Friday, September 14, 2007

The Demon Market?

The below excerpt was drawn from the comments section following a June 2007 Winkleman post, entitled "What's an Artist? Take 459."
"[The] problem is [this particular artist] doesn't know how to communicate her art to the gallerinas or curators and doesn't have an agent (yet) to help her do it. Generally, if you can't talk up your art in the commercial world of biennales, etc, you're out. When she finds [a gallerist] that perhaps also advises her on some crops, frames and gallerina lingo, she will accrue art-value."

Ah, yes, lest any of you idealistic creatives forget it, the measure of an artwork is rooted not in how accomplished, thoughtful or socially impactful the art is, but in the spin!

I'd like to scoff at Stefan's assertion, but he's right. Strong artwork will sometimes generate a lot of buzz, but the chatter is sustained only if the artist is appreciated by the greater machine. This machine is socially driven and fickle, not unlike the popular high school clique that (most of) us artsy types steered clear of.

Art world arbiters are no more scrupulous than their film, publishing or recording industry counterparts. Ignoring my personal struggle to come to terms with the "industrial" aspect of any creative realm - the word alone makes me cringe - I don't condemn successful art world players for their machinations. The recording industry generates buzz via MTV and billboard radio, the publishing industry with Oprah's Book Club and the NY Times Book Review, and the art industry via ArtForum, ArtNews and other glossies. All of these outlets are designed to sell or promote, and, with the exception of Top 40 radio, they're disguised as critical texts or cultural mediators. Sure, it's relatively transparent, but most of us play along. And why not? Who can blame the players?

Well, among others, Robert Reich, Professor of Public Policy at Berkeley and the former Secretary of Labor blames the players. The talent agents, gallerists, publicists and critics are but a small piece of what Reich calls the "supercharged global economy," but he acknowledges that this greater beast is a blind half-wit, intent on devouring its feet even as it continues to grow at an alarming rate. In the process, governments, communities and spirits are destroyed.

In his recently published book, "How Capitalism Is Killing Democracy," Reich contends that, by acting as consumers and investors rather than politically engaged citizens, "we've made this compact with ourselves." Likewise, by shrugging off the ethical ugliness and superficiality of the art market (among others), I've willfully ignored a sinister presence in my life. I wish that I could convince myself otherwise, but the Stefan's of the art world can not be ignored.

As an advocate of the Steady State Economy, local and reduced agricultural yields and population control incentives, I see our continued insistence on a "healthy economy" leading only to a more entrenched corporate oligarchy, increased cultural homogeneity, a host of new mental and physical disorders (and related diagnoses), and an exploding human population (at the expense of our animal brethren and the ecological niche we evolved to fill). But what does this dire forecast have to do with the art world? Not so much, if you compartmentalize thought as we now fence our borders. But if the art making process remains an essential part of efforts to live well, in accord with our moral values and the lessons of the planet, the willful ignorance of such an arrogant and annihilative system must be addressed, no matter the difficulty.

The question, then: In this attempt to live well, can you step outside the system without abandoning the idea that an artist can earn a living at their trade?

It would seem not. When my ancestor drew on the wall of her cave, or when we tag a truck, the act is "pure," communication is intended and self-gain ignored, but one does not "make a living" in this way. Is art only "sustainable" and vital when it touches a local community, likely serving some utilitarian purpose, too?

I'm interested in readers responding to this question. The last few months have been good for my art sales, which only accents the fact that each time I sell a piece, I'm tearing away at my own ideals...yet I continue to feel good about putting money in the bank.

Photo credit: image ripped from Houston's Clear Thinkers


molly said...

it is very interesting to read this today.

i have been working as a temp after quitting my job at an art center. i spent the last few months torn between financial ruin and exhaustion while teaching in my field or making more money pretending to be invested in multitasking and meetings, neither seemed like a good option.

today I realized that art is not my passion. i have let my art career (or pursuit of it) rule my life and sacrificed much for it. i've never been super passionate about it just good at it. art is a huge part of me and i do enjoy creating. but art world successes never feel as satisfying or rewarding as saving a turtle from the highway or learning something new while listening to David Attenborough . As long as art success is based on sales it is an empty place to dwell.

I’ve been looking around the web today trying to find a way use my skill set (art) to help threatened species, deforestation, lost kittens, etc. Needless to say I didn't come up with much.

I did happen upon Wyland, the guy who paints giant murals of whales. He was my hero when I was a kid. His work seems to have grown out of a need to communicate and has definitely touched communities. It has also made a success (financially) of him and he raises money and awareness for conservation.

Molly Stevens said...

It is indeed devastating to realize we're not winning. The game isn't being played on our terms. Wish I had some words of hope for you today. I just don't.

I suppose as artists we can only lean on the integrity of our work, not our ambition for it or ourselves.

I don't know if we're supposed to work from within or without. I don't think there's a clear path.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Molly (Schafer ?):

It sounds as though you're coming to terms with some challenging concessions.

The truth is, you're right. Saving a turtle from likely death is more profound (and therefore rewarding) than making a painting, but art, when absorbed by the community, is a powerful force, a vital avenue of communication. Don't get me wrong, I'm almost as happy communing with newts as I am human beings, but the compulsion to create images is something I just can't kick.

Your realization - if it is indeed that, and not an irrational outburst associated with passing depression/self-doubt (which I am unfortunately familiar with) - is one I don't share. When I try to kick the image habit, I become moody and unpleasant. I need to drink, draw, sh*t, paint, eat, write, sit and stare at the trees; it's an essential bit of who I am. I wouldn't call it my "passion," really; it's more a burden or curse. In any case, I can not abandon the creative act.

For me, the question is how best to harness or release that creativity; what can be done with the work I produce to either minimize my negative impact (as one more producer of luxury surplus) or to forge a living outside the established art market parameters? As you say, as "long as art success is based on sales it is an empty place to dwell."

Good luck.

Molly Stevens:

Your comment reminds me of Jake Berthot's pearls of wisdom. During one of our critiques in graduate school, he said, "Put your faith in yourself and you'll do just fine. Put your faith in the Art World, and it'll break your heart."

At the time, I interpreted his statement to mean that the Art World would break your heart, but I now think he was referring to the creative drive itself. If an artist creates for her peers (and the Art World arbiters), the very act will eat them from within, corrupting the integrity of the work and the maker.

There is no clear path, as you say, but I still wonder what people think of "other" options. Selling direct from individual websites with a percentage of profits going to charity/causes? Living in creative communes that allow the "day job" to be farming and infrastructure maintenance and offer all residents studio time on a rotating schedule? Full scale rejection of sales in favor of public, illicit or interventionist projects?

Bill Gusky said...

I love the Berthot comment, especially. Great post.

Well, there could be some serious cognitive dissonance going on so long as you perceive art making as the sincerely made expression of your sincere self.

Kostabi for example got in early only to sell sell sell, so there was no dissonance. Schmoozing and art world BS were his meat and metier. He learned it early and hasn't stopped since.

I'm starting to think that whatever one is doing between roughly ages 20 and 24 is what they're going to do the rest of their lives --

-- not referring to the specific tasks, but to the attitude towards them. One's habits of work.

It seems to me to be a critical period of mental programming, somehow.

We can make these objects and have them pile up around our ears. Ultimately we want them to move out of the house, one way or another. Moving them out in a way that sustains their continued creation is really the task, whether we're making objects that someone can burn for heat, that someone can eat or that someone can gain inspiration from.

Which says to me that it's all about developing a strategy that encompasses creation and movement, and all the little things like washing the dishes and doing the laundry.

This can either slip into place immediately at age 20, or it can take decades to work out, particularly if you want other big tough-to-manage things in life like a family.

If developing a workable strategy means driving into the city now and again, schmoozing and pressing the flesh (yeah I hate this too, Hungry, only with me it's more because I'm socially retarded), or getting someone to schlep my work around and get me into shows, ultimately if it meets my overall needs, is dissonance not somewhat dampened?

Or to restate, although most of us want a very simple life structure composed of straight lines, is there any shame in tolerating the occasional necessary curve, so long as the entire structure holds together?

Hungry Hyaena said...


Yeah, Jake was an excellent adviser. I was lucky to have had him.

As for Kostabi's dodging of the dissonance, I actually sympathize with his decision to "learn" that lesson early. Three years ago, I might well have asked that with "things being as they are," why shouldn't we all take the ride? (This, assuming I weren't also socially challenged.) But that attitude now seems irresponsible.

You're right, I suppose. In time, each artist will find his or her path, that "workable strategy" you describe, but I worry that these individual solutions (even the "best" of them) are doing little to plug the damaged levee.

Perhaps I'm worrying too much? After all, our species will eventually face extinction no matter how we choose to live out our brief time. Why shouldn't we all follow Kostabi's lead? Or choose a more tempered life, one in which we do what we can to minimize the negative, but without sacrificing those acts (art making, in this case) that are essential to our experience?

But the marks of social and ecological contraction and withdrawal scar the globe already; collapse is no longer an inevitability, but an ongoing contemporary reality. If it were a "natural" decline, by which I mean an unavoidable, out-of-human-control entropic flow, so be it, but the rapidly expanding global enterprise is born of super-capitalism, not rational dialogue or the earth's own geologic growing pains.

Unfortunately, it's damned near impossible to abandon material possessions and opt for the nomad social or environmental activist lifestyle if you intend to keep producing artwork. There must be some other option, short of sacrificing ideals and morals.

Molly Stevens said...

HH says:
There is no clear path, as you say, but I still wonder what people think of "other" options. Selling direct from individual websites with a percentage of profits going to charity/causes? Living in creative communes that allow the "day job" to be farming and infrastructure maintenance and offer all residents studio time on a rotating schedule? Full scale rejection of sales in favor of public, illicit or interventionist projects?

Fantastic. For me, there are some logistical and psychological hurdles, though. 1) Having the confidence to walk away from Chelsea 2) Having the chutzpah to move out of NYC full-time 3) Finding a like-minded community that isn't homogenous.

Hungry Hyaena said...


And those hurdles/concerns are shared by many artists.

Luckily for me, your #2 isn't really an issue; I plan to move away from NYC within the next year or two, although I'm looking at smaller cities rather than making the sudden transition to rural living.

But, yes, numbers 1 and 3 are definitely concerns, particularly the latter, which is why the public projects and charitable donations (from art sale proceeds) seem more and more attractive to me. Perhaps an urban artist collective in a "green" building, with shared upkeep and community responsibilities is also an option, one that might avoid the homogeneity of so many off-the-grid, "green" developments such as eco-villages?

Sunil said...

It has always been a dream to sell my art for charitable causes. This has always been my aim. (Even if it sounds too hokey).
I do not believe in hype or marketing which I believe touts the essentially untrue. The paradox is that unless I engage in hype or marketing, I cannot hope to sell my pieces. I am still to find a way out. I know I will.