We can see how the collapse of the economy is affecting everyone. Something must be done. Let’s talk. No, it can’t wait. Things are bad. We have to work things out. We can only do it together. What do we know? What have others tried? What is possible? How do we talk about it? What are the wildest possibilities? What are the pragmatic steps? What can you do? What can we do?
We know that larger numbers of people find themselves increasingly shut out of the American “promise” of wealth and security. The majority of committed and practicing artists have long given up these expectations in favor of having the freedom to pursue their work. We’ve all made sacrifices for our time, our work, and our own dreams. Let’s face it – being an artist in the United States is difficult. Hell, just keeping your head above water is harder for an increasing number of Americans, artists or not. Federal unemployment numbers are constructed in such a way as to mask the real human toll and misery of joblessness in the U.S. The official number hovers around 10%. We’re being told to get used to it, but we would rather explore ideas for reworking the economy to benefit everyone. Where is the discussion about how to sustain our entire country and not just our banks, corporations, and those who are privileged enough to be in the top 10% of our “earners”?
The deeply irresponsible and criminal activities of the men and women who wreaked havoc on the global economy, ushering in the Great Recession (or whatever you want to call it) have caused untold hardship for people already scraping by. Bring us their heads! Or at least take their bonuses to fund the arts, education, and health care.
Where are the large-scale ideas that depend upon American ingenuity rather than competition? Why don’t we think being an artist is a “real job”?
Things have become demonstrably worse for artists and arts organizations. A 2008 report from the National Endowment for the Arts tells of an astounding 63% increase in artists’ unemployment from 2007 to 2008. The public discourse about funding for creative projects is often limited to chatter about large-sum prizes funded unsteadily by foundations, commercial entities, or family trusts. Want to be an artist? Join a reality show and viciously compete for the title of “Art Star” while having your every move be documented for six weeks in the hopes that your witty bon mots and camera-friendly pretty face will result in a one-time cash bonus. Another option – compete with your colleagues and friends for smaller and smaller grants (as long as the government, the non-profit organizations, and the academic system continues to be able to raise funds from their own sources).
Where are the large-scale ideas that depend upon American ingenuity rather than competition? When did funding the arts and the people that make them become optional? Why is visual art, which can be understood as a basic foundation for human communication, not funded as an integral part of our lives as Americans? Why don’t we think being an artist is a “real job”?
We can optimistically point to times in the past when things were more hopeful and better for artists and arts institutions. For example, the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Arts Program once had money and was empowered to hire artists to take photographs, make murals, write stories, compose poems, and document the tremendous times the country was going through. Federal funding employed and nurtured some of the greatest American artists: Dorothea Lange, Langston Hughes, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, Zora Neale Thurston, Thomas Hart Benton, and many others. It left us with tremendous public works, glorious murals, and a sense of strength and abundance that should be reclaimed out of the ashes of dirty capitalist shenanigans. However, this program was only possible after much pressure from the Left, from unions, and from artists themselves. It also worked because of leadership that carried out a vision that the free market could not harbor – nor would it tolerate for long. The infrastructure that sustained programs like the Federal Arts Program was completely dismantled.
We can also see ourselves at the bottom of a downward spiral that started with Ronald Reagan’s election. The vicious greed and racism that propelled the “Reagan Revolution” culminated in last year’s massive global financial collapse, the logical conclusion of the Reagan administration’s toxic ideological blend of business deregulation and trickle down fuck-you-nomics (two perilous fantasies that we see for what they are). Artists were easy targets and tools in the culture wars Reagan and his allies unleashed to dismantle the New Deal and Great Society efforts at wealth redistribution and economic parity. We’ve often been amazed at the fact that so many students and younger artists have no idea what kinds of great things received government funding pre-Culture Wars and before the neutering of the National Endowment for the Arts. One can trace the origins of early encouragement for even a vast genre as Video Art through looking at the record of NEA funding in the 1970s.
For far too long, the rhetoric and logic of the market has dominated the production of discourse and livelihoods around art. Letting the market decide, as Reagan, Milton Friedman, and other ghosts of capital past cried, has drastically limited what we think art is and can be in our society.
Capitalism works really really well – for a limited number of people. With tighter constraints on business and wealthy people, the number of people who can sustain themselves increases. Take away the constraints and less people benefit. More of us can see this clearly now. It is sad that it takes such a big crisis to get people to reconsider the “status quo”.
We are in a moment very much like the Great Depression. Unfortunately, we cannot depend upon the creation of governmental programs, the learning institutions, museums, and archives, or even basic social planning to help ease the situation in the U.S. for artists. According to a report made in 2006 by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit Washington, D.C. based think tank, the top 5% of income earners in the United States own 60% of the average U.S. household net worth. Furthermore, according to Recent Trends in Wealth Ownership (a book and research series by Edward N. Wolff of New York University’s Economics department), a full 20% of the U.S. population owns negative financial wealth. That means that 20% of us, artists, professors, students, directors of museums, security guards, and otherwise actually live in debt. While many of us contribute to the struggle of American existence and create art that carries meaning and hope for all, our lives are still privy to the whims of the top 5% earners – who effectively make decisions for all of us through their daily economic and cultural choices. Many of those top 5% are on the board of directors for both corporations and cultural institutions. Is it no surprise that our major museums increasingly are using corporate sponsorship to lead their programming and name their galleries? Is it any surprise at all that even the language of art discourse is being invaded by business terminology?
For far too long, the rhetoric and logic of the market has dominated the production of discourse and livelihoods around art. Letting the market decide, as Reagan, Milton Friedman, and other ghosts of capital past cried, has drastically limited what we think art is and can be in our society. We have seen how quickly the commercial market collapsed, hurting large numbers of people. The commercial art market in the United States has hemorrhaged gallery after gallery. The flocks in the stables have been turned loose into the wilds of uncertainty and worry that the rest of us live in as normalcy. There will be no bailout or economic triage to save the galleries. The financial collapse has put a big crack in the hegemony over resources and discourse that the commercial system has long enjoyed. It is now even harder to see success in the speculative art market as a viable option for most artists, though the dictates of the market are still what gets passed off as curriculum for an MFA at most universities.
Universities continue to crank out masters of fine arts who have next to no possibility of getting gainful employment and little to no role in creating future employment outside the already tiny pool of highly coveted tenure track positions. If you are an educator, we challenge you to use your privilege and your security to improve things for your students and the rest of us. If you are an adjunct teacher, we encourage you to make it difficult for your university to continue exploiting you. Unionize. Walk out. At least make sure to milk every resource you can, preferably to enable and supplement educational models that happen outside of these institutions. Scan those rare and out of print library books and periodicals and put ‘em online. Check out A/V equipment and use it to put on free events for everyone. Get as many guest lecturers paid through your classes as you can. Bring the visiting out-of-town lecturers to an extra event space and encourage them to do a bonus talk for people who aren’t clued in to academic calendars around town. Sow dissent. Teach the brave truth of poverty rather than the sniveling, competitive lie of the Top 5%. Make everyone’s pay public knowledge – demand equity for all of us who create the next generations of artists and thinkers. It is time for some leveling and accountability, even for you progressives in the art schools.
This newspaper asks us all to consider how to use this moment to do several things: to work for better compensation, to get opportunities to make art in diverse and challenging settings, and to guide art attitudes and institutions, on all levels, in more resilient directions.
Now is a perfect moment to push for new ways of doing things, developing better models, and to question commercial forms of art making and the commodification of human creativity and significance. It is also an excellent moment to look backwards at old models that might be ripe for reworking, and the myriad strategies and support systems that artists have invented in order to survive creatively and economically. It is a time to fight for a different future, better treatment, and a diminished role for the market in art discourse. Resistance to the status quo has been minimal. Artists for the most part are hiding and hoping things will get better. We must gather, pool knowledge and resources, agitate, question, confront this system and make alternative models using the creativity that we reserve for other kinds of artistic production in more stable times.
This newspaper asks us all to consider how to use this moment to do several things: to work for better compensation, to get opportunities to make art in diverse and challenging settings, and to guide art attitudes and institutions, on all levels, in more resilient directions. It is also an examination of the power that commercial practices continue to wield and the adverse effects this has had on artists, education, and our collective creative capacity.
We have focused our attention and efforts on the United States, though an international edition is needed, as there are no longer discrete nation-based economies. We leave that to others to take on. The struggle in the U.S. is a large enough starting point. The dominant discourse in this country pays very little attention to the massive numbers of people working outside the commercial centers of production. This gives a false sense of the complexity, diversity, and regional differences that are readily found when one just looks, asks, and pays attention.
This paper culls together writings from artists, curators, critics and theorists, from across the United States and Puerto Rico. Contributors were asked to reflect on a range of topics: the country’s economic situation, how conditions are in their locations, what they are willing to fight to change, and more. Included are historic examples of artists’ projects, initiatives and other efforts to find money for their work or to create broader infrastructural support for others. We called upon our networks for contributions but you might have a different network than us. Please read this paper and share it with others. Make copies and make an exhibition out of it. Use it as the basis of a discussion. Share it with your classroom.
Finally, check out www.artandwork.us for more writing, images, and ideas that didn’t make the print edition. There are places there for you to share your thoughts and ideas and connect with other artists, teachers, students, arts administrators, curators, preparators, interns, and others. We would love to get your feedback and hear about the conversations that this project has instigated. How are you doing? How are you sustaining your artwork? This is the moment to assert our principles, redefine our core values, and help each other continue to make great work.