Today the New York Times published a feature about “The Cost of Being an Artist”. They asked six “art people” in New York to talk about their various takes on the completely obvious problems of trying to live in New York as an artist right now.
The perspectives of several respondents horrified me, beyond the already lived horrors they address. For instance take Elena Shepard’s headline “For Millennials, its not Practical”. Her point is that creative young people with school debts and high costs of NYC living are instead going into commercial/design sectors as a “practical” financial decision. I would like to point out that nothing about art making is “practical”. In fact, I believe “art” as a category is marked by its profound “uselessness”—and the extent to which we discuss artist’s survival in terms of their work’s “practicality” is the extent to which we have already lost the war.
I’m loath to agree with Paddy Johnson but her piece was the only one that begins to put its finger on a real problem—the way the entire “art industry” is subsidized by free labor and most artist’s impoverished “quality of life”. This speaks to an internalized sickness that has nested itself in the brains of young artists, because it is artists that are allowing this system to perpetuate. It is what Yvonne Rainer meant when she critiqued Abramovic’s gala-dinner at L.A. MOCA by explaining that the young performer’s “desperate voluntarism says something about the generally exploitative conditions of the art world such that people are willing to become victims of a celebrity artist in the hopes of somehow breaking into the show biz themselves. And at sub-minimal wages for the performers, the event verges on economic exploitation and criminality.” And even after this public declaration the show when on, the performers performed as planned—a living death—naked bodies displayed as cadavers for the rich to ogle over canapés.
In my own life, with friends and young artists I admire, I see this same willingness to do curator’s jobs for them with no pay or recognition; creating entertaining “events” that make the institutions look relevant by exploiting our ideas, energies, and personal contacts. And for what?
This is what I was talking about when a few weeks ago I posted a “REMINDER TO ARTISTS: institutions (museums, galleries, magazines) DO NOT justify us, we justify them. SO GET YOUR MIND RIGHT and stop this desperation.”
I’m tired of reading things like the Patti Smith or David Byrne editorials where they talk about how fucked it is to be young in NYC now. Why don’t these icons instead help envision solutions! Use their energy and vision and resources as famous artists to propose ways we can make life in this city not only bearable but vital for artist of all generations?
What I see happening with a lot of my peers is people creating networks of intellectual/financial/and material support for themselves and their friends completely indifferent to institutions. The money from Colin Self’s Clump parties is all put in an envelope and given to a different artist every six months as the “Radical Diva Grant”. No one “gave him permission” to do that. What defines our moment as I see it are these powerful emergent clans forming out of a post-apocalyptic thriller—”art families”—materializing in response to the truly desolate environment of the “contemporary art world” proper.
SO YES, as Paddy Johnson says: museums, venues, magazines, etc, SHOULD PAY ARTIST FOR WHAT THEY DO. But that is just a crass way of saying (in the deeply problematic language of capitalism) that there needs to be more respect and understanding of the lived reality of being an artist—what it means to be an artist publicly and privately—by the organs of “the art industrial complex” that actually only exists because of what artists do.
I’m hoping to bring some of these ideas out further at the Next Time Symposium next week at Envoy Enterprises. Come if you can, but otherwise it will all be live-streamed recorded.
—Contributed by Jarrett Earnest