Wood and Water

ganesha
Ganesha, festooned with the dried flowers of a Hawaiian lei, in my studio

Holland Cotter wrote a piece over the weekend in the New York Times on the state of the art world, The Boom Is Over. Long Live the Art! This article was not unlike about 20 others on the same topic that I’ve read over the last few months, from UK publications like the Guardian to art rags like Art Forum. It is a major topic everywhere you turn these days, the overnight collapse of the world’s most overheated art market.

It is a peculiar place from which to watch this massive imploding, a vantage point that I share with a number of cohorts and friends as well: Artists who are basically DIY small business proprietors. We’re the ones who do it all, on our own. We do our own R&D as well as making, marketing, promoting, distributing, inventorying, funding and accounting. We’re the small subsistence farmers who watch while international commodity traders collude in the agribusiness of corporate-run mega farms.

It’s not as 19th century pastoral as that metaphor might suggest, just as the small organic specialty farm has found a new “heirloom” or “artisanal” cubby hole that makes their survival going forward viable. I have a few thousand clients who have purchased my paintings. Most of them have come back and purchased more than one piece. But my operation is definitely artisanal rather than streamlined, handmade versus production-savvy. And while business is slow for just about everyone and everything these days, my modus operandi hasn’t really been disrupted by an economy that went square wave up and then, in a free fall of staggering proportions, went square wave down. For me it is still chop wood, carry water.

Reinventing art education as Holland Cotter has proposed (see the excerpt below) is one of many ideas I’ve seen proposed. But I don’t think the problems we are facing in the visual arts world are rooted in failures of the art school continuum, nor can they be addressed by shifting the emphasis of pedagogy in the art profession. Just as there will always be very badly written books that sell well, there will always be a category of art that is promoted for no other reason than profitability and the lure of greed. Just as I need publishing (be it self-styled or institutionalized) to also bring out great books that leave me altered forever, I likewise need enough breathing room in this small corner of the art economy to make my work, find a receptive audience and keep on keepin’ on.

And on that prospect, anything is possible.

From Holland Cotter’s article:

Which brings us to the present decade, held aloft on a wealth-at-the-top balloon, threatening to end in a drawn-out collapse. Students who entered art school a few years ago will probably have to emerge with drastically altered expectations. They will have to consider themselves lucky to get career breaks now taken for granted: the out-of-the-gate solo show, the early sales, the possibility of being able to live on the their art.

It’s day-job time again in America, and that’s O.K. Artists have always had them — van Gogh the preacher, Pollock the busboy, Henry Darger the janitor — and will again. The trick is to try to make them an energy source, not a chore.

At the same time, if the example of past crises holds true, artists can also take over the factory, make the art industry their own. Collectively and individually they can customize the machinery, alter the modes of distribution, adjust the rate of production to allow for organic growth, for shifts in purpose and direction. They can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again.

Art schools can change too. The present goal of studio programs (and of ever more specialized art history programs) seems to be to narrow talent to a sharp point that can push its way aggressively into the competitive arena. But with markets uncertain, possibly nonexistent, why not relax this mode, open up education?

Why not make studio training an interdisciplinary experience, crossing over into sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, poetry and theology? Why not build into your graduate program a work-study semester that takes students out of the art world entirely and places them in hospitals, schools and prisons, sometimes in-extremis environments, i.e. real life? My guess is that if you did, American art would look very different than it does today.

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2 comments

  1. Elatia Harris’s avatar

    Not for nothing is Ganesha the remover of obstacles…

  2. Deborah Barlow’s avatar

    “Not for nothing” is right…Remove away, Ganesha!

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