Sunday, March 16, 2014

[ ] (insert lyric from Kenny Roger's 'The Gambler' here)

Interesting article in the Times about a phenomena that happens probably more regularly than the art world would admit; I'm curious as to why the particular artists that are noted, historically, as "too young" to have successful careers (or, more literally, that their work has inflated in value too quickly).  Its funny, too, with the references to gambling (a unabashed link to commodity thinking in terms of value) and this quote in particular: 

“The last time I saw that kind of energy was Keith Haring or Jean-Michel” Basquiat, Ms. Rubell said. “It was so intense. I don’t even think he was on drugs.” (Mr. Murillo assured a reporter that he was “lucid and sober.”)
--Art World Places Its Bet, Carol Vogel

I think there are plenty of artists with a lot of energy--both for studio practice and for putting up with all of these narrow definitions of working artists.  I've seen artists and friends develop such a strong studio work ethic that I am jealous.  To imply, though, that artists who work with energy and intensity are few and far between is a bit out of line.  We're around, even if we aren't breaking six figures at the auctions (and don't ever care to).  

Congratulations, though, to Oscar Murillo, I have no problems with the age of artists and think the "too young" thing is a bit arbitrary; though I do think Vogel's article is a good addition to the "What is happening in the Art World" file.   Imbedded in the article on the Times website is a slideshow of Murillo's work, too. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

more about the artist as a worker, and some implications of our labor

I fully realize that, despite my writing in the last post, we as artists are not left with many options.  I hear a lot of rhetoric about not donating your artwork to auctions because of what it does to the market--and, while I don't disagree that this can be damaging to the market (and subsequently artists' livelihood), I'm not sure if it is the most important thing to take a stance on.

On one hand, artists are seen as people with secret talents that onlookers don't possess; a fairly common response to me telling someone that I am an artist (fully realizing that I live in a small metropolitan area) is that the person I am conversing with "can't even draw a stick figure".  Another impression is that what we do is a service for other professions.  I see this quite frequently in academia, believe it or not, and even amongst art and design faculty; people are forming "collaborative" projects that are simply asking students of art to serve as the art directors/designers/creative consultants for their projects.  I don't think I need to tell you that this is not collaboration but hiring out labor; truly collaborative projects are developed by both groups of students and professors.  One other perception of artists important to note here is the amount of money made off of our work, work that has quality that is subjective.  This is, undoubtedly, connected to the perception that artists are esoteric and/or pretentious, especially to the population that feels like they do not understand contemporary art (or, even, older forms of art) and are purely a part of the upper class of society.

On the other, I want to speak to my experience in particular and know that some might overlap with other's opinions or experiences, and some might not.  As an artist, I have worked at earning an academic position that requires me to be a professional artist by submitting to exhibitions, participating in conferences, and being reviewed--in a number of possible forms--by my peers.  I have not, in any way, been approached by high-end galleries and do not sell my work for a lot of money.  Whenever I have worked with a gallery or consultant, for a juried exhibition or with representation, I have discussed the issue of price for my work and try to keep retail price in line with my own vision as much as I can, but I also know that other professionals (particularly those involved in the selling of artwork by individual, living artists) have a better understanding than I do about the worth of a painting.

What is implied here, though, is that I have an understanding of the professional that I am working with--where they are coming from, what their priorities are, what their intention and purpose is as it manifests itself through their organization.  These organizations and/or businesses require a certain amount of money to function and work, something that I can only begin to imagine; and much like making paintings, I think artists often tend towards thinking that running a gallery is easy without taking the entire context into account, let alone thinking that gallerists or consultants should make a profit off of what they do.  I know that there are conniving, manipulative, and greedy gallerists out there but I have been fortunate to not converse with one; who we work with has the potential, though, to be just as important as wether or not we donate work to auctions.  Good gallerists are aware of political issues, where their money is coming from, and where their artwork is going, and should not hesitate to communicate with artists if something is potentially of concern--artists, however, have to be something other than seeking money to make good decisions (and moral decisions) when it comes to selling work, either on your own or with another professional.

I am still constructing this argument, to a certain extent, but want to offer some alternatives.  There are, without a doubt, high quality professionals and businesses involved in the selling of artwork that fit within these (and the unformed ones in my mind) parameters; nor am I proposing that professionals live on less money, as I don't believe that this is truly the issue--there will always be the upper class, and if that person has started a lucrative business, I'm not here to say they shouldn't have or tell them what they should do with their money.  I do see, however, artists and gallerists who are clearly invested in a sustainable culture of art, and are being proactive about selling work and working with artists for the sake of visual art persisting over time.  Reckless and irresponsible behavior--artificially inflating prices, selling to collectors and companies with questionable histories, and being profit-driven in a short term sense is wrong--and will undoubtedly affect the work of an artist negatively.  Artists could, in a sort of theoretical and gloomy way of thinking, become mechanized workers making art for these profit driven machines.  

These traits are not always easy to detect, but just take a practical approach.  Do you agree with the gallerist, their track record, and the mission of the gallery?  I am also not suggesting that we should all lower our expectations in the quality of venues that we work with.  I do think we could radically rethink the ideas of where the art market is and if/how a gallery can be profitable in other geographical locations, but this is contextually a fairly large issue, and will need lots of minds working on it.  While other businesses have successfully brought things like sushi, newspapers, and other formerly regional offerings throughout the country (I am always surprised at the number of people in Iowa who get the Sunday New York Times, despite the public knowledge that it is increasingly difficult to be successful in print journalism and publications), but art has not been one; if there are large scale art collectors in the Midwest, for example, they tend to head to the coasts with a large part of their art buying budget.

I frequently come back to the idea, though, that artists need to take responsibility for themselves as workers and producers in the market.  Perhaps we always do--and I am out of touch with the real sides of the market--but my impression is that, at least to some extent, artists like to have a hands-off approach to selling their work and would rather someone else handle the business and market.  I can understand this completely--it can be a drag to be out of the studio and constructing a website or answering emails.  The point I want to emphasize, though, is that we should all agree that it is in all artists best interest to think and act proactively when it comes to the art market--not simply stay on the outside while someone else does our dirty work.  It is our responsibility, because it is our labor.  Without our collective attention to what is happening in the market, we risk not only having no input, but even worse, our work being exploited and commodified.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

call for artists (of a different kind)

Within the last week or so, a few things have led me to deep and critical thought about the art world and the market that is attached.  Steven Zevitas' article in the Huffington Post is one, and Tony Tasset's Artists Memorial at the Whitney Biennial is another.  The artists withdrawing from the Sydney Biennale (and the subsequent resignation of the Biennale chairperson) due to funding from a company called Transfield Holdings and Transfield Services, a company that is contracted for immigrant detention centers in Australia is also on my mind as I work through living and working as a professional artist here and now.

I've heard a number of people mention that if artists in the U.S. started boycotting exhibitions funded by ethically questionable companies, there would be very few art exhibitions and events.  Zevitas' article is much needed to increase the dialogue between artists, curators, collectors, and museums and questions the high price tags of art works as of late.  The most difficult thing in all of this is, though, is that the art market is inflated and large amounts of money are exchanged for artwork, the money is almost certainly coming from less than ideal sources.  Even if we take the money's origin out of the equation, income inequality is a difficult hurdle to overcome when it comes to the amount of money that is being paid for works of art.

I'm not sure that I can solve these problems in this post, but I want to take issue with a part of Zevitas' article, in particular his call to how artists should deal the problems prevalent in the art world:

                To artists I say: Keep making art and make it because you have a deep NEED to, not     
                because you WANT to. Follow your own unique visions and not current consensus. You 
                are the bedrock (Zevitas, "The Things We Think and Do Not Say").

I understand and appreciate Zevitas' sentiment here, but it is incredibly problematic.  It presupposes that artists are actually not working (in the sense that workers get paid for the work that they do) and rather doing what they do purely out of "need", which is a misnomer.  I have, absolutely, said that I NEED to make work in the past but in reality could also, absolutely, sacrifice studio time to help a friend, spend time with family, etc.  I'm not even convinced, on a biological level, that it is a core need of human beings--I do believe some sort of aesthetic output or beautification of objects to be a part of most cultures, but this is far from an individual artists toiling away in the studio (which, I might argue, is a highly privileged and Western view of what art is and can be).  I digress, though--my biggest issue with this call is that the need for artists to make a living off what they do trumps any vague, lyrical claims for an artists to "keep doing what you are doing" (and things will work themselves out the implication).  We cannot keep doing what we are doing unless we get paid to do it, and can make some kind of living off of doing it.  Let us be honest about all of this.

Secondly, I think artists should do what they want to.  Zevitas' statement takes away artists' will, and implies that artists WANT to follow current consensus, but NEED to "Follow our own unique visions".

Thirdly, this statement reinforces the hierarchical nature of the art world and the art market.  Simply replace "bedrock" with proletariat and we are workers supporting a market that Zevitas is rightly calling out.  Bedrock is demeaning, too, as it implies that artists do not know the cultural value of their work--leave that to the other people in the market (that are the subject of Zevitas' critique).

I could go on...there are many things I take issue with in this article.  I am happy that it is being shared on social networking sites and many people are reading it.  The implication of the article title, though, is that no one is talking about these things, and I know a number of artists that have conversations about this frequently, and I've given talks at conferences on this precise topic.  I am an artist that does what I WANT, talking about how screwed up the market of my profession is.  We are all talking about it.  The people that matter are talking about it and have been talking about it for some time.  Artists deal with this every time they sell a work of art, either through a gallery or not.  Any artist that has assessed their career goals has thought about these issues and worked towards developing their own outlook on how to navigate the art world.

Tasset's work at the Whitney Biennial, then, is something of an unintentional answer to Zevitas' article for me.  The Artists Memorial, listing over 390,000 working artists and dead artists names on site of the future Whitney Museum of Art is something of a memorial to what IS the art market--not the bedrock, but the essence.  Without artists everything else just becomes a commodity game of wealthy adults.

There are many other content-related issues to discuss with Tasset's memorial, but for such a great gesture to artists who often feel under appreciated in their field, the memorial is a key into a world that many of us will never see.  This is one great example of artists taking responsibility for other artists and continuing the profession in a way that is sustainable.

I often feel fortunate to be a professor of art--one of the reasons is that I have the ability to teach about the issues of the artist in the art world (and market).  I have had the opportunity to work with a number of incredibly talented, driven, and interesting students that I hope continue to find ways to make work--but, perhaps most importantly, find ways to contribute to society as artists.  I'm not talking about socially-based art work, but rather being responsible citizens and artists.  I will always be a part of working with younger artists, as I think it is my answer to the commodification of art and the discontent I feel about the market side of my profession.

In the spirit of discussion, I want to formulate my own call to arms for artists, in which I would propose is a better song to sing as we toil in our studios:

       To Artists, I say: make work and fight for acknowledgement of our profession in ways beyond the
       art market, because it will not last as it exists now.  Contribute to intelligent discourse about our
       profession--we are responsible for our ideas and thusly must be able to communicate them in some
       form.  Any person other than ourselves that speaks for us has motives separate from that in which
       the art work was made, and can offer interpretations, which are not the same thing as our ideas and
       intentions.  We are the essence of the art world.

section of Tasset's Artists Memorial, 2014
photo credit: Kendra Paitz