direct correlation to that, "most of us when training to be artists didn't learn about how to make a career out of it," said Jennings, who comes from a theater background. In other words, we have the technical skill and knowledge of how to create our art, but not the practical, business savvy of how to get our art into the world. The third corollary, though, is that even artists that possess a sense of marketing and promotion feel uncomfortable actually implementing it because we don't think it's Christian to promote our work.

As Christians we've been told: be humble; put others ahead of ourselves. We see this in the NIV translation of Philippians 2:3-4, which says:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

However, when we look at The Message translation of the same verse, it reads:

Don't push your way to the front; don't sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don't be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.

Both translations of Philippians 2:3-4 say the same thing, but The Message translation perhaps makes it clearer that ambition isn't necessarily negative but that we shouldn't let ambition cause us to sin. Our ambition shouldn't be "selfish ambition." We shouldn't step on other people or "sweet-talk" to get ahead. Rather, and this is where a Christian perspective perhaps differs from a more worldly perspective, we should help other people in their endeavors as well.

The PowerPoint presentation slid to a Bible verse: "For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. --2 Timothy 1:7." It turns out there's a difference between humility and timidity. Humility is grounded in a reality that we are not superior to anyone, while timidity is rooted in fear.

"It's not arrogant to tell someone I can do this [job or creative work] better than anyone else," Jennings said; "It's loving." The obvious implication is that if we love our clients, we will give them an honest assessment of how our art can benefit them. "Some of us are going to be right for certain needs," said Jennings, "and some of us are not."

In part 2 of "Selling Yourself without Selling Out" we'll look at determining what to actually sell.

What do you find difficult about promoting your art/music/writing/etc.? How do you promote yourself without selling out?