Art, work, and artwork

Pub date December 21, 2009
SectionVisual Art

VISUAL ART The global financial crisis continues to impoverish and displace those within reach of its residual tremors. Yet in the art realm, there have been signs of hope. Recent fairs — Frieze Art Fair in October and Art Basel Miami Beach earlier this month — brought reports of strong sales and optimism within the distressed economy. So why are artists everywhere worried about their futures, and more critically, panicking about their present tenses? The squeeze has to do with the work in artwork. More often than not, artists aren’t getting paid for their work.

The general prosperity of the current art market does not reflect the financial success of most artists — it just means that artworks are selling, and many of those works are by artists who are already established or dead. The other artists, the worried ones, the ones scraping by on paint chips and uncreative, menial part-time jobs and unpaid internship after unpaid internship, are starting to organize. And talk. Worried as well, I recently attended two events, one in New York and the other in Oakland, that call for a shift of terrain in art/work.

The New York event, titled, “What Is the Good of Work?” — the second in a four-part series organized by Goethe-Institut New York — was more abstract in its approach, seeking to redefine work through film and literature. For instance, when British novelist Tom McCarthy roused Herman Melville’s character Bartleby in order to express the potentials of “recess” in a “recession” and promote a politics of pause as escapist rather than reactionary, an audience member inquired: “But how can this be implemented in real life?” Here, McCarthy went quiet. The rest of the panel, too, including the nihilist philosopher Simon Critchley, only seemed capable of speculating on a new function of work, as opposed to how this new work would, well, work.

Comparatively, the Oakland event was more concerned with brass tacks. Organized by Sight School, an artist-run storefront newly opened in November, its aim “to create dialogue around new modes of living and being in the world in order to reveal connections between art and life” was actually visualized.

The evening began with local artists and writers reading primarily from a newspaper compiled by the Chicago-based collective Temporary Services. In it, more than 40 artists and writers pinpoint problematic issues and propose a way out. The front page introduction succinctly outlines its motivations:

We can see how the collapse of the economy is affecting everyone. Something must be done. Let’s talk. No, it can’t wait. Things are bad. We have to work things out. We can only do it together. What do we know? What have others tried? What is possible? How do we talk about it? What are the wildest possibilities? What are the pragmatic steps? What can you do? What can we do?



The urgency of this situation was emphasized most strongly by Julian Myers, an assistant professor of curatorial practice at California College of the Arts. He fervently read the group Research and Destroy’s “Communiqué from an Absent Future: On the Terminus of Student Life,” which was drafted in response to the current University of California crises. Myers conveyed the text’s uncomfortably accurate detail of a bankrupt future not just for students, but anyone not already financially secure. The text incensed everyone in the room, as they realized the gravity of student debts and of academia as a new factory — a neverending rabbit hole of false security.

The last reader, Natasha Wheat, decided not to read at all; rather, she turned to the audience and asked, “What does a just art economy looks like?” Immediately, people chimed in. The space turned into a sauna of conjectures, arguments, personal anecdotes, and pleas. A variety of ideas and subjects — everything from emphasizing the importance of guilds and collectives to providing braces for children — were bandied about. These rants often lacked direction. Many were fueled by emotion and gave way to incomprehensible babble about new economies without realizing the previous paths paved by Marx, Adam Smith, and Keynes. But the passion, heretofore dormant, was inspiring.

Interestingly, the only thing missing from all the cries of desperation was a focus on artwork itself. In this small storefront room, everyone — artists, writers, curators, historians, and spectators — was hyper-aware about the lack of funding. But ironically, art had gone missing as well. Not many will disagree with the assertion that workers deserve payment for their labor, but what if their work blows? If I actively paint a canvas for eight hours a day, and no one finds it of value, why should I get paid? If money were a given, we’d all be doodling for dollars.

Zachary Royer Scholz, one of the readers and most intelligent contributors to the discussions, ended the event with a similar concern. He shifted the blame away from the economy and back toward the art. “Canada has strong government and institutional funding for its artists, but look at its art … it sucks!” Just then, a man on the opposite side of the room descended on Scholz, barking in protest. His ass-length dreads swung in tandem with his raised fists. It looked like a fight might break out, but the affront turned out to be performative — the room was filled with artists, after all.

I don’t find it coincidental that Dave Hickey’s The Invisible Dragon: Essays On Beauty (University of Chicago Press, 152 pages, $22) stirred from its coma this year. Its polemics could not be revived at a better time. First released in 1993, the book has been out of print for several years. Hickey originally pulled the plug because the “intensity and icy aggression” of The Invisible Dragon’s provocation was too great. In other words, people were pissed because Hickey insisted on the importance of art’s beauty.

In the collection’s first essay, “Enter The Dragon: On the Vernacular of Beauty,” Hickey argues that beauty has been replaced by meaning, and laments the art market baton swap from art dealers to institutions. “The institution’s curators hold a public trust,” Hickey writes. “They must look attentively and genuinely care about what artists mean, and what this meaning means in a public context — and, therefore, almost of necessity, they must distrust appearances.”

The problem, according to Hickey, parallels the one in Michel Foucault’s 1975’s Discipline and Punish, wherein punishment shifts from the external, via physical torture as public spectacle, to the internal — torture of the soul and mind via incarceration and criminal psychiatry. In effect, it’s a shift of gaze and surveillance: we now internalize this gaze and monitor ourselves.

But what does this have to do with art? Art limited to meaning loses its subversive potential; it gets too worried and existential. By contrast, allowing art to express itself through appearances also allows it to find new folds within an otherwise predetermined economy of signs — an economy controlled exclusively by arts institutions.

I imagine if Hickey had been in that room that evening, he would have stood up early on to demand that everyone stop acting like economists: You’re artists, dammit. You’re not here to fix the economy, you’re here to create things. Now go out and make shit — but for Christ’s sake, make it beautiful. *;