Monday, January 14, 2008

If You Can't Beat 'Em...You Can Still Be Self-Aware

Headlines confirm it, the recession is either here already or about to land, and even the nation's #1 economic cheerleader, President Bush, noted finally there were challenges ahead (that must have hurt). Indeed, it seems as if so much has all been leading up to this. The conventional wisdom, I mean, regarding this era and what it means to "Art" that there's been so much freakin' money spent on contemporary work lately...the conventional wisdom that has held that "things will change" (and presumably for the better for true "art lovers") once the money dries up. We're about to see, it seems. And yet, as complicated as the economy has become over the past 10 years (i.e., why no one knows for sure what to expect), the relationship between art-making and money, on a conceptual level, has become just as complicated.

Ben Davis has a good hard look at the state of the uneasy relationship between art and commerce in a recent article on artnet.com. Money quote:
Most often, critics...just tag everything that involves commerce as "capitalist" and leave the analysis at that. But the fact is there are different ways to relate to commerce, and the production and distribution of "visual art" is defined by particularly middle-class relations, not by large-scale wage labor at the service of massive conglomerates. Just ask the animators whose work was shown in the "Pixar" show at MoMA a few years back what a difference this makes (they don’t have an individual claim on the creativity that goes into the work; it belongs to Disney). Contemporary art’s position in the world forms the basis for the quirky values -- the fetish for low-fi, child-like creativity, the questioning or ironic attitude, the attention to the individual touch or "statement," etc. -- that are associated with it.

Even when individual productions go beyond these terms, the climate of being resistant to mass culture values must be preserved. In December, Paul McCarthy transformed his New York gallery into a factory for producing chocolate miniatures of a signature image. Though the project would seem to be a fairly full-throated replication of commercial-scale production, McCarthy takes esthetic refuge precisely in the fact that, as a straight-forward commercial enterprise, it is a money-losing deal....
Davis also dives into what this means specifically for today's working artists in terms of what Johanna Drucker calls "complicit esthetics":
In a useful recent book, Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity, Johanna Drucker offers the term "complicit esthetics" to describe contemporary art. Art today, she argues, is distinguished by its embrace of commerce and the values of the mass media. According to Drucker, the familiar notion of "oppositional critique" is now largely a relic of academic writing, which has been reduced to justifying artwork based on its political correctness.

For Drucker, Vanessa Beecroft’s practice of staging fetishistic tableaux of naked women in high heels is the rock that high-flown art theory runs aground on. While critics persist in looking for a political kernel in the work -- Drucker cites one who calls it a "post-feminist critique of the catwalk" -- Beecroft is clearly not attempting to resist the values of fashion. She is replicating them in the space of the art world. And this loss of art’s distinction as an alternative to media spectacle, Sweet Dreams argues, is not just one artist’s choice but an existential condition for all artists, and therefore something that should be embraced.
An "embrace of commerce and the values of the mass media" can mean many things, though. There are degrees of complicity (from what the existential philosophers termed "lived reality" to the more capitalism-specific state that Peter Sloterdijk calls "enlightened false consciousness" [in which one dutifully accepts the reality of one's professional obligations despite one's inner-socialist's better judgement]) that are distinguished by degrees of self-awareness. Perhaps raging against a tidal wave as powerful as Capitalism will strike some as a waste of energy, but that doesn't mean one has to embrace all of its excesses.

I was happy to find a new blog devoted to the role of the artist in all this the other day. Launched by the sculptor Deborah Fisher, the blog "
Sellout" is dedicated to a more practical approach to what's become an increasingly impractical profession:
Artists face all the problems the consumer citizenry faces. We eat and drink and drive and buy things. We need health care; battle 30% credit card interest and stupid little fees; are having a harder time getting a full return on a gently used power tool at Home Depot. We will retire or get sick one day. We hate to admit it, but sometimes we need jobs. And at the same time, we are all trying to pull off a career that makes our parents feel just a little sick with worry.

What does it mean to be an artist in this era of corporate feudalism? We may talk about that. But this blog will focus on what it takes and how to do it better. Less painfully. With more dignity.
It's off to a great start, with posts ranging from marketing oneself as an artist to talking with your gallery about money, and plenty of links to incredibly practical financial sites. I can hear artists across the globe groaning at the thought. As Deborah notes, though, "I am not entirely sure why money feels so profoundly dirty to me. It shouldn't, and this harms my career all the time, in thousands of different ways, and if I could change one thing about myself, this would be it." Do check it out.

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6 Comments:

Anonymous nathaniel said...

Excellent post - the Drucker book sounds like it sums up some of the distrust I've had of (some) media-manipulating performance-type artists for some time; it's nice to have that distrust clarified and validated without dismissing capitalism in total. And thanks for the link to SELLOUT - added to the reader and a few links from her have already been bookmarked!

It's sad the recession is coming just as I thought my art career was going somewhere (tho I imagine many artists wear that illusion for some time).... I guess I'll head towards that academic post I've been thinking about - at least they give health care, have funding and studios and care about your production, and well, I admit I do love to inspire young artists; but those posts will be snatched up before too long as well. And, from what Ed Winkleman says, some galleries will be tougher on us academic artists.

1/14/2008 12:19:00 PM  
Blogger joy garnett said...

I don't think Ben is parsing Drucker's usage of "complicit" quite accurately... hmmm. Anyone else out there read the book (or part of it?) -- he seems to be falling into the oppositional stance thing, unless I misread; Drucker's saying that the oppositional approach itself is a false one, not supportable in reality. She's not saying: give up, complicity is all.

In any case, here's a quote from George Grosz (a real avant- gardist!) that a friend just sent me... It'll put some lead in one's pencil:

"The artist whether he likes it or not, lives in a continual correlation to the public, to society, and he cannot withdraw from its laws of evolution, even when, as today, they include class conflict. Anyone maintaining a sophisticated stance above or outside of things is also taking sides, for such indifference or aloofness is automatically a support of the class currently in power–in Germany in the middle class."

1/14/2008 04:01:00 PM  
Anonymous sharon said...

Does money feel dirty to artists because we secretly not-so-secretly want to have it to enable us make art unfettered from the restraint of a "job"? Because we are bitter when we see un-tethered artists with benefactors who have the luxury of just making art? Because we are saddled with the astronomical debt of art school, usually a private institution, and the cost of living?

We are always negotiating our proximity to wealth. People with money want to collect the work, while pushing us further away from the center of the cities in which we live. We are always negotiating our time and our work. How does one make art when there are bills to pay? How does one get a show when one is building a body of work so slowly because of the job we have to have? How does one get a job in the arts without burning out on their own work?

Lest I sound bitter, I have to state I'm not. I'm frustrated because I do have to negotiate my debt, my job (I do get to teach art to kids!! Thumbs up!), and my time in the studio, and the task of applying for grants and gallery shows is an additional burden. It's become a fact of my life, so I just keep moving forward despite it.

Unless you're some kind of golden child, the life of an artist is a constant catch 22 and balancing act. The money is there, it's just that it's a big ass carrot on a stick. And we're all chasing it.

By the way, SELLOUT rocks. Thanks for the link!

1/14/2008 04:06:00 PM  
Blogger the reader said...

I agree with Nathaniel excellent post. for me the really tricky balance and one that i rarely see achieved (here in Australia at least) is a balance between having an independent creative trajectory and selling work. If you have a run-a-way commercial success how does this affect the type of work you produce?

An all to common pattern seems to involve the creation of a 'signature style' that is, at least on one level, an attempt to reproduce the commercial success of the first show. One of the most difficult things to know here is where the rigorous investigation of an idea becomes the senseless exploitation of its selling potential. I'm yet to test my own ability to tell the two apart and would never assume that it is a skill that I innately possess.

Here I'm reminded of the advice of an Australian artist who I think has managed to strike the balance between commercial success and a rigorous and independent practice fairly well. He tells young artists to avoid selling their work for as long as they can.

In my own case I take that to mean establish a diverse body of work. Explore as many of those areas that you have an interest in as you possibly can, before you commit to commercial representation. For me having a number of larger creative and philosophical/theoretical projects means that its far less likely that you will ever be nailed down to a narrow signature style.

1/14/2008 04:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It's sad the recession is coming just as I thought my art career was going somewhere (tho I imagine many artists wear that illusion for some time).... I guess I'll head towards that academic post I've been thinking about - at least they give health care, have funding and studios and care about your production, and well, I admit I do love to inspire young artists; but those posts will be snatched up before too long as well. And, from what Ed Winkleman says, some galleries will be tougher on us academic artists."

The best posts are taken by now. Funny, I said and adviced the same a year ago.

1/14/2008 05:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do consider Davis’ essay to be more literary criticism than art criticism (he does focus his attention on a book after all) and I think it fails at fairly and accurately interpreting the source material, the excellent book by Drucker, if one defines interpretations as "explanations of how a work functions to communicate thoughts, emotions, and ideas. A good interpretation must be grounded in reasons and evidence, and should provide a rich, complex, and illuminating way to comprehend a work of art." (Cynthia Freeland)

The Drucker quotes in the Davis essay are obviously cherry picked to support his reduction of the various ideas presented in her book. Davis has to look like he is saying something different or new and he tries to do this by making Drucker a straw woman.

That is not a big deal. It happens all the time in the world of book reviews. They have a certain word count and the critics have to say what they want (or what their editor wants them to say) quickly and concisely. This does not leave room for nuance (Although Davis does try to present his argument as nuanced, I think he fails.) or in depth discussion of an abundance of quoted material.

Davis says that we should not reject capitalism. Exactly how much or how little complicity there should be between Davis' abstract notion of the forces controlling money and power (known as MOPO from now on) and the artist is not clear and this weakens the whole argument. He states that we should stay aware of and perhaps critique MOPO's excesses. He also stated that our involvement in the capitalist system, our immersion in it, is complicated and that most artists have been raised in or have had their ideological framework built atop a middle class upbringing.

For the middle class there will always be an element of desire to move up which manifests itself in dreams and hope or just plain greed, and at the same time bitterness towards those living above and below their quality of life. The middle class fears and mocks the lower classes because the middle class is obviously crumbling as the economy tanks and becoming less well off financially is a reality for most middle aged adults who were raised in a very comfortable middle class setting twenty to forty years ago. They need to make a mountain out of a molehill of wealth and pigeonholing the poor makes this easier to do. The middle class also resents and is enamored with the upper class because they are not hounded by the financial issues that plague the middle class. The middle class becomes the middle-management figure in this make believe structure.

This notion of artists and class structure, while very reminiscent of the humorous and often dead on hierarchical structures presented in Paul Fussell's brilliant book "Class", is a weak abstraction if only because Davis doesn’t explore the very relevant back and forth process, this being caught in the middle so to speak, the middle class experiences. There are blurred zones between the three imaginary strata, many borderline cases, especially now that there are more millionaires and billionaires in the world than ever before. There is also a sharper contrast now between the upper class and everyone else, as more and more MOPO gets controlled by fewer and fewer people.

1/14/2008 09:48:00 PM  

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