It’s a great time to be an artist!
Huh? Sounds wrong? Well perhaps, to paraphrase the venerable Dickens, it’s the best of times and the worst of times.
The worst: the current recession has taken an enormous bite out of the cultural dollar. The tough reality is that art is today considered by our society to be a luxury—or worse, a “frill.” Those who make art, well. . .they’re pretty much alone in the proverbial sea of troubles. In its November 23, 2009 edition, the New York Times reported on a survey conducted in part by a nonprofit organization with the improbable name of “Leveraging Investments in Creativity.” “Working artists,” it concluded, “tend to work day jobs to support themselves; [and...] more than a third don’t have adequate health insurance.” While “[...] musicians and architects tend to do better than writers and painters, [this] simply provides statistical support for what artists themselves have long known, [...] that the recession has been exceptionally tough for many artists.” Well, surprise!
The report also noted a gaping economic disparity among visual artists as a group, some of whom “tended to earn [...] very little of their overall income from their artwork,” and others “almost all of it.” In a particularly biting irony, the Times reported the very next day on the sorry fate of the $25 million “Hanging Locomotive” by Jeff Koons, a project commissioned by the Los Angeles County Museum but for which the museum could no longer summon the funds to pay. Poor museum! Poor Koons! Lamenting the deplorable situation, Barbara Pflaumer, associate vice president for communications and marketing at the museum, is reported to have said: “Someone will have to write us a check.”
Ah, yes, indeed! And let the rest of those negligible artists eat cake!
As I expect you may have, too, I have talked to many artists and many dealers in the past few months, and the story is predictably uniform: the bottom has fallen out of the “market”—except at the very top. If it was hard for artists to find gallery representation before, it’s virtually impossible today. Dealers are not taking on new artists, and a regrettable number are having to close their doors. So, yes, we know about the worst of times. Most of us have experienced their chilling touch at first hand at some point in our lives, and too many of us are experiencing it at this very moment.
But the flip side of the worst of times is the freedom that the best of times affords. It may not be what we asked for, but let’s enjoy it anyway. Once the bottom fell out of the market, it also fell out of any attachment we may have had to its values, which can be so consuming and distracting. No more looking over the shoulder to see if the next artist is doing better than me. No more obsessing over the rejection and neglect I feel when my work fails to bring me the rewards I think I deserve. Goodbye, delusion; hello, reality!
We are offered the opportunity, willy-nilly, to return to some of those values we risked sacrificing when “the contemporary art world” was born—in the 1960s, would you say?—and commerce began to raise its ugly head. Back in the late 1970s, observing the phenomenon with distress, I wrote an essay called “A Word For the Amateur.” I have tried without success to retrace it, but it’s my belief that it was first published in these very pages of Artscene, and I do remember clearly that it aroused some controversy at the time. Looking back on what I remember having written, it has no less relevance today.
Here’s the context: at the time, I had been appointed Dean of what was then Otis Art Institute of Los Angeles County (now Otis College of Art and Design), and I was met on my first full day of work by the announcement that the L.A. County Supervisors, who had funded the school since its founding in 1918, had just voted to cut off all support at the end of that school year. Shortly afterwards came the infamous California Prop. 13, heralding yet another tough time for cultural activity. A double blow, then, from the world of politics. Students at Otis were unsure whether they would be able to finish their degrees; faculty and staff could not be sure to keep their jobs beyond the end of the school year—if indeed they lasted out that long. And yet, paradoxically it seemed to me, this was precisely the time at which one—relatively new—word was on everyone’s lips at art schools and university departments throughout the country: it was imperative, we heard with increasing frequency, for artists to learn to be “professional.”
What an irony! And how disingenuous! And what a disfavor, I thought, to our students—the vast majority of whom would soon be disgorged from their training into an art world, along with uncountable numbers of their fellow graduates armed with identical BFA and MFA degrees, certified “artists” with only the slimmest chance of actually becoming professional in any normally accepted sense of the word: people, that is, who could expect to be paid for their services and, eventually, earn a livelihood.
So I wrote “A Word for the Amateur,” and displeased quite a number of people in the art world. I wrote the essay in the full knowledge that the word itself had been widely discredited. To be an amateur meant to be a Sunday painter, a dauber, a third-rate artist lacking both the talent and the sophistication of the professional. To be called an amateur would be a dreaded insult. And yet most of the artists I knew and respected at the time were de facto amateurs. They did it—at least after the promise of that piece of paper had proved illusory—not in expectation of any financial reward but because making art was quite simply a necessity, the passion that defined their lives.
The “amateur” in its original sense, borrowed from the French, is the one who loves, and the tradition of the amateur is a long and worthy one. For centuries, artists were seen essentially as trades-people, artisans who hired out their skills to the nearest church or grandee willing to pay for their services. The loftiest human thought and the greatest scientific advances were generated by amateurs, those whose good fortune or privilege enabled them to devote their lives to what they were passionate about. It was the Romantics whose vision for the first time liberated the artist to be what he or she wanted to be, and to express what he or she wanted to express from the depths of heart and soul. The by-now clichéd image of the artist starving in the garret is the archetype we honor to this day, whether consciously or not. The artist’s heart refuses to be obligated to anyone or anything, least of all the marketplace. “Professionalism,” by definition, requires an implicit compact between the server and the served—a point recognized by certain artists like Dan Graham, for example, who insists, according to an article in the New York Sunday Times (June 25, 2009) that “he is not a professional in any sense, calling his art his ‘passionate hobby.’”
Is it important to revisit this position today? I think so. I think so because I see so many fine, uniquely talented artists who are unwilling or unable to compete in the marketplace and need nonetheless to persist. Despair, and the sacrifice of their vision to quotidian demands can come at the cost of their health and happiness, as well as the health and happiness of those they love. It is as important for us to honor their commitment as it is for them to maintain it in the face of economic adversity. It’s easy to lose heart. Their work may be out of touch with the mainstream, or may fail to resonate with any of the current fads. They may be poor “networkers,” disinterested in making the connections that would enhance the road to conventional success. They may simply be more reclusive than those gifted with the ability to make themselves heard amidst the clamor. They may just have missed the breaks. But they still need to find a way past all the barriers to do the work they’re given to do.
I say this to remind myself as much as anyone. Even though my own art, the written word, is of central and non-negotiable importance in my life, I could never at any point in my (long-ish!) career have counted on it to provide much more than the above-mentioned twenty percent! There are still times when I look around at the plethora of published stuff and ask myself what in the world I think I’m doing. At such moments, I need to recall that this is what I have been given to do, and I’d better get on with it or risk that feeling of self-betrayal that is the consequence.
I have found helpful strategies. Having learned, quite a number of years ago, the benefits of a daily meditation practice, I apply that lesson to my work: I show up, sit down, do it. Every day. The practice spares me from having to confront the questions that reason and logic might otherwise impose. I also like the giveaway—an opportunity to share my work which is miraculously facilitated by the Internet today. My blog, The Buddha Diaries (TheBuddhaDiaries.com), assures me of a valued daily readership. For many artists, the website is an analogous resource.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I thrive in community. I have three groups in particular which meet regularly to share mutual interest and support. One is a world-wide community of men in which I have worked for fifteen years; another, a more intimate group of artists; and the third, a sitting group of meditators. The sense of solidarity these groups provide is a necessary antidote to the solitude I need and welcome as a writer, but which can easily turn into loneliness and isolation. Particularly in an economic and political environment in which I often feel myself in angry disagreement with everything happening around me, community restores hope and provides refuge. A friend of mine coined the term “sacred lifeboats” to define his own way of approaching the future in a world whose political structures and values he finds deeply unacceptable. When the ship begins to sink, we need those lifeboats. The “Titanic,” remember, did not have enough of them—and sometimes I fear that this may be the ship we are sailing in today!
It’s time, perhaps, to change the paradigm of success. Once we accept that we can do nothing to change conditions in the world out there, it’s time for creative people like you and me to look to what we have the power to change—our ways, our mental habits. As the poet Rilke wrote—speaking, I suspect, for himself as much as anyone: Du musst dein Leben aendern. “You must change your life.” Today’s uncertainty offers just that challenge. What more could we wish for?
Peter Clothier is a longtime art critic, essayist and novelist who carries dual Southern California citizenship in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles and the hills of Laguna Beach. His latest book, a compilation of thematically related essays, is “Persist,” available online at http://www.paramipress.com/order.