Thursday, July 10, 2014

Deadhead Sticker on a Cadillac

It's problematic on many levels, I know, but the more I hear artists justify selling out via their art, the more I realize that art has become my religion. Which explains why such justifications offend me on a practically spiritual level.

I'm increasingly agnostic with regard to the traditional concept of a deity, and all but hostile to most forms of organized religion, except where they provide social rituals that help celebrate / comfort people through various stages of life (yes, I know, it's unfair for me to expect that side of it without also agreeing to the the often silly and more often offensive subjugation sides of most of them), but I've been OK with not having religion in my life because I've substituted the Evangelical teachings I grew up on with a firm belief in the evidence of humankind's innate capacity to self-regulate on an ethical and moral level that the creation and appreciation of art can provide.

Which isn't to say I like moralizing art, or art that avoids the messier aspects of difficult human issues (on the contrary, the best of organized religion actually delves deeply into these as well). But rather that there's no need to accept that unless people conform to the interpretation of some "god"'s will that the geographical and socio-economic circumstances of their birth randomly coerce them to follow that people will automatically behave any less morally than anyone else. Most humans instinctively feel what's the right or wrong way to behave in almost any situation. Knowing ethical from unethical behavior is actually extremely easy as a concept: ethical behavior is almost universally the way you'd prefer other people to act toward you.

It's very likely just the ability of social media to expose us to opinions we previously may have gone an entire life without hearing, but I actually believe it's something more than that. It feels like a cultural shift. Increasingly I'm reading online this or that artist's opinion that cheating the system or scheming within the system to get ahead, through the creation/promotion/sale of their art is not only OK with them, but their due, because of how difficult they feel their life has been.

I suspect this perceived "right" to get ahead at any cost is fairly common across any industry in this country (after all, we are the children of a generation who saw Gordon Gekko as a role model), but for me (and apparently the artists, collectors, and other dealers I've surrounded myself with) art had always been a sanctuary from such attitudes. Art had been the last bastion for professionals who believed in higher ideals than just getting what I can.

And yet, when I express such ideas on Facebook, the types of responses I get are (these are real):
"There 's nothing wrong with making money through these buying, selling, sneaking in unknowns, collectives, first opens, corporate Ponzi schemes"
"Ethics are something I might exchange since I am a victim of my parents' ethics, not a trustfund baby..."
and justifying such positions for
"those of us who were artists, yet had to work as service workers with the bridge and tunnel people, the rednecks from Staten Island, Bronx, etc. and raise families without proper food, etc."
I have tried to look at such positions from an objective point of view. In particular, I realize that many artists are sold a bill of goods by art schools and graduate with more debt than their dream of earning a living from their art will likely even cover the interest on. This puts tremendous pressure on them and their families. I also realize that when artists who intentionally game the market system as part of their practice are celebrated as among the best artists of their generation, the lines here can get a bit blurry unless you really pay attention. But most often, I read such things and think "who the hell are you, and what did you do with the actual human artist whose body you're inhabiting?"

Artists should emerge from their thorough explorations in looking/seeing and in particular their education in the humanities as, well, better humans. In my experience, most do. But specifically, within my concept of the role of art as a form of religion, artists are the leaders...the perceptive ones able to see and communicate sincerely with the rest of us the more important or at least interesting aspects of what it means to be a human here and now. That position comes with certain responsibilities, though. If they're not at least attempting to be good humans (and that is incompatible with willingly scheming or cheating others), then they're just hucksters demanding attention for wholly narcissistic reasons.

I know these are very high expectations to have of another human.... So?

More than just my admittedly perhaps warped sense of art as a religion, though, comments like this are particularly troublesome in an arena that purports to trade in concepts involving our better selves:
"There 's nothing wrong with making money through these buying, selling, sneaking in unknowns, collectives, first opens, corporate Ponzi schemes"
Actually, the law says otherwise. Some of these activities are quite specifically illegal, and therefore, socially at least, the very definition of "wrong."  If you can't be an ethical "artist," the rest of us can at least insist you behave as an ethical citizen.
Now here I should clarify that my sense of what makes an artist ethical or not is entirely unrelated to their personal life (my concern is only with a professional ethics). Indeed, I use the term "ethics" here wholly within the context of a strict adherence to the integrity of their work and (because we accept that "art" is important to humankind) honesty in how that work is traded. Moreover, the license society gives artists to behave in ways that are unacceptable for the rest of us (dressing down for formal functions, spending days just "thinking" about their work, essentially having total control over their workplace and hours, actually being invited to speak truth to power, etc.) is given in part because we expect something quite simple back in return. We expect artists themselves to lead the way in treating art like the cultural treasure they're asking the rest of us to view it other words, to take "art" seriously. Suggesting it's ok to cheat or scheme with one's art is not taking it seriously as a cultural treasure.


Blogger Keith Kimmel said...

do you mind offering clearer examples of the types of schemes you're referencing?

7/10/2014 03:17:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The person who used that term didn't clarify.

In other instances where similar discussions have come up, the "scheme" has been to put artwork on the market that the artist knew wasn't as resolved or complete as they could have made it, or that wasn't truly important to them, just to make the money.

Which would be fine on many levels, if they'd admit that, but by putting it out there in the context of fine art (which purports to higher standards and a struggle for excellence) and not admitting it, they're silently suggesting it's a true vessel of artistic integrity...(as opposed to the bauble for the market it truly is).

In short, they're lying.

7/10/2014 03:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"those of us who were artists, yet had to work as service workers with the bridge and tunnel people, the rednecks from Staten Island, Bronx, etc. and raise families without proper food, etc."

Although I empathize - I am actually from Staten Island, and have worked in service to make ends meet (I spent a year chopping chickens in the basement of Chicken Holiday, and worked at a shoe store in the SI Mall) - this gives such a sense of entitlement, even without it being used as an excuse to behave badly. It says, because I am an artist, or the kind of artist I am, I am better than all those in the same situation as me. I can blanket judge other humans based on nothing more than where they are, where they come from, and how they make ends meet. Oh, but I am the exception.


PS Sorry for posting anonymously when being critical, but I figure since I'm criticizing an unnamed entity rather than the author it's OK. I'm with you, Ed.

7/11/2014 06:27:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I had the same response to that comment, Anonymous...the sense of entitlement was disgusting.

7/11/2014 10:01:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry Ed, but I lived through the 80s and 90s when A.I.D.S. was devastating gay artists and saw their life’s work being piled up on the curb to be hauled away by the trash truck. This was because many galleries would not show their work (the Lower East Side art movement not withstanding). Especially after the David Wojnarowicz and Robert Mapplethorpe controversies. I myself was told by certain organizations that they would not accept my curatorial proposals because they contained gay artists and the work may contain obscenities (they would not even look at the images).
I am also not the only art knowledgeable person who has noticed the lack of artists in museum collections that were born between c. 1950 and 1965. Curious.

I have also lived long enough to now see many artists die, without realizing their dreams of achieving some sort of recognition for their work. And I have seen many artists finally give up working at their art entirely because that break was not going to happen after many years of trying to make it happen. It is a bitter pill to see crap become lauded while excellent art goes ignored because it doesn’t fit a program, or it’s not what we are looking for at this time or it doesn’t fit the parameters of a grant.
If artists are finally seizing opportunities to monetize their work, I understand. It looks to me that they are finally figuring out how to play the game. Doing it the “right” way didn’t seem to be getting them anywhere. America does not have a good track record on rewarding intellectual or cultural achievement.

7/11/2014 10:10:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I am sorry too Anonymous, but that argument does not convince me. Who is lauded or not is certainly one big messy clusterfuck of a process, but the vast majority of artists in the world are in the "not lauded" category. Is each of them entitled to game the system? How much of the world's wealth would it take to satisfy them all? More importantly, what's left of artistic integrity if they all game the system?

"Doing it the “right” way didn’t seem to be getting them anywhere."

This is the part of this argument that drives me mental. They are NOT entitled to get anywhere. It's not a birthright, just because they called themselves artists. It's a desire...I get that...but, again, a desire shared by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other current inhabitants on the planet.

Wanting it, even wanting it real bad, is not a license to game the system.

It's one thing to accept that it happens, but it's entirely different in my opinion to insist it's OK. It's NOT OK. It's the very definition of wrong, and for any artist to want fame or fortune so much they lose sight of that is a true pity...they are essentially at that point their own worst enemy. What they could have been or contributed has become much less than it might have been.

7/11/2014 10:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Could you cite some additional examples of what you mean by artists gaming the system? I appreciate your comments but am confused by the lack of specific examples of what you're referring to. To the extent that I do follow your critique, it seems to me a continuum and that there are various degrees to which an artist stays true to his/her muse vs. "selling out." A sculptor acquaintance who has created some very unique and engaging, well-received (but not highly marketable) works in the past is currently making small oil paintings of flowers because he knows people will buy them. Is this selling out? Is there a difference when you're talking about the national/international art market vs. artists working in smaller, regional markets?
p.s. thanks for your ongoing thought-provoking posts.

7/11/2014 12:27:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

"Could you cite some additional examples of what you mean by artists gaming the system?"

I can, but first I think it's important to note that my basic objection is to justifications of what artists themselves are calling "gaming the system" ... not actions that I'm judging as such. Suggesting it's one of those highly personal things that originates as doubt in the artist's mind and is then dismissed as OK, because they really want or need what it might bring them.

It's perfectly within the right of any artist to experiment or try new media or ask for feedback on something they kind of like, but are still processing themselves, etc. etc.

But as for examples, the one that strikes me as most problematic is working so quickly (to suit the market) that it's impossible to even reflect on whether a work is resolved before putting it out there as one's "work." There's no particular timeframe that fits every artist for this, obviously, but when I hear that an artist cranked out 7-8 paintings in a 36-hour period specifically because of a market opportunity, not because that's their regular mode of creation, then I can't help but wonder whether they're not indeed "gaming the system" and intentionally setting aside what we think of when we say "artistic integrity" which generally means there's an evaluation process on the part of the artist, with editing and even rejecting certain works that don't measure up to their presumably extremely high standards.

I can tell you, that's the narrative through which art is one says "You should buy this one that the artist whipped out in a sleepy stupor after pulling an all-niter because some collectors were coming by. I think she signed it somewhere...."

7/11/2014 12:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Have A Cigar"
Pink Floyd

Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar.
You're gonna go far, you're gonna fly high,
You're never gonna die, you're gonna make it if you try; they're gonna love you.

Well, I've always had a deep respect, and I mean that most sincerely.
The band is just fantastic, that is really what I think.
Oh by the way, which one's Pink?

And did we tell you the name of the game, boy?
We call it Riding the Gravy Train.

We're just knocked out.
We heard about the sell out.
You gotta get an album out,
You owe it to the people. We're so happy we can hardly count.

Everybody else is just green, have you seen the chart?
It's a helluva start, it could be made into a monster
If we all pull together as a team.

And did we tell you the name of the game, boy?
We call it Riding the Gravy Train.

7/11/2014 02:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Kate Landishaw said...

Somehow I'm reminded of Thomas Hardy, who wrote pulp magazine serials for money while he was getting around to writing great literature . . . Indeed, he felt he was writing dross, and was mightily aggravated he had to change endings (yep!) to suit readers. Commercial artists are often scorned today for not spending all their time plein air or abstracting great oils. My father was one of those, both free-lance in Chicago, doing ads AND showing in fine galleries, and later years in a rural setting, drawing for an educational publishing house AND showing in galleries. And now he's remembered for both. The commercial side wasn't considered gaming a system, it was making a living at some art so his little family could eat while he continued to develop his painterly talent.
I wonder whether "gaming the system" isn't a cynical phrase an artist might use to try to be "hip" while not having to acknowledge his/her preferred artistic vein hasn't found its niche yet . . .
sounding smart in denial of what feels like failure.
I'm lucky, in having several versions of an imagery pursuit to explore - one might say different styles but I'm told the line is consistent, so it's clearly all my work. I have made different formats of things, based on both commission basis and suggestions from friends wanting to help me find a wider market. These feel more like exploring to me - perhaps finding a new avenue into a city of collectors.
Which brings me to a different approach to "gaming the system" via cranked-out, made-for-a-moment work: if I'm seeking to sell my work, what role does the art-buying public have in its creation? What I have sold has all been work from my heart, my mind, of my invention along a seriously exploratory trail. So I've been fortunate in that - but why would I not pursue those lines and keep them on the market, in my galleries, all while venturing into uncharted waters of pondering with paint If I hear of a show opportunity and pause my pondering to create a batch of things in my past selling mode, would that be "gaming the system"? Or would it be what I feel the market is asking for?
Or does the answer lie someplace between pandering to said market and my attitude toward what the market wants? I ask because one of the things I'm figuring out is that talking about what I'm doing isn't worthwhile, unless with a mentor or critic interested in my development. Talking about what I've already created is of value with a collector, with whom I can share my he/art.
I do feel ethics springs from an attitude, and I wonder whether it's time for artists to watch our mouths and apply rage - or whatever we feel - to canvas more than twitter. Mr. Klee would be SO disappointed at artists abusing his machine . . .

7/14/2014 12:22:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Art is not a religion nor a cultural treasure of itself. Creating art can be a spiritual support and having it available to view can be a treasure to the right eyes, heart and mind. I, too, am disgusted...For examples that people request....I see hundreds of miniature originals made only to sell as prints...even large posters...purely through the magic of photography. I see online artists with no originals who have taken photographs as transfers to various supports and painted out and added lines to become originals...but not to be sold and to have their process 'exposed'. On the other hand I have struggled 53 years to keep faith with a son born with open spine and finally gave up hope to even attend my own openings and therefore to exhibit at all. At first the thought of my extensive works ending in a dumpster broke my heart but last night I told my daughter and granddaughter that I am too old to be emerging but I am satisfied to paint until I die - with vigor and passion. When I do they are free to use my work to give or repaint to their hearts content. It really has been and is more important to live true to one's moral and spiritual roots. Sometimes it may mean eating cereal and beans, painting with house paint on drop cloths, whatever, but to by all means do what you can to support your spirit.
Betty Pieper

7/14/2014 05:22:00 PM  
Blogger Eron Rauch said...

I was just having a similar conversation with a friend the other night and his response to my complaints about the way that so many artists seem to be devoted foremost to making money, not to making interesting art, was, "Yeah, but in this country, at this time, in this culture, money is the only universal way to keep score." He wasn't making the argument that such a view point is right or good, but sadly, I think he's identified a major structural problem with the way art interfaces with the rest of culture. That we've gotten so obsessed with money as "score" that culturally speaking, we have trouble comprehending other modes of valuation.

I'm pretty young (early 30's) and you'd be shocked by how many of my friends, even in their mid 20's, even in the arts communities, have a deeply social-Darwinist view of art which holds that if your art doesn't sell, then it's your art that's bad. I'm not even sure when this attitude came in to being, but I don't remember it being nearly as pronounced prior to the 2008 crash. It's as though a huge swath of youth culture has bought in to a very short-sighted view which holds that the market's decisions of value are actually mostly right - that what sells is what has artistic merit - that work failing to sell (and as importantly, giving you public social clout) is necessarily the fault of the work.

There are still a few people that hold the flame for art being subject to a different value system than sales and the number of people who tag themselves taking selfies in front of the work, but increasingly there seems to be a broader and broader divide growing in people under 40 about how to value art. I don't know if it's a failure of having decent arts education, a Protestant-holdover social dislike of things that have "squishy" valuation, or the rise of omnipresent on-demand media culture, but whatever the case, the art world feels rather sectioned away from general culture. As long as that's the case, as my friend sadly put it, money will be the default way to keep score.

7/15/2014 04:34:00 PM  
Blogger CharlesRKiss said...

I think everyone is allowed to have periods in their lives when they choose to make shitty gamed art to pay some bills and have a party; especially if some of the concepts and techniques are still there (though done rapidly and poorly, perhaps).

In painting, I like to think of Daumier, and his economy (of line), and how Dadaists would claim you should be able to "finish a drawing of someone jumping off building before he hits the ground" [excuse the gender specific pronoun; also not sure of the source: Dadaists, Early Surrealists, Dialysists, Epidermal Cysts, etc.].

I would love the opportunity to crank out eight paintings over the course of a 36-hour all-nighter; but I would probably die: depending on what I'm doing, and how fast things are drying, and the total surface area, six hours of continuous painting will almost put me into a coma.

7/27/2014 12:03:00 AM  
Blogger CharlesRKiss said...

I would just like to add that if someone does have a period of "shitty and gamed art," (ie. prints, lol) it's up to the media (critics, writers, bloggers, buyers, et al.) to call them out.

Instead, what happens is the interested parties with skin in the game, and their associates, jump on the band wagon of the hype to preserve their capital. And in every duel between capital and text, capital usually wins -so both parties are to blame: "two-to-tango," "chicken-and-the-egg" scenarios.

7/27/2014 12:26:00 AM  
Blogger Robin King said...

Oh, my gosh.

Intriguing - thought-provoking - and, for me, educational. I spent decades not working as an artist and have finally come around to doing it, really doing it, now. I saw the same kind of behavior in the academic and corporate cultures so I shouldn't be surprised to hear that it occurs in the art world, too. But I think I am. Wow.
Thank you for posting this. Your blog is very special; I'll be back to learn more! :)

8/10/2014 03:38:00 PM  

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