I went to a holiday market over the weekend. I had a wonderful time, talking with friends, seeing their new work, purchasing a few items, but the market itself has stuck with me, has left me feeling uncomfortable, cold, and alone instead of gathered with a community of makers, together in a world we shape.
It is easy to think of the art market as a painting that sells for hundreds of millions of dollars, blue chip galleries, and the spread of art fairs. The reality for most people in the creative economy is, of course, far more mundane and precarious. The objects we see and buy at markets are supplemented by the work in and out of the creative economy that most artists must do – teaching, curating, arts administration, waiting tables. The proliferation of markets – seasonal markets, local business Saturday, the internet – has increased our ability to support artists and live with the unique items they produce. I love being able to buy beautiful objects from the people who have made them, yet this readiness, this instantaneous access to the local, unique object is exactly where my uneasiness lies.
The hand-made, bespoke, curated life has, not surprisingly, been turned into marketing opportunities for corporations who can sell them back to us conveniently, at the tip of our fingers. They show us a world full of just the right lamp or rug or coaster or pitcher or plant arrangement; they shape the visual culture we cannot escape in subway ads, internet banners, and instagram feeds; they give us a world full of things to be consumed. The unique, curated life masks middle class consumption, an artistic patina that coats the same marketplace that has driven us to extract oil from the ground at ever-expanding rates, lay now-abandoned railroad tracks across the globe, and develop ships and exploitative supply chains that make it easier to manufacture a shoe halfway around the world from its wearer.
By no means am I suggesting we should not support local artists, artists we know and whose work we love. We should buy their plates and prints and sweaters. We should attend their performances and readings. We must also recognize that buying one of their works is not enough to sustain them and may in fact perpetuate a cycle of subsistence. We all know artists who make a living, but how many artists do we know who are thriving? The solution must go beyond shopping locally. Capitalism’s tools cannot dismantle the house it has so successfully and seamlessly built.
How can we support all of the artists, farmers, and dancers we know beyond giving them money for goods and services? How can we shape a world more fully equal and just? We can begin by acknowledging and honoring the many types of support we all need – a friend holding our baby, a neighbor lending us a tool, a ride to the grocery store. We can recognize that, although we live within it, capitalism does not shape or underlie all of the many types of support we give and receive. We may already have the tools to rebuild an entirely new way of seeing and living in the world. We may not yet be able to topple the stalls in the market, but perhaps we can fashion a raft in the sea of consumption that threatens to drown us all.
Just over 6 months ago, after 8 years of being a practicing contemporary artist, I graduated with my MFA. Though I knew my post graduation time would be full of unexpected ups and downs, and the struggle would be trying, I still had little idea of what it be like. Here I am with my degree, job hunting, making work and participating in the arts community like I knew I would, but there were a lot of things I was unprepared for. One of those things is just how shocking, depressing, uplifting, relieving, trying, exciting, lost, hopeful, and full of opportunity it would all feel. I know Iâ€™m doing well and trying as hard as I can, but itâ€™s still hard to keep afloat.
So I think what Iâ€™m writing about is something that is not openly talked about. How when grad school is over, even though you get a lot out of the experience, somehow you’re also hitting the reset button and starting the climb all over gain. Itâ€™s a love/hate experience. I was even hesitant to write about it because maybe if I admitted it hasnâ€™t been that great it will reflect poorly on me. But I was also lucky to have mentors to talk to who know there are many like me, struggling to get by in a depressed economy where the rules just arenâ€™t the same as they used to be. It seems like every job is something I am not experience enough for, or too experienced for, Its like being stuck on a bridge in a traffic jam. Iâ€™m going to a place I canâ€™t get to, leaving a place I canâ€™t go back to and the bridge is packed with cars all going the same way.
Many in our modern era look at the pursuitÂ of art practices as selfish, and worthless endeavors. If you went through college as an art major, youâ€™ve already had to face it over and over. The same friends and family that encouraged you to be creative, expressive and a follower of the obscure thing called â€œyour dreams,â€ then cringe when you tell them you are an art major. You are told that you better make a back up plan, and youâ€™ll never make a living as an artist. Yet I canâ€™t help but wonder, perhaps if we felt more supportive of the arts there would be more support there. The student studying to be an entrepreneur is often told what a brave contributor they are while the artist students are often told what a mistake they are making. To get through it, no matter who you are, you had to face discouragement from friends, family, teachers, councilors, bosses, the government, and in general the world is just not invested in you. Yet despite continuous discouragement for this hugely impactful and important cultural force we call art, you became an artist.
Part of the reason this post-school transition becomes such a struggle is the ever-present stigma of a successful artist. What exactly is the benchmark for being successful as an artist? Others often remind me that the probability of becoming a famous artist is very low. I respond by saying I never want to be a famous artist; I want to be renowned in the art world for what I do in a way where my practice is accepted but not famous. On some level my disinterest in fame has to do with a paradox that affects an artists once they rise to a certain level of fame.
Once in my undergrad while taking an honors art class with Haim Steinbach we were critiquing work and he said we needed to keep experimenting and not get stuck in one way of making. He explained that we were lucky, because he was now what he called a â€œdead artistâ€ and we were not. As he was aÂ famous and active artist, at first this first seemed like an impossible thing to say. He explained that once your artwork is found, the public/art market begins to push you towards remaking that one piece you became famous for. That even when you want to explore different avenues, itâ€™s very difficult as a famous artist to get shows, funding or acceptance if you arenâ€™t in some way reproducing the work you have become known for. And this is the moment, he explained, when you become a â€œdead artistâ€. By achieving the fame his work became constrained to itâ€™s own commodification, killing his practice and in turn his art.
So what do we do when trying to forge our own way and build our careers after school? There are answers out there if you keep talking about it, and I am thankful for those out there who will discuss this openly. Understanding it takes time. You really are beginning again, but know that you are better off than where you began before. Plant seeds everywhere. You never know what is going to sprout and where it will lead. Say yes to everything you can, as you never know where it will go. Keep yourself humble, youâ€™re not too good for any job. Keep yourself proud, no job you take is a shame to have as long as you are keeping your practice up. Keep moving forward every day. Make plans, improvements and goals. Know you are not alone and you are doing the right thing. And how do you measure your success? Iâ€™ve got to say when I take everything into account, knowing of course that success is a very personal reflection, I do think there is a clear way to know if you are a successful artist. That after all the pressure, aversions, and struggles you still keep making art. No matter how your practice changes, or where you are, or what job you have, or how stable you are financially, or wherever your life may lead: being a successful artist has nothing to do with that, but rather with you staying an artist. The continuation andÂ advancement of your artwork and practice itself is the mark of a truly successful artist.
Special thanks for thier support and inspriation: Charles Rice, Mark Jeffery, Bradley Litwin and HaimÂ Steinbach
October 16, 2013 · Print This Article
The Art Market is inflating out of control, making all but the wealthiest few cry foul. Like it or not, this is affecting the way contemporary art is viewed and thought about. Meanwhile, Jeff Koons continues to be the perfect Poster Boy for the inflation, and it just so happens he has work depicting the nothingness inside the bubble. Simultaneously, Banksy goes for a stroll in New York’s neighborhoods proposing a different model. Is this the beginning of the end of the glutonous market? Or is this merely a long beginning?
Donâ€™t make the mistake of trying to analyze the Jeff Koons album cover work for Lady Gaga as if it were art. Think of it instead as a publicity stunt to drum up hype for his upcoming retrospective at the Whitney this summer. On the day the album cover was released, mtv.com ran a story with the headline: â€œLady Gaga is Jeff Koonsâ€™ Biggest Fan…But Who is He?â€ This collage of leftover studio remnants and a Botticelli print gets him access to a generation of people who are not likely looking at a lot of contemporary art, beefing up his celebrity status which he craves, at the same time adding to ticket sales. This, and the animosity from art enthusiasts will help make his retrospective THE BEST EVER!! Just a couple weeks before the Lady Garbage cover, T magazine – the glossy pulp supplement in the NY Times – had a stereotypically vapid conversation with the artist about his recent commission from Dom Perignon to made a limited edition DNA – shaped champagne bottle. Low end and high end commodity containers from olâ€™ Koonie Balloonie. Not too different from anything he has done in the past, but the labeling becomes ever more irksome. Consider his output for the last decade, where most of his work is sold before its finished, and may only show at auction instead of a gallery or museum. Not that this is such a terrible thing. What has basically become a high end boutique practice is frustrating mostly because it is helping fuel the glut of the art market, and then regurgitated into the art world as important to the production and dissemination of art, to negative affect. As long as we wallow in the crystal palaces of Koons, Hirst and Murakami, weâ€™ll think that art is as uninspired as Gormley, Marden and Â Whiteread.
Koons is in this rare position of being accessible to everyone but only collectable to a small handful of the richest in the world. As Carl Swanson recently stated in Vulture: â€œKoons can be the art worldâ€™s great populist artisan, even as he operates as its most exclusive salesman.â€ Â Everything about the work is right there, so thereâ€™s nothing to get. It is perfection and simplicity, the kind of thing that mocks you for looking too hard at it. Since critics are trained to look hard at things, they tend to hate Koons. And its boring to write about art just by describing what it looks like, so people tend to write about his career, his collectors, his record breaking prices at the market, his studio and the process of making his work. This only helps to build a persona around the artist, giving him the superstar flair that these major collectors are after. (And with this weekâ€™s art fair, Londonâ€™s Frieze officially bigger and more bloated than ever, superstars have never been more in vogue.)
Both interesting and frustrating is how Jeff Koonsâ€™ rise to the art commodity machine that he is may have helped shape the way the art market is an increasingly insiders game of fewer and fewer players more knowledgable about trading commodities than how to tell good work from bad. And with the auction prices soaring, the big named galleries just keep getting bigger in a kind of go-for-broke mentality* (not breaking them, just the artists they rep, in less of a financial type of broke and more of an artistic quality and integrity type.)
[*for a throughly depressing take on this, see Jerry Saltzâ€™s article on Vulture this week.]
At the same time all the grumbling about Koons’ latest fart hit the web, Banksy has been doing a residency in NYC, creating work in the city in his typical fashion – covert and unannounced – the opposite of how youâ€™re supposed to make art. While seemingly on the other side of the art world, there are a lot of similarities between the two artists. Maybe Banksy isnâ€™t able to sell his graffiti work for 33 mil, but he is still operating inside the art market, selling regularly and at high prices. Lately, his work is often either garishly covered by a piece of plexiglass bolted to the wall he painted it on or is removed and sold, either way being seenÂ by an enterprising public as separate from graffiti art and rebornÂ as high art/commodity. His work is no stranger toÂ auctions, museum and gallery shows, while being loved by mainstream society. His imagery is understood at first look, you donâ€™t need to read into it, and if you are, then you probably donâ€™t get it. Also like Koons, art critics hate writing about Banksy, saying there isnâ€™t enough to write about, because it is too surface and he isnâ€™t playing the game. But this game is being co opted by the wealthiest of collectors who have realized there is a market that wonâ€™t burst and canâ€™t crash, so theyâ€™ve taken advantage of it. Buying a Koons gets you a ticket into Â a very exclusive club. Buying the Banksy at auction though, means that you probably donâ€™t get it, because his work is to be freely viewed and is mocking the very lopsided system of capitalism that allowed you to buy it at auction in the first place. Getting it, though, is no longer important. Its having it.
As his position in the art world becomes more clear, Banksy’s art frequently criticizes the market, and the latest example of this was a street sale of many of his iconic works on white canvases for $60 on the sidewalks of NYC. The work and the saleÂ later appeared on his website, which is his way of providing provenance. These single color spray painted politically charged images lost all meaning shoved within the borders of these small store bought canvases, sold on the street among vendors hocking watercolors and prints of impressionist styled paintings. Subverted now to talk about the politics of class, taste and accessibility in a market that is more often hurting artists and keeping way too many people out of collecting art. It stifles artistic creativity to the point where every idea is either a recombination of greatest hits by the artist or an experiment to see how much money can prop up a bad idea. Artists start to flounder when they should be thriving. Shows are created for the specific tastes of the market and of a few clientele. Everything becomes dross and it feels like you are wading through a lake of effervescent puke whenever you go to a big exhibition, and anymore, theyâ€™re all big. ‘Cause if not, they may as well not happen at all. More and more, it sucks harder and harder to be a practicing artist in this climate. Unless, of course, youâ€™re Jeff Koons.