Saturday, July 12, 2014

money (that's what I want)

You're probably not old enough to remember this song, but it was recorded by a bunch of people, including the Beatles. It came to mind the other day because there's been a lot of talk about how art has become commodified and some young artists are chasing after sales at the expense of developing their work. Art is big business now, and big collectors are chasing after the next big thing.

Of course this isn't a new phenomenon. Jean-Michel Basquiat was the poster boy (pun somewhat intended) for a young brilliant artist who cranked out work and flamed out early, dying before the age of 30, and his works command enormous prices now, into the millions. There's a young artist named Oscar Murillo who is being called the next Basquiat, as collectors line up to buy his work.

Anyway, the point of this post is to consider how this climate of money and sales is impacting the way artists approach their art practice. I'm not in the thick of it- I know what I do, and sales are great, and allow me to have a nice studio and pay for my supplies, but I don't make work for the reason of selling it. If I did, I'd be back doing illustrations for Lord & Taylor. It's stultifying to have to think of whether work is acceptable to the market. You have to have the freedom to develop as an artist, go down unknown avenues, fail miserably and throw things away (or not, saving them for a more objective look much later,) follow your curiosity and interests. I feel this way: art is a job and serious attention must be paid, time must be spent. It's frustrating and joyful and I'm fortunate to be able to do it. 

The other day a friend of mine, Edward Winklemann, wrote a post on his most excellent blog about how he, as a gallerist and lover of art, was dismayed at the way some artists pursue artmaking solely to make money and become famous, with a sense of entitlement and an attitude of insincerity and even dishonesty. Since I teach (actually make that past tense, as I'm letting go of my adjunct position for now) I notice that students do have a very skewed idea of what it takes to have an art career. If they were at schools in New York fame and fortune would be even more tantalizing. 

Here's a quote from Edward's post:

Increasingly I'm reading online this or that artist's opinion that cheating the system or scheming within the system to get ahead, through the creation/promotion/sale of their art is not only OK with them, but their due, because of how difficult they feel their life has been.

Edward feels, as I do, that art has a value in itself that is outside the market system, and perhaps it's with a bit of wishful thinking, feels that artists themselves should at least adhere to an ethical code that befits an individual who is creating beauty and/or thought-provoking works, as opposed to a Wall Street person, for example. (Insert dose of cynicism here about Wall Street types, that is probably unwarranted.)

Artists should emerge from their thorough explorations in looking/seeing and in particular their education in the humanities as, well, better humans. In my experience, most do. But specifically, within my concept of the role of art as a form of religion, artists are the leaders...the perceptive ones able to see and communicate sincerely with the rest of us the more important or at least interesting aspects of what it means to be a human here and now. That position comes with certain responsibilities, though. If they're not at least attempting to be good humans (and that is incompatible with willingly scheming or cheating others), then they're just hucksters demanding attention for wholly narcissistic reasons. 

There's a lot more to his post and I don't want to misrepresent what his thoughts are. He's looking to art for spiritual sustenance. It made me think about one particular thing I always told my students: don't put anything out there in the world unless it's the very best you can do. The world has enough garbage as it is. Should we as artists be held to a higher standard? It seems to me some humility and gratitude is appropriate.