The Artist Statement
Once and for all, let’s finally dispense with the erroneous notion that an artist is a person of the bourgeois entrepreneur business-class engaged in a continuous exhibit schedule, concerned primarily with sales, critical reviews, receives numerous grants and wins awards – at the same time dedicated in servitude with none or the minimum of guaranteed compensation to those persons and institutions of greater power and wealth.
These have nothing to do with making art or the purpose of being an artist. Though such notions are widely accepted, they are also more precisely akin to the hegemonic academic practices of 18th and 19th c. America, France, England and Germany that so many of the artists we now admire for their modernist and progressive foresight stridently abhorred, boycotted and rejected. One only has to read the responses throughout history of so many artists to the attempts at manipulation and competition perpetrated upon them. Accolades and awards are not art, nor do an artist make.
While many current name-artists presumably display their political direction as liberal or progressive, their activity within the predominant art-market reveals instead highly conservative, capitalist and self-serving intent. There are few alternative models; the art schools offer none. Neo-classical idealism of the 19th c. is replaced in the 21st c. with the neoliberal dogma of the art institution and otherwise nothing has progressed. Where non-artist administrative and curatorial professionals are employed to define the bare parameters of art and culture no differently than the ministers and courts of King Louis XIV or to the stifling prescriptions of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, now exhibitions of contemporary artists have replaced the official Salon and token grants are awarded to replace shiny medals and useless titles. We produce generation after generation trained sycophants as artists in name only.
Yet here we are well into the 21st c. and no one is even remotely aware that the modern Art Museum and the Arts Commission are as irrelevant to art and artists as the 18th and 19th c. Académie was at the turn of the 20th c.
Even if the most current trend in arts grants and exhibition proposals, ‘Art as social commentary’ proves to be no more than that, another short-lived art-world trend, at least it will have closed the coffin door on subsequent reactionary isms. And while art still suffers from the stigma of every other ism prior to it, namely individualism, or the celebrity status of its proponents, the move towards content with tangible, common and relevant cultural origins – and away from the ridiculous, occult formalism and its subsequent reactionary response and resurgence that dominated 20th c. art practice, is likely the final turning point at least in this century.
The real artist is not anointed by any such officialdom or consensus and pandering to the like will be seen for the curse it is and the equivalent of no other innate or meaningful talent whatsoever beyond that relevant to sales promotion or membership in the circus.
What is relevant to the highest degree in taking the title of artist isn’t the production of objects, the proposal of projects or the participation in performances and events – but the active awareness that any bona-fide, long-term collective culture and our role in its preservation against the contaminating effects of commercial exploitation – as with our disappearing natural environment – is, in fact, vitally more critical to sustenance of the quality of human life than petty claims to the myth of evolutionary aesthetic progression or temporal politics.
In 1964, the Danish artist, Asger Jorn, co-founder of the CoBrA movement and member of the Situationist Group was awarded a Guggenheim Award including a generous cash prize, by an international jury assembled by art critic, Lawrence Alloway. The following day Jorn sent this telegram to the president of the Guggenheim, Harry F. Guggenheim :
GO TO HELL BASTARD—STOP—REFUSE PRIZE—STOP—NEVER ASKED FOR IT—STOP—AGAINST ALL DECENCY MIX ARTIST AGAINST HIS WILL IN YOUR PUBLICITY—STOP—I WANT PUBLIC CONFIRMATION NOT TO HAVE PARTICIPATED IN YOUR RIDICULOUS GAME.
That telegram, mostly ignored by the art establishment, and which I personally view as one of the most important documents of 20th century art, signals for the first time in centuries the right of artists to free themselves of the unsolicited opinions and their success or failure as defined by a selection process by any other than their peers. What followed shortly thereafter was a resurgence of this ideal and the formation of groups that advocated for the expansion of artist’s rights; in 1969, the Art Workers’ Coalition, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, The Guerrilla Art Action Group, The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer And Sale Agreement in 1971, the Boston Visual Artists’ Union and the International Wages for Housework Campaign in 1972; the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act in 1974, The Second American Artists Congress in 1975 among others. Most recent examples of advocacy for artists include the founding of Working Artists And The Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) in 2008 and in November 2017 four young women nominated for Germany’s preeminent art prize, the Preis der Nationalgalerie, refused the awards (as Jorn did in 1964) and published their statement denouncing the prize’s emphasis on their gender, nationalities, sponsors—and the lack of artist fees.
– Bill Roseberry 2018.
For Artists; a Primer of Poverty and Power.
Advocating for fair and tangible compensation for artist’s time and labor isn’t the goal in and of itself, but the first step in empowering artists and artist communities. Our goal isn’t to secure the means to subsist within the limited resources of the non-profit sector or from their token awards. Even if non-profits had such resources they haven’t the ability to disburse a living yearly income to artists equitably or for any secure amount in the future. Besides that, non-profits were meant to serve the neediest as an adjunct to government social services to the public in exchange for funding from its wealth provided by the public share of taxes – not to enrich individuals or promote institutional dependency.
Wealth isn’t simply the power to purchase goods and services; it’s also the leverage to bargain or negotiate. If a poor person wishes to make a purchase they’re at the mercy of the person who sets the price, whereas when a wealthy person asks the price they’re in a position to bargain towards multiple or future purchases or to make his purchase elsewhere. In fact, the wealthy person needn’t even commit to a purchase to make a bargain offer. They simply make it known that they have the ability to make a larger purchase and advise other wealthy friends to do equally as an investment towards greater profits for themselves and the merchant. This is the power of wealth.
Wealth isn’t just money; it’s also resources such as assets and forces that are the equivalent of wealth. Legal access and political representation are also the equivalent of wealth and power. It’s why corporate entities and the owners spend a significant portion of their wealth on lawyers, lobbyists and donations to political candidates to protect and insure their wealth. When a labor union negotiates a contract with the company as a legal representative of its membership, it does so with the combined wealth as equivalent labor (production) the union holds as promise against the company’s projected profits. (Unions historically bargain first for benefits paid in the long term such as retirement and insurance benefits, safety standards, sick leave and vacation time equal to income and prior to wages the value of which may fluctuate from year to year in the short term.)
While there are a handful of exceptions, by and large artists have been and remain members of the poor or lower middle-class. Apart from occasional sales, whatever dependable income they claim comes largely or exclusively from secondary employment. Whatever wealth artists accumulate is generally spent maintaining themselves or their family’s basic needs. There is no such thing as combined artist’s wealth. One artist’s wealth does not enhance the overall wealth of an artist membership or community. Apart from their secondary occupation artists cannot claim benefits; health costs would be borne directly by the artist from their own pocket. There are no pension funds for artists. As we all know, competition for individual grants and awards are highly competitive as are teaching jobs. Moreover, such jobs, grants and awards pay but a fraction of an average yearly income even when they can be obtained; none of which is ever secure from year to year. Apart from whatever income they can claim, many if not most artists are in debt for their art school education which is a standard prerequisite for all teaching jobs and most other art-related white-collar occupations.
Most artists own no property, at least until well-after the ’emerging’ stage or that isn’t inherited from their or their spouse’s family. Most artists couldn’t afford to be artists without family or spousal support. This is particularly true of women and artists of color. A single artist/mother is almost unheard of. For them choice to be made between family and profession is ever-present.
Artists in the U.S. have no legal protection other than general copyright and no combined political influence. In copyright cases and cases where artists have been defrauded by art dealers most artists are unable to hire a civil lawyer and in rare case where there is litigation it make take years for the artist to receive even partial damages. While it can be said that most artists support liberal causes and liberal candidates especially where support for the arts is an issue legislation to support artists directly or to protect artist rights in the U.S. is nowhere to be seen. Any such arts legislation is directed to protect the art industry of collectors, dealers, and institutions, not artists, and more often to their detriment. The benefits of arts legislation to artists may very well be characterized as belief in a “trickle-down” effect. Artist communities are not critical to political endorsement and despite the common notion that art has any influence on political change there is no proof that this is actually the case. If we cannot change our own livelihood or the condition of artists in general then what credibility is it we possess to effect the condition of others?
Like everyone else in the ranks of poverty we have no wealth, no protection, and above all no real leverage to exert change for our own benefit.
Needless to say we are powerless as individuals until we unite. Simply making art or banners for other causes will not substitute.
The first step towards unification comes when we first qualify our presence to demand fair and tangible compensation for our time and labor not just for ourselves but for every artist. This is where real power begins.
In Response To The Protest Group In Regard To Racial And Gender Inclusion:
Substituting the token artist member of this selection committee doesn’t change a thing. Nor does it change when token artists of color and gender are selected as recipients among the dominant privileged artists who receive prizes. The real issue will remain deeply embedded within the institution and within the very process of “support” by means of elimination.
In my own fifty years among various artist communities and working artist groups I’ve never known any, not one, to either profess or demonstrate prejudice with regard to gender, language or skin color – but we can be highly complicit and we are all prone to engage with fervent complicity in activities of marginalization such as this – AND that in a nutshell is our biggest challenge.
This is a problem deeply systemic to the institution, its members and in its subsequent programming.
Every time we submit forms and applications to compete with one another in a selection for grants and prizes we become complicit with the institutions that support these prejudices. Every time we congratulate a fellow artist for winning a grant prize or console the overwhelming numbers of other deserving artists who do not, we contribute to the belief that this is both our only hope and our only fate.
Every time we’re asked to serve as the token artist on a jury of our peers we contribute to the divisiveness that keeps us in our place and pitted against one another for the very least we should all expect to receive fairly.
What if funding that is given to select artists is used towards programs and policies benefit all artists without regard to ideals that are complicit with prejudice? Programs such as pensions, emergency funds, health and education programs that include the artist’s immediate families, legal assistance, and policies such as advocacy for permanent low-cost artist studio zoned properties, royalty benefits and inclusion in the decision-making of priorities in local, state, and federal cultural initiatives ? Or as support for basic fair and equal compensation for artist’s time and labor so that we wouldn’t be dependent the marginal charity that institutions can only occasionally provide?
Why don’t we all just simply stop being complicit in our own individual demise and focus on the means that enhance our collective success and that more effectively address our collective needs – NOT dependent on selection or subject to its deeply embedded and systemic prejudices?
Let’s talk about funding to assist ALL artists, not only the ones that are cherry-picked for success.
- (“Potlatching was made illegal in Canada in 1884 in an amendment to the Indian Act largely at the urging of missionaries and government agents who considered it – “a worse than useless custom” that was seen as wasteful, unproductive, and “contrary to civilized values of accumulation”.)
The rationalization of “social practice art” and promotion for much political art imagery inevitably rests with examples such as Picasso’s “Guernica” or Goya’s “The Shootings of May Third 1808“. This presumes everyone is familiar with western art history and be so moved emotionally or in anger to rise up against their oppressors to demand justice in the face of such violence.
The truth is that few people other than those familiar with Spanish history actually know where city of Guernica is, or what actually happened there, why or when, or why May 3, 1808 is a significant date other than being the title of a painting by Goya?
Were it not for a specific familiarity with western art history could it not be seen that the purpose of these paintings for the actual promotion of violence such as with countless images of victorious battles and crusades, Mayan paintings commemorating the subjugation of their neighbors; the invasion of Troy, perhaps? Who is to say those figures facing the firing squad in Goya’s painting couldn’t be perceived as the enemy itself, members of a vicious drug cartel, gang rapists, or convicted murderers? (Photographs are documents, and though they’re often regarded as art, the context is quite different.)
While it may or not be true, there’s a relevant anecdote about “Guernica”. Apparently when the Germans entered Paris during the WWII occupation, a group of SS officers went to visit Picasso. Upon seeing a photo reproduction of the painting, one of the officers said to Picasso, “Did you do this??” Picasso’s reply was, “No, you did.”
Every artist has a right and an obligation to speak up for social justice or act legally upon their political ideals – the same as ANY citizen. We are NOT privileged more or less than anyone else despite the argument that an artist’s work MUST depict their political beliefs or someone else’s political agenda. We are not messengers and art does more than send a message.