3 misconceptions about the making of art

Yesterday, I set out to sweep away the funding models for the artistic life that have been prevalant, let’s say, from around WWII up to the present. If an individual wanted to lead a creative life and she was coming of age in the post-war period, she was presented with three options. One was Bohemia: cheap rent, second jobs, and coffee culture. I called this option “self-bifurcation.” In his muscular and dazzling “whither has gone?” book, The Last Intellectuals, Russell Jacoby bemoans the loss of Bohemia in the aftermath of WWII. Then he throws up his hands.

The second option was to find a patron. In one sense, patronage has not died. Just the other day I was looking, with saucer eyes, at the BAM’s “Who’s who?” of private donors, endowments, and corporate sponsors. I’m not sure, however, that the BAM’s success proves that the rest of us who do not occupy the “inner circles” can base our hopes on finding present-day Medicis to fund the construction of our 20 foot installations. Moreover, the university is not hiring artists and creative types at the clip it once was. Lest you think I’m mistaken, you’d do well to peruse the fine print: most writers, architects, and designers ostensibly attached to universities are working in the basements and cellars. They are adjuncts, and adjuncting is the university’s clever version of factory farming. (Believe me: I’ve been there. The adjunct office that part-timers shared doubled as a “farm fresh,” “cage-free” chicken coop.)

The final option is to become a shameless self-promoter. You needn’t be an artist with a capacious imagination to see that, in the long term, this approach is poison to the soul and treacle for one’s art.

Following these approaches will lead us to cul-de-sacs, and playing one against the other is a fool’s game. Yesterday, I asked, “Now what?” Before we can hope to go forward, we must first go back. In this case, back to the assumptions that underlie our understanding of the place of art in the modern world.

1. Art as Everyday Amateurism. Common sense says that art is something that anyone can do. Just give him a camera and a ticket to Venice and let him clickety-click to his heart’s content. When you’re in Venice, you see Japanese tourists taking this view of art to heart. St. Mark’s Square is full of pigeons and cameras stapled to foreheads. But is art really the kind of activity whose aim is to capture a moment unlived, half-lived, or glossed over? Is its aim truly to grab hold of and arrest a time unexperienced? In everyday amateurism, it appears that we are just passing through.

2. Art as Mere Adornment. On this conception, art frames or beautifies useful content without partaking of that content. Science papers are occasionally adorned with quotes from Pope, but nowhere does Pope come in for discussion during the results. Or picturesque landscapes line offices even though they are removed from the spreadsheets pulled up on our laptops. Art does not help us to get at the truth or to re-make the world according t our will. The role of art, rather, is to lighten moods, makes things nice.

Consider that neither conception 1.) nor conception 2.) can lead to money regularly passing hands between non-artist and artist. For 1.) says that anyone can do it, so in the world would one pay for it? The “logical conclusion” is that art is free and Craigslist is the god of free things. Somewhat differently, 2.) cheapens art, devaluing it to a cheap, mass producible commodity. You want Picasso on your coffee mug or a pretty picture of the Grand Canyon overlooking your breakfast nook. Maybe you purchase a watercolor from a street artist for $15. The frame you later purchased set you back $10. Art as mere adornment entails art as sentimentality.

It follows that no modest livings can be made provided that 1.) and 2.) hold sway over our collective imaginations.

3. Art as Something Special, the Artist as Someone Special. On this conception, the appropriate home for art is the artist’s studio, the private gallery, the private collection, or the public gallery. This rendering of the artist as genius, a line of thought that can be traced back to Romanticism, is problematic not least because it is a “winner take all” view of the artistic endeavor. The “zero sum game” is that if John ‘makes it’ as an artist, he is set for life. But in order for John to make it, every other artist must fail to gain public recognition or financial security. For every Picasso, a 1000 corpses. For all the abundance, such immense scarcity.

I leave aside for the time being the greater philosophical stakes raised by the conception of the artist as a special person. I mean, for starters, whether art is the kind of activity whose native dwelling is the gallery. An alien who surveyed the history of art would find this myopic to say the least.

Tomorrow, I wish to consider what possibilities for making a modest but dignified living are available to artists once they overcome these modern misconceptions. (A philosopher’s gift to artists?) I will be urging that art is an activity that is good for such-and-such. My hope is that this “good for such-and-such” language will also imply that it is something that justifiably ought to be properly supported, honored, and loved.

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