Just about every spring I’m reminded of the advice I got right as I was getting ready to graduate from college. I had grad school laid out in front of me, but I saw it as not much more than the two-year diversion it really was, so I eagerly asked all the teachers that I liked and respected what they thought I should do as I tried to make my way as an artist.
Among the things I was told (and remember, this is 1995):
- Get a studio in Manhattan – you have to get a studio in Manhattan. No one will ever visit you outside of Manhattan. If you move to Brooklyn or Queens or, god help you, Jersey, you may as well toss all your work in the Hudson.
- Apply for a grant – there’s plenty of federal/city money out there, just waiting to be taken by ambitious young artists.
- Get a cute, fluffy dog and walk it around the Wall Street area so that you meet rich men who you can date and who will help support your career. (I absolutely swear to you that I am not making this up or exaggerating. This “advice” was told to me by several different faculty members and went through different variations, including walking the dog through the campus at Yale, in Soho, and on the Upper East Side.)
Right. My point in listing these (and there was plenty more that I got) is that absolutely none of this advice is good; in fact, while it’s all patently absurd now, it wasn’t really any less absurd back in 1995. Artists don’t have to have studios in Manhattan, there are no grants to be had especially for younger artists, and I have never had a rich boyfriend (or for that matter, a stupid fluffy dog). And yet somehow I’m still here.
When I was first started teaching full-time, “advice” like this rang in my head so loudly as to drown out all other thoughts. If I became a teacher, would I necessarily wind up to be like these teachers – most of whom I truly think meant well, but were woefully out of touch and quite obviously projecting their own hopes and fears (mostly the latter) onto me? I promised myself I wouldn’t – that if need be, I’d be a Kansas born-again Christian housewife voting Republican before I ever became that teacher that tells her 22 year old students to get rich boyfriends so they can keep painting.
For the most part, I’ve held true to this. It hasn’t been hard, in part because I’ve had terrifically talented students around me, and because most of my experiences in the art world have been pretty good and so encouraging them to do as I’ve done hasn’t been anything that I look at with mixed emotions. But for the last few months as I’ve woken up every morning to find that this economy crisis we’re in just keeps getting worse and worse, I’ve been able to feel that generation gap growing between me and my students. It’s becoming clear that the experiences that I’ve had and things that I’ve learned may not be as relevant to them as I had hoped. I can’t tell you how much this disappoints me.
At first, when I felt the terrain shifting underneath my feet, I just sort of ignored it or was sort of numb to it all. But then, as I read things like Holland Cotter’s NY Times article a few weeks ago or Jerry Saltz’s various Facebook updates, it dawned on me that wow, there are actually people out there more clueless than I am.
My apologies for all the lists in this post, but Cotter’s argument seems to fall around three points:
- Art used to be better in the past.
- The recession will be good because it will inject some sort of “energy” or urgency into artmaking
- So what if artists have to get “real” jobs? Maybe it’s good for them.
Point #1 is annoyingly nostalgic; point #2 seems downright cruel (is it actually morally ok to argue that when people have no healthcare/income/housing they make better art?); point #3 assumes that there will be jobs out there to get that earn enough above minimum wage to allow artists to continue their practices, when there is actually no evidence anywhere to support this.
Saltz, meanwhile, uses his Facebook statuses to cheer on the opening of new galleries in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side – a way better attitude to take than Cotter’s, but still missing the point. The recession isn’t “all in our heads;” it’s not a matter of just cheering up and thinking optimistically and it will all go away. What’s happening in the world right now is scary. And like the saying goes: if you’re not scared, you’re not paying attention.
So, in keeping with all the list-making, let me start another – this one is sort of advice to the advice-givers (which means of course that it’s advice I’m also giving myself):
- Admit that things are bad – really, really bad. The only way we’re going to ever overcome what the hell is going on is if we take a moment and really acknowledge what’s happening. You can’t really understand the problem if you keep telling yourself that it’s over or it’s not as bad as absolutely everyone around you is assuring you it is.
- Stop saying that the recession is going to “clear away” the less serious artists/galleries/etc. This concept of “clearing away” makes me sick – it’s a euphemism, and it’s like expecting people you don’t like to just exit stage left and disappear forever. Human beings don’t do that. They declare bankruptcy, they lose their jobs, their lives get fucked up – it’s not pretty. So don’t pretend that it is.
- Know that you are not in control. We have no idea what is going to happen in the next few years. Really. I feel pretty confident in saying that the art world is going to look quite different in about five years than it does right now; beyond that, I can’t tell you much. And I also can’t speed it up or see it more clearly if I squint any further.
Point #3 is what keeps me going every day. The one thing I feel pretty good about predicting is that when the smoke all clears, who is going to be in control of it is that new generation that I’ve been so worried about giving bad advice to. They’re the ones who are going to solve all the problems dumped on them, because they have to – they have no choice. I have the luxury of sitting around and worrying all the time, but they won’t get to do that. They’ll figure it out – and it won’t look anything like fucking Tricia Brown or Soho in the 1960s or whatever, because they have to come up with their own solutions that somehow fit the time in which they’re living. All I can really hope for is that they invite me to the party when it finally starts.
I’m a one-semester sabbatical replacement for a class called Professional Practices where we learn the business of the art world. It’s controversial for a college to run a class like this – such classes place the school dangerously near the tech-school arena, when what we really want is for it to be regarded more like a university (is there a “How To Make it in the English Major World” class? no… exactly). But it’s been occurring to me that the controversy is misplaced – that the real controversy should lie in the fact that every generation has to make it up as they go along, and with this one coming up now that’s more true than ever. You can learn from the past (and the present), but not like it’s a blueprint or a map – it’s more like a big puzzle that needs to be sorted out and embedded in it is a clue that sort of points you to where you’re going… maybe. But that’s it. There aren’t steps that you go through and then – ta-da! – that’s it, you’re done. You have to figure it out for yourself, and you have to keep figuring it out, always. And what’s true for your future is true for mine too – we’re all in the same boat.
The point of this whole post is not so much to give advice, after all that. But rather, it’s to state the three things that I have swirling in my head almost constantly these days, that I’ve been waiting for someone else to say already. Since that’s not happening, I’m taking the matter into my own hands:
- I have no idea what the future holds, and I just really needed to say that. (Nobody else knows, either, and run away from those who say they do.)
- We’re all pretty terrified. Some people are terrified-optimistic and others terrified-pessimistic, but overall we share the same base emotion.
- It’s going to be ok, because it has to be ok. There is no other choice.