Archive for the Art surveys Category

Online surveys are usually silly, so I very rarely endorse them or pass them on to friends. However, anyone interested in artistic failure should check out this online survey that purports to measure whether or not you’re a “tortured artist.”

What’s interesting about this survey is how dreadfully stereotypical is its view of artists. In real terms, of course an artist is, simply, someone who makes art. Period. This survey, however, doesn’t even ask that question. Instead, its questions suggest that artists apparently are (or have to be): poor; TV-less; drug-addicted; lazy and dirty; gay; friendless; unhealthy; anti-family; single-minded; and misanthropic.

Again, there’s no reason any of these things have to be true. I’d posit that these notions of the artist are a actually example of the self-prophecy effect. That by suggesting an artist has to be these things, you actually make it so. But that’s just me…

In case you’re wondering, I took the survey myself. Here is my result, for what it’s worth:

You are 24% tortured artist.

You should be happy. You have a normal life. You have no artistic ability and are not cursed with the realiztion [sic] that everyone is an idiot, because you are one.

I have to say, ArtNEWS’s experiment earlier this month, in having “experts” predict which artists from today will be famous in 2112, is, on one hand, quite amusing. On the other hand, however, it’s completely galling, a sign of everything that’s wrong with the art world.

Of course if you poll a bunch of art collectors and curators, and other art worlders who have a stake in the reputation of certain artists today, you’re going to get a lot of short-sighted, self-serving, and cynical answers. Alex Katz, for example, was the first person mentioned by the article. Does anyone really think that his unaccomplished, craftless, unappealingly flat style of painting will even be remembered, let alone acclaimed, just five years after the artist is gone?

I love, meanwhile, that a good percentage of people mentioned Andy Warhol, even though he’s been dead and gone for more than twenty years. That doesn’t really qualify him for contemporary status, sorry to say. But no matter, another artistic director mentioned, along with Warhol, a host of safe-bet, high-modernist heroes like Joseph Beuys, Georgia O’Keefe, Jackson Pollock, Marcel Broodthaers, Robert Smithson. Welcome to the 21st Century, daddio!

I understand that people are most comfortable with what they know, but doesn’t it seem like it should be the job of so-called art experts to look, every once in awhile, outsider their own visual box? Shouldn’t Christopher Knight be open-minded enough to mention an artist or two not from his own L.A. neighborhood? Shouldn’t the incoming Walker Art Center director mention an artist or two not part of that institution’s canonical holdings? Couldn’t any of these people have responded with real clarity about what it is in the art of today that will speak to people of the future? Shouldn’t the blending worlds of the nonprofit art museum and for profit art speculators strive for enough separation and distance so they can truly examine what makes art that will have lasting value?

Only one thing’s certain in the end. The art of today that will last in popularity into the future is art that has real power to speak to people—beyond the limited agendas, professional biases, profiteering mindset, and short-sighted cheerleading of the people quoted in this article.

Stories of individual artistic failure raise raise the question of what might have happened if failed artists on this list had been appreciated in their own time, if those doomed to failure had instead captured the public’s imagination, sold significant art works, and continued working into old age. Or to put it another way, would we recognize the genius of a young Van Gogh or Gericault and support it in practical ways if we came across it today? Would we rise up in the moment and choose to make the world a richer, more plentiful place?

This is, of course, a futile exercise. While we can admire these artists’ creative foresight today, and we can rationalize their failure by saying “they were just (creatively speaking) ahead of their times,” the fact is there’s nothing that can be done about it now. What done is done; you can’t raise the dead; there’s no use crying over spilt turpentine. It’s probably more important for us as a society to look forward and ask questions about how difficult we continue to make the lives of the artists among us and whether we want to be participants in the creative failure of our times.

I’ve been led to believe, during my attempts to follow the art scene as an arts writer for the past ten years, that the artistic life is more difficult than ever before. Nearly every artist I’ve ever met complains of his or her lot, so that by the time I had logged my tenth piece of arts writing I was well aware, at least anecdotally, that individual artists were suffering. As early as 2001, I had profiled a few such struggling artists who made their troubled homes in Minneapolis. By 2002, I had begun to wonder if artists of this sort existed around the country, and in July, 2003, I found, visited, and wrote about an artist named Vince Roark for Review magazine in Kansas City. Roark epitomized the failure of art; he was a 70ish-year-old artist with unkempt nails and dirty clothes, who lived in a dark and cluttered apartment in a carved-up tenement house in the heart of residential Kansas City. He spent his days at a local greasy-spoon diner eating biscuits and gravy and harassing the wait staff with off-color comments and jokes. Despite his circumstances, Roark still found a way, much to my wonderment, to make art with near-manic dedication. Here’s a telling description from the original profile:

We spend the last hour of my two-day visit in Roark’s studio apartment. The space is a wreck, much like Roark. Walls have been removed down to the bare wooden slats. Cloudy sheets of acetate over the windows give the cluttered rooms a diffuse yellow light. Piles of junk—sharpie pens, straight-edges, papers, staple guns—cover every surface. Still, the disarray is comforting, as it reveals more of the artist’s endless creative energy. Something drives him to be expressive, even if he doesn’t know why, or can’t speak of it. Even though he’s earthy, offensive, mundane, and difficult to be around, he has the creative light of the artist inside him, showing through the gruff exterior.
After a time, I set up to take some photos of his studio, and he watches me. “Do you use color film?” Roark asks, suddenly. I tell him no, black and white.
“Why?” he asks. “I like color.” I explain that I’m hoping I can get some more detailed images of his dark studio this way. He is bemused and speaks in a clipped voice. “Don’t know how that would work. I love color… Without color you’d go nuts. John Ruskin said that the most thoughtful person has the highest recall for color.”

By 2003, my interest regarding artistic failure had grown to a kind of small obsession. Looking back in retrospect, this seems attributable both to the natural progression of my career investigations at that time, as well as to the zeitgeist. The spring and summer of 2003 were a low period in many creative people’s lives, and the arts and artists in Minnesota and elsewhere were suffering with more intensity than usual. The Minnesota State Arts Board—one of the oldest and most traditionally vaunted such agencies in the United States—in 2003, at the prodding of the governor’s office, had had its funding unceremoniously cut by between 33 and 60 percent (depending on which budget line you were looking at). At the same time, two of the three main arts-supporting foundations in the area, facing acute endowment shrinkage and resulting budget problems, curtailed and cut support for artists and organizations and postponed several new initiatives that many people had anticipated. By quick and unofficial estimation, the overall charitable and governmental support of arts in 2004 was reduced in Minnesota by about 40-50 percent. It should come as no surprise, then, that several notable local arts organizations—such as Minnesota Film Arts, the Minnesota Craft Council, the American National Ballet company (out of Duluth) and Ballet Arts Minnesota (out of Minneapolis)—as well as a wide swath of the local gallery scene saw the first signs in 2004 of struggles that would lead them to the edge of insolvency and beyond. Few small to medium-sized arts organizations have thrived in Minnesota since 2003, and overall wages for arts workers have declined along with programs and offerings.

Beyond the wider systemic struggles for the arts in Minnesota and elsewhere, in 2003 everything I knew and was comfortable with—my twelve-year-old marriage, my six-year-old art critic gig with City Pages, my previously sane and safe country—was also failing. My falling out with City Pages occurred in November of that year, when my arts editor decided, after six years of collaboration and nearly 60 stories on art, the paper didn’t need my writing any longer. City Pages had been facing ever more pressure to find advertisers and needed the space for more and more buzz-creating sensationalism, and I refused to participate in this trend. “We’ve done a lot of great stories,” the editor told me over the phone, “things that I’m really proud of. But sometimes editors and writers just have to end their association. It just happens.”

Nothing was right in 2003. I can think of no better explanation than this as to why I suddenly refocused my writerly investigations to quest after answers regarding artistic failure. In the two years following the summer of 2003 I wrote four essays on what I was calling the “doomed artist,” and I wrote three profiles of such artists in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and New York. I applied for, and received, a grant from the Jerome Foundation to visit and write about such artists in Atlanta, Colorado, and Pittsburgh. In all the spare time I could muster outside my day job, I was eating, breathing, and sweating artistic failure.

This was not a particularly easy quest to sustain. One problem artists who talk about the struggles of their lives do not make terribly reliable witnesses. Artists, like most people, see the world through their own slanted point of view, and they often cast aspersions on anyone who seems not to be on their side. While I spent as much time as I could recording the details of these artists’ occasionally squalid existences and I poked around the fringes like a good journalist to find corroborating evidence supporting the hypothesized doom, questions continued to nag at me about how statistically real was this notion of artistic failure. I researched and found, as it happens, it is extremely difficult—due to the large and diverse numbers of artists in the country, the particular difficulties in tracking them, the wide variety of artistic disciplines and their independent economies, and so on—to quantify the economy of artists in any given era. Census data, for instance, is unreliable in delineating the different kinds of working artists, and all sorts of artists—from graphic designers and architects to workaday sculptors and professional macramé-ists—get lumped together in one statistical category.

By the spring of 2005, after two years of research and story writing, I had seen glimpses of the truth, but nothing more. I had no idea precisely how many artists actually do fail and how such numbers compare to, say, the numbers of artists who make a success of their careers. I had no clue whether the times are worse for artists today, or if times are simply as they always were.

This meant a conundrum: I could listen indefinitely to the stories of artists and write endless stories on the subject—gaining a rather sour reputation for myself and getting no closer to the empirical truth—or I could do some hard work to dig further. I took the latter course, swallowing my concerns about money and the advancing age of my intellect to enter, in the spring of 2005, a quick mid-career one-year program in arts administration at the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Here, among other activities, I spawned and incubated a four-month group research project called Essential Services for Aging Artists (ESAA) that made use of data from focus-group discussions of artists in New York, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh and a survey of more than 1,300 artists currently working nation-wide to produce, in the spring of 2006, a full 180-page report on the subject of aging artists. The goals of the report were to gain a clearer understanding of the problems and needs that visual artists face as they age, to research and list services that currently exist to address these needs, to pinpoint needs still unaddressed, and to make recommendations for addressing these needs. In other words, it was a study of artistic failure and a primer on what was best to do about it.

I should start this Chronicle by explaining what I mean by “artistic failure.”

It’s a tricky enough topic. When you Google the phrase, artistic failure tends to be applied most often to writing about individual artworks that don’t live up to expected potential. While the author could have simply referred to said work of art–Crime and Punishment, say, or the play Hamlet–as a mere “failure,” the work is instead deemed a deeper disaster, an “artistic failure,” as if there were something wrong at the very core of this work. The application of the damning modifier artistic reveals in these web musings and critiques a deeper frustration with anything that claims the exalted status of art and yet comes up short against the term.

This usage–of artistic as a damning modifier–suggests a conflicting attitude in America about art. On the one hand, because (most likely) of our recent history as a hegemonic force in world culture, Americans expect great things from art. We expect our artists to excel and lead the world, to help win the Cold War, to right social wrongs, to reflect what’s best about our country back on ourselves, to be stoically heroic exemplars of American “greatness”–all while making work that is interesting to look at and valuable to hold onto (preferably astronomically so).

At the same time that Americans have these (perhaps unrealistic) expectations about art, our national discourse about art and how to support it has been dominated–for the past twenty years, at least–by a brass-tax, efficiency-focused, business-oriented rationalistic realpolitik quite at odds with our national expectations for art. I’m referring to a host of defining incidents and events–the Mapplethorpe obscenity case, the furor over “Piss Christ,” the rise and fall and rise of the “NEA Four,” the removal of a Serra’s “Tilted Arc,” and the like–that knocked the status of artists down several notches. That is, whereas the previous generation of artists– Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Mark Rothko, Claes Oldenberg, Kenneth Noland, et al–had in mid-last century been national heroes and international stars that were placed on high pedastals and widely worshipped, now artists were somehow seen out of step with mainstream American values, if not downright pariahs.

As a result perhaps, today, while Americans still say they almost universally love art (and presumably continue to have high expectations for it), they also, according to a recent study by the Urban Institute, overwhelmingly say they dislike artists. That is, 96% of survey respondents revealed they were greatly inspired by various kinds of art and highly value art in their lives and communities, but only 27% of respondents believed that artists contribute to the good of society.

This is understandable. When Joe Paycheck and Molly Punchclock, who each day put in an honorable and hard shift of economy-sustaining work, see artists getting wealthy for doing something they deem, at best, a hobby–well, it’s gonna lead to some kind of frustration…

While I’ve written plenty of art criticism in my time, I don’t intend here, on The Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America, to focus on works of art that I deem to be failures, artistic or otherwise. However, I will explore how this essential conflict–between the American national aspirations for art and the American skepticisms about art and artists–plays a key role in what I intend to address as “artistic failure in America.”

Stay tuned for more…