NOTES FROM THE LAST COLONY
NOTES FROM THE LAST COLONY
“If only we could make this kind of short and extremely simple argument for art. I value art because its existence has had more positive impact than negative in our world. I value art because it helps guide us through life. I value art just cuz. Of course this would all be easier if artists were seen more as working people than wizards who dwell in the mystical.” – Victoria Ward 
…To begin with, it is simply absurd to speak of the ‘art-world’ as though it represents a common truth about anything primary to the production of art. Apart from a world of images that artists depict, it’s a catch-all term coined during the 1960’s to account for the rapid growing number of personalities who began prospering and making news in various arts-related businesses. In other segments of the economy the equivalent is better known as an industry, such as ‘the music industry’ or ‘the fashion industry’. Those personalities included art collectors, art dealers, art critics, philanthropists, art historians, art professors, museum curators, and museum directors, as well as the select artists with whom they were connected. So, to infer that any current problem within the art industry is unique to an isolated segment of the industry, such as ” it’s all about the art market”, “it’s all about the state of art criticism”…”the incorporation of culture by institutions”, “the power of the collector class”, “the relevance of arts education”, “gender and race”, “politics”,” technology”, “the artist as celebrity entrepreneur”, etc. is mostly a failure to recognize where this trail of misleading priorities begins. Art is not generated by the art-world, nor does art engender itself from nature to be extracted like a plant or mineral resource, or is it there to be colonized like a newly discovered continent. Artists make art and the idea that someone is said to be an artist is in no way contingent to the myths and vicissitudes of the “art-world”.
What does that mean “to be an artist “? Does it mean that he or she is a rebel of sorts, unsuited for any other occupation? No. Does it mean that the person has some exceptional talent that will insure their success? No. Does it mean that an artist is a person who is given wider parameters with which to seek their own terms of success? No. Does it mean that the potential artist, like any other career or occupation-seeking individual might possibly also contribute something significant to the growth of a long-term viable example of his or her native community? Perhaps.
What the notion of being an artist does mean is, that unless someone decides they will be ‘self-taught’ or that they have other means of supporting their hobby, they will begin like everyone else training for their chosen career at a college, university, or private institution. And they will most likely enter into a legal contract that places them first and foremost deeply into financial debt.  After completion of a BFA, MFA, or PhD. providing they can afford it or secure additional loans, they will begin to look for work to pay those loans.  While they were training to become artists the student artist will have been given skills and techniques that would supposedly prepare them to earn a living and begin repaying the debt they incurred. On rare occasions the art student might have encountered a solitary course of study on the business of art or how best to approach the art industry. More often, and more informally, the typical art student will be exposed to the language of art academia also known as ‘art speak’ (or International Art English )  the common language of critiques and subsequent self-promotion and grant writing. It should be noted that those from whom the student receives advice on the business of art or the vagaries of the market for art are mostly professional academics with little expert knowledge of business or market economics. What the artist student will never have received is the suggestion that they may have entered a fool’s errand – that they will spend  more money in the course of their career as an artist than they could ever hope to earn. Nevertheless art students are encouraged daily to continue to invest in this false assumption not to theirs but to the benefit of art galleries, art dealers, art consultants, arts administrators, arts non-profits organizations, art therapists, arts publications and the whole gamut of arts-related businesses and non-profits, there ostensibly to assist artists, however, dependent on the cheapest labor  infinitely and unquestioningly provided by artists.
The entire art-world economy hinges radically on this thought; only those artists who sacrifice themselves to their work within the premise of the evolving tenets of western modernism and without promise of material gain can ever hope to attain the posterity of a place on a wall of a museum or in art history books. The making of art is, as we’ve been told, “a priesthood” (it doesn’t occur to anyone that a priest is fed, has a roof over his head, and collect baskets of money every Sunday…). We are led to believe that the making of true art cannot be predicated on the promise of any return value except at which point (the artist is likely deceased) the artwork is assigned a market value by someone other than the artist based on comparative aesthetic and cultural considerations by yet another non-artist. One may argue that this systematically prevents artists from inflating their own worth, and, in fact, it does. Any discussion of the value of art invariably leads either to the unbelievable dollar amount recently paid for a painting at auction (giving the impression that it is the artist who profits) – or to the social benefits of having art in public places, arts in education, or as some manner of economic stimulus to the community – all at the behest of philanthropists, non-profits, educators and wealthy donors – while artists are left to pointing fingers amongst themselves about which of them has sold out and who is playing the system.
“As defined by Adam Smith, the laws of supply and demand are still a basic framework for understanding how the economic system works. According to Smith’s explanation there is no “supply” of artworks. Looked at from the perspective of this simplified lesson in economics we can see a possible explanation for the peculiar state of the contemporary art world today: The impossible-to-value artwork becomes the object of impossible value.”
–Nicolaus Schafhausen, director/Direktor Kunsthalle Wien http://conversations.e-flux.com/t/kunsthalle-wien-curatorial-ethics-conference-livestream-and-coverage/1349/3 
But the valuation of artworks isn’t an abstraction despite its limitless supply. There are accumulated man-hours to be accounted for. There are resources that must be acquired and renewed when they become depleted. There are acquired skill sets, the cost of materials, rental space for manufacture and storage, delivery, those categories that in any normal professional activity would be seen as overhead but as an artist’s responsibility is somehow unaccounted for.
“(Imagine the immediate financial consequences  if, even for just one month, no artist purchased art supplies, read online art blog or cultural journals, visited museums, paid fees for lectures or workshops, fabricated somebody’s project, installed a museum exhibition, handled a shipment of paintings, taught an adjunct art class, or even mentioned the word “art.”)” – Gregory Sholette
Of course we’re assuming that the typical artist is only committed to their art and if that doesn’t provide the income to cover costs, what does? There are grants to be had, but in all but a few cases that requires that the artist has already acquired a history of success as determined by likes of the very institutions that are providing those grants – or, by the galleries which in turn looks to the institutions those artist are applying for grants from as a factor in choosing their stable of artists.
To receive a grant it helps to be connected to a college or university or private school in more ways than one. But now we are back to the original source of the problem. With a degree or two in hand the debt-ridden art student has limited alternatives (1) to provide an income for themselves (2) to provide for the continuation of their work (3) to repay the debt. The obvious choices are to begin teaching art as a part-time adjunct professor – a dismal prospect  – or to find work to which he or she is qualified in an arts-related field, bearing in mind that most of those positions will pay little more than a volunteer receives working for a non-profit organization.
That so many art professors and those with arts-related incomes aren’t always aware of the stark realities of a life devoted strictly to the artist profession isn’t their fault – they’re teachers and their curriculums focus on the tools, materials and theory of art, not economics. As Educators, artist academics generally declare teaching as their occupation and primary source of income and often file their art-related expenditures as in income loss or deduction to the IRS. Their academic standing and eligibility for tenure requires that they continue to make art and exhibit as often as possible and that counts as an occupational expense. A full-time artist may deduct similar expenses as a small-business owner but is limited to how often he or she can file at a loss and still qualify as a small business. (I don’t have the numbers and I don’t know if they’ve ever been compiled but my hunch is that the vast majority of art shown in commercial galleries is by artist/educators. While that may not be significant in itself it does give a hint towards the dwindling numbers of artists who are not somehow dependent on colleges and universities to fund their creative work.)
Looking at the larger picture we see that modern culture (and to some extent the complete history of western culture) proposes an unspoken dichotomy as it pertains to artists; art is either an occupation that produces goods and services for which the artist receives nominal compensation as with other workers in other occupations, or, that art is the singular byproduct of independent individuals for which compensation could be viewed as a liability to its veracity and the independent nature from which it manifests – the accidental or naive genius on the verge of discovery. Art is either a career or a vocation, it cannot be both:
“The seamless screen of bohemian oratory maintained by artists of the New York School in the 1950’s masked the fact that with them originated today’s model of art as a career to be manufactured, in opposition to the older model of it as a vocation to be followed.” Bradford R. Collins, “Life Magazine and The Abstract Expressionists”- The Art Bulletin, Vol. 73, No. 2, Jun., 1991, p. 295.
But like all false dichotomies the premises are misleading; before artists began visibly signing their work art wasn’t a ‘calling’ or a ‘vocation’ where acolytes willingly enter a life of bare necessity in search of some abstract accomplishment. It was a trade, a craft, a career, a means of livelihood, work for which one negotiated somewhat standard compensation depending on their proven skill. But that leaves a serious problem when it comes to distinguishing ‘art’ from mere production. The solution: to inflate the value of art to the degree it becomes more important economically and socially than the artists who produce it. Whether art is defined as an object or an act, the primary foundation on which to establish art as a commodity, a business, or an institution is precisely to devalue the artist practitioner in favor of both blanket social theory and the precious object of posterity. What purpose this false dichotomy serves today is to mask the real source of a multibillion dollar industry while endlessly mythologizing  its own noble aims.
As with those who once argued the value of sugar and cotton to the southern economy, the very production of which could not exist without the benefit of slave labor, the purpose this dichotomy serves between art as art as industry and art as social meditation is to force any dialogue about the value of art and culture from fact to supposition, from substance to speculation; literally. Perhaps the true value of art is no more than the value of honest and equitable labor, tenacity and qualified skill of artists? At this present day and age what thought could be more radical, more truthful, more inspiring?