Archive for the The struggles of artists Category

It’s sort of a article of faith among many in this country that what drives America, what keeps it strong, and what should be defended at all costs is the country’s corporate-business sector. And not just defended, but pampered, and given huge bailouts and vast tax credits/breaks in times of economic downturn (even when said corporations have turned huge profits).

Why corporations shouldn’t be expected to pull up their socks like everyone else during a time of retrenchment and is beyond me. If ordinary Americans are downsizing, tightening the belt, and making do the best they can as they wait out the downturn, why shouldn’t corporations (and their greedy stockholders) do the same? After all, we’re all in this together, right? If corporations aim to make as much money as they can off the backs of ordinary Americans, exploiting loopholes, taking tax breaks, and otherwise squashing ordinary people’s hope for economic opportunity, well, more power to them. But then, after all, who will be left to be customers for these corporations?

The problem with our national obeisance to corporate business interests above all else is thrown into sharp relief when you consider that most of our continuing economic malaise — and, in particular, our continued high unemployment — has been caused by this very same corporate greed. To put it another way, most of the blame for the hiccups during the sputtering 2010 economic recovery can be attributed to the business sector. Witness: According to a recent Chronicle of Philosophy article, a new analysis of government data made by the Center for Civil Society at Johns Hopkins University shows that between the second quarter of 2007 and the second quarter of 2009 for-profit businesses shed jobs by an average rate of 3.3 percent a year. The continued problem of high unemployment is being caused by corporations that are simply unwilling to hire workers.

Ironically, while the very corporations that so many Americans seek to protect and coddle are at the root cause of our economic problems here and now, a more heroically productive segment of the economy is one that most Americans feel less love for. That is, despite all that our beloved corporate America, with all its blind and relentless greed, is doing to hold down the rest of the country, there is, according to the John Hopkins study, an alternative model to the corporate one. There is, in fact, quite a heroic model of economic activity; one that, despite national antipathy, is striving constantly to find a way toward national recovery. It is an economic model that has been creating jobs during the same period studied (4.6 percent job growth per year v. the corporate decline of 3.3 percent), and it is an economic model that has investing money in buildings and infrastructure and keeping more than its share of people engaged and entertained. That this economic engine has performed its economic miracle even in the midst of widespread and jealous antipathy from ordinary Americans (who tend to look at these heroes with the skepticism they should probably steer toward corporations) is even more heroic and admirable when you consider that this engine performed these miracles without touching hardly a red cent of the economic stimulus money so sloppily tossed at so many other greedy sectors of our economy.

I’m talking, of course, about the arts. It was in the arts that jobs grew, despite all the endless national pressure to cut art funding and leave the artists high-and-dry, by 4.6 percent between 2007 and 2009. It was the artists and the arts people who fought harder than any corporation has to save jobs and ensure a swift economic recovery for all in this country — and all while doing his or her best to keep us enlightened, entertained, and distracted from our various woes and burdens.

So next time you see an artist, be sure to shake his or her hand for working harder than most to keep the American dream alive.

Artists, the new economic champions of a future American recovery.

Enjoying the recession, artists?

Well, here’s a chance to tell people just how much you’re enjoying it. McKnight Foundation LINC + Helicon Collaborative are is polling experiences of individual artists within the recession. (Helicon helped design the survey, and McKnight Foundation is helping distribute it to MN artists).

Here’s hoping it’ll do some good, somehow.

“…Tell your wife you love her. This is what it’s all about. Otherwise, you’ll be painting and looking at pictures like this. Your days are numbered, clowns. This is the end of the line. The end of beauty. The end of hope. What is art anyway? Decorations for museums.”

–Chuck Connelly, in the extra features on the DVD for The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale, A Film by Jeff Stimmel

I realized about halfway through Jeff Stimmel’s 2008 documentary about Chuck Connelly that I had met this person before, several times. I’d heard his rants before, I’d seen his behavior, I’d witnessed in person how he lived. Through my years as a writer on art, I interviewed and wrote about a number of aging artists — perhaps 6 or 7 in sum — who were very similar to the way Connelly portrays himself in the film. They were so much alike, in fact, that it seems there must be a personality type: The Delusional Shut-in Artist, perhaps, or maybe the Quixotic Quack Painter.

Here are some of the character features of these men (all the ones I’ve met are men):

They are painters, most often.
They have a heroic vision of themselves (as a Great Artist, a warrior fighting against the cultural tides, a man on a holy quest for beauty, truth, etc).
They are so focused on their art — their quest — that not much else matters to them.
As a rule, they don’t care much about their appearance, and they often let themselves go.
They live in a kind of contained squalor, most often surrounded by the messy trappings of their art practice and the accumulated junk piles of the congenital shut-in.
They tend to believe that they’ve been cheated, somehow, out of the rewards (fame, wealth, attention) they feel is rightfully theirs.
They are misogynistic, abusive to their loved ones, and generally fail at interpersonal relationships.
Evenso, they can be very charismatic, attracting a succession of short-term acolytes, supporters, and co-dependents who eventually end up fleeing in disgust from being used.
They tend toward substance abuse.
They are verbally brilliant, though they think and speak in non-linear, associative ways.
They exhibit flashes of brilliance and great command of their own self-directed learning, but they tend to be, at best, emotionally adolescent.

This NYT quotation of the day caught my eye (for obvious reasons):

“Nobody wants me to do anything, so I’m just doing what I want.”
Liz Fallon [no relation], visual artist, Portland, Me.

It’s from an article on how the recession is affecting artists called “Tight Times Loosen Artists’ Creativity.”

Here’s another quote:

“This too shall pass. Artists must continue to create no matter what happens around them.”
–Diane Leon-Ferdico, painter, Elmhurst, Queens

lines from The Painter’s Game

by Janelle Morehart

…What of the painter?
What of him indeed
Poor painter
You strive so hard
And in the end you get nothing
But you’re happy
Forever happy
Like this is a great joke
People love the paintings
Therefore they love you
And every feeling they feel for the art
Passion, lust, love or whatever else they may feel
It will be all for you
But they’ll never know
It will be our secret
Just you and me
Our little secret
We’ll call it the Painter’s Game
A funny little joke it is
The whole world has been played
Without ever knowing
What a funny game it is
The Painter’s Game

Artists seem more and more inclined, these days, to shrug and toss in their art rags — giving up all hope that there’s anything left for them to strive for. And I, for one, can hardly blame them (so intent have I been this past year-plus documenting the constant trials and disappointments of a fast-fading art market).

This artistic fatalism is a pity of course, on one hand, as without something to strive for you lose a large portion of the potential pool of artists seeking to make it. And, as a result, logically the quality of art declines for the foreseeable future…

On the other hand, as I pointed out the other day, once all the hoohah and art-world striving has gone away, we end up with a lot of idealism about the purity of the practice of art.

Still further, on the third hand, as Jeanne Finley astutely alerted me recently by sending a link to an upcoming show at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary of Art called “It’s Not Us, It’s You,” artistic fatalism also means also we end up with a number of artists who embrace the current age of artistic failure and employ it as an art-making strategy.

From the show’s description:

It’s Not Us, It’s You is an exhibition that explores the inevitability of rejection in our lives – a timely topic in today’s woeful economic climate. Through a tragic and sometimes heartbreaking lens, the artists in this exhibition respond to the reality of rejection with subversion, self-reflection, humor and brutal honesty. The show is guest curated by artist Ray Beldner and includes paintings, sculpture, video, and multi-media work from artists Anthony Discenza, Stephanie Syjuco, Michael Arcega, Kara Maria, Steve Lambert, Jonn Herschend, Dee Hibbert-Jones, Nomi Talisman, Desiree Holman, Orly Cogan, Kate Gilmore, Robert Eads and Arthur Gonzalez.

As part of It’s Not Us, It’s You, Beldner is compiling a book of artist rejection letters. Artists are invited to send their rejection letters via email to info@sjica.org with “FOR REJECTION SHOW” in the subject by March 28. The ICA promises that no entries will be rejected for this project.

That said, you all should stay tuned to CAFA, because coming up this week — as previously announced — we will be posting student project descriptions from Professor Jeanne Finley’s graduate level seminar on Failure, a course that is currently running at the prestigious California College of the Arts.

These are a fascinating look at the expectations and assumptions of young artists coming of age in this very age of artistic failure!

We here at CAFA HQ recommend all of you check out Holland Cotter’s recent NYT article “The Boom Is Over. Long Live the Art!“ 

In it, he writes: “The contemporary art market, with its abiding reputation for foggy deals and puffy values, is a vulnerable organism, traditionally hit early and hard by economic malaise. That’s what’s happening now. Sales are vaporizing. Careers are leaking air. Chelsea rents are due. The boom that was is no more.” But instead of wallowing in this failure and bemoaning this decompression, an accusation that has occasionally been leveled at this site, Cotter sees this moment as mostly a hopeful one:

It’s day-job time again in America, and that’s O.K. Artists have always had them — van Gogh the preacher, Pollock the busboy, Henry Darger the janitor — and will again. The trick is to try to make them an energy source, not a chore.

At the same time, if the example of past crises holds true, artists can also take over the factory, make the art industry their own. Collectively and individually they can customize the machinery, alter the modes of distribution, adjust the rate of production to allow for organic growth, for shifts in purpose and direction. They can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again.

Still, lest we give Cotter and his boundless hippie idealism too much credit, you should know that Cotter, and most of the New York artcritiscenti, have been salivating for this boom to be over for much of the past two or three years, as I recounted in this essay from May, 2007:

While I have been pondering, this past autumn and winter, the issues related to why a person decides to take on the artist’s mantle, numerous art critics and observers have commented of late on the wild-and-wooly nature of the current art market and the great rewards within reach of an artist who is able to “make it” today. In December, Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker called the current art market an “art-industrial frenzy, which turns mere art lovers into gawking street urchins.” In mid-January, Holland Cotter in the New York Times called contemporary art “largely a promotional scam perpetuated by—in no particular order of blame—museums, dealers, critics, historians, collectors, art schools and anyone else who has a sufficient personal, professional or financial investment riding on the scam.”

Two days later, Jerry Saltz described, in eloquently jarring terms, what he thought of the art market: “A private consumer vortex of dreams, a cash-addled image-addicted drug that makes consumers prowl art capitals for the next paradigm shift… a perfect storm of hocus-pocus, spin, and speculation, a combination slave market, trading floor, disco, theater, and brothel where an insular ever-growing caste enacts rituals in which the codes of consumption and peerage are manipulated in plain sight… an unregulated field of commerce governed by desire, luck, stupidity, cupidity, personal connections, connoisseurship, intelligence, insecurity, and whatever.”

At the end of January, Charlie Finch on ArtNet.com explained that the art market’s arbitariness “disregards questions of esthetics and connoisseurship.” And he said such distortions in turn “affect the traditional ways we think about the art market.” And Jed Perl, one day later, in an article about money in the art world subtitled “How the Art World Lost Its Mind,” bemoaned the “insane art commerce of our day” and proclaimed “the essential problem in the art world today is that in almost every area, from the buying and selling of contemporary art to the programs of our greatest museums, there is an obsession with appealing to the largest imaginable audience. And in practice this means always operating as if painting and sculpture were a dimension of popular culture.” He explained that when we see artists “whose careers are barely a decade old dominating the auction rooms, with their work selling for millions of dollars, we are being told that a widespread consensus can crystallize in a moment—and this is a pop culture idea.”

Cotter and his ilk were not really exhibiting much insight, as one of the the easiest things in the world to predict is that an overinflated bubble will eventually burst. Further, these critics didn’t really offer many useful thoughts in the midst of the market, as they seemed to prefer instead simply to kvetch and complain about the situation, revealing the sour grapes they were tasting from their loss of cultural import in the face of the market boom. Nor is Cotter particularly unique in suggesting that arts folk will get back to simple brass tacks after the dust has settled (I did the same here and here; it’s a pretty easy call).

Still, as you fans of failure know, such tawdry thoughts do make for pretty good reading…

Yesterday I posted, on the slowly failing group arts blog The Thousandth Word, a review called “Falling Man.” It’s about four recent documentary films that deal, somewhat indirectly, with the subject of artistic failure (though one of the films, “Man on Wire,” is actually, much to its own failure, about artistic success).

Here’s an excerpt from my review:

It would be easy to find oneself depressed after seeing all of this thwarted ambition and all of these shattered dreams. But I actually love these three films, mainly because they are real. They reveal personal stories that gibe with what we all see experience every day in this unfair world. After all, this is a country in which rich bankers reward themselves billions after extorting money from taxpayers, while good and honest and talented people can’t find decent enough jobs to support their families. These films show the truth: That the vast majority of us will come to the end of our lives having failed, over and over, to achieve our dreams. But then, that’s okay. This story about our inability to achieve our dreams is a beautiful, if sad, part of the human condition.

Have Paintbrush, Will Travel

A picture is worth more than a thousand words to the Canadian artist Katherine Dolgy Ludwig, who trades her watercolors for lodging at the homes of professors on sabbaticals.

Through the rental matchmaking service SabbaticalHomes.com, Ms. Ludwig has house-sat for academics in New York, London, Los Angeles, Paris, and Wales over the past seven years. Instead of paying them money, she gives them one of her vibrant artworks.

“Hosts can choose any of my paintings,” she says, “but often they’ll pick one I’ve done while living in their home. They say, ‘Wow, that’s my rug,’ or ‘That’s my kitchen in the background,’ or ‘There’s my pet,’ so there’s a personal connection with the painting.”

Ms. Ludwig trained as an architect but switched to painting and taught at the Ontario College of Art & Design. In 2006 she decided to paint full time. That has resulted in a series of fellowships in the United States and Europe, during which she cares for professors’ homes and, occasionally, their pets for weeks or months at a time while she paints and exhibits her artworks.

“It’s a very old tradition for artists to trade their work for necessities,” says Ms. Ludwig, who during one memorable house-sit three years ago “paint jammed” with the jazz musician Ornette Coleman, putting him and his band on canvas while they played on Manhattan’s Lower West Side.

As an artist on the rise, Ms. Ludwig has seen her paintings, bartered and otherwise, appreciate in value over the years.

“One of the first I traded was worth about $2,000 then,” she says. “Today it would be valued around $10,000.”

Hope, that all too scarce commodity of late, made a brief, mild resurgence earlier this month, only to suffer setbacks to late-November fear and panic. (November is just that way, or so I surmise in my latest piece on the Thousandth Word.)

But hope, as we all know, even if it often gets beaten down and left for dead never goes away. (I remarked on this tendency too, in two recent pieces on the local arts, again for the Thousandth Word.)

But you don’t have to take my word about hope. One of my favorite recent arts commentaries—a piece from the Art Newspaper earlier this month called “Tough Times Will Provide Opportunities“—suggests too that hope springs eternal, even in a collapsed economy, even in a bottomed-out market, even in the dismal contemporary art world. “So what’s next? Is the future of the art market that bleak?” the article asks.

No, this will be a market for new opportunities. Major collectors are waiting for prices to come down 30% to 40% from their peak, a correction that was already evident in the latest round of auctions in London in October… Further pressure on prices is expected, and it will take some time before the market has reached equilibrium… Now the question is: which artists will survive the adjustment? We all know what the last crash in 1991 did to hotshot artists such as David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl, Francisco Clemente and Sandro Chia. Their markets took 15 years to recover, and in real terms (adjusted for inflation) are still considerably below their peak, but at least their markets survived… The primary market is also likely to regain the balance of power compared with the auctions. The auction houses have dented their credibility as money-making machines, and would-be sellers are realising that the liquidity is quickly evaporating. In a falling market, the focus will again be directed towards the galleries that have proved their commitment to their artists… In the end, a correction is healthy for the sustainability of the future art market. The interest in art will not disappear, art and artists will not disappear—if anything, a tougher environment will be more conducive to artistic creativity, and hopefully the market will go back to focusing on what constitutes the real value of art, as art history is rarely made in the auction rooms.