Thoughts about what the hell is happening in the world.

March 22, 2009 at 9:09 pm (art, culture)

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):

  1. 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.
  2. Apply for a grant – there’s plenty of federal/city money out there, just waiting to be taken by ambitious young artists.
  3. 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:

  1. Art used to be better in the past.
  2. The recession will be good because it will inject some sort of “energy” or urgency into artmaking
  3. 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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.)
  2. We’re all pretty terrified. Some people are terrified-optimistic and others terrified-pessimistic, but overall we share the same base emotion.
  3. It’s going to be ok, because it has to be ok. There is no other choice.
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4 Comments

  1. Andrew Thornton said,

    I’ve been all over the spectrum as far as the advice you were given and the things I’ve had to do to make a living. I got a studio in Manhattan and made a couple of sales doing it, but ultimately I had to give it up shortly after getting it because I simply couldn’t afford the rent. I applied for grants and never really got any of the big ones. I got a couple of prizes and small awards, but it wasn’t anything to write home about. In fact, writing and researching grants took up so much time that I wasn’t making any work. It did inform me on some much needed business sense when it comes to art and the market and selling oneself at least on paper. And yes, I’ve hooched myself out to make ends meet and to sell paintings. In most cases it’s a temporary bandage. There’s only so many people you can sleep with before you get a bad reputation and even fewer before you get disgusted with yourself. That aside, these aren’t “collectors” they don’t care about the art and they don’t care about you. All they want is a way in your pants. Sure you may sell a piece or two, but ultimately it’s space-filler for a wall or sits in a closet or in a storage unit or lays in the trash. It goes unseen and probably is not appreciated. The critics, the gallery-owners, the real collectors, the other artists, the real movers and shakers of the art world aren’t seeing any of it. The only one who sees it is some horny stock broker.

    Some people can work a job and be happy to work 70 hours a week and still barely make ends meet and then get up and make art. I tried to do it. I couldn’t. I was exhausted and drained. I was frozen by tiredness.

    I’m lucky now because I can be creative and not have to work a regular job. It’s not easy and is really scary. I don’t think I was really prepared to deal with the real world after college and am actually a little disgruntled with my alum every time I make a check out to pay off that horrible debt that will forever hang over my head. I will never be able to pay it off. I’ve ruined my credit and my parents’ credit. It’s a sad truth that I’ve just had to accept and come to terms with and try not to feel guilty about.

    The only way I’ve been able to get through all this shit is to remember why I’m doing it – because I have to. It’s in my bones and it’s in my heart. Knowing this has helped me to form plans, make revisions, and still keep fighting. One day things will get better and they’ll be easier… at least I hope so.

  2. amywilson said,

    Wow… thanks for sharing your experiences, Andrew. I’m so sorry the road has been so tough for you. I have been exceptionally lucky in that most of my experiences as an artist have been pretty good (or at least when something bad happens, something good comes down the road as well to sort of even things up). That’s not to say it hasn’t been hard – it has been. There are times when I cried and freaked out and almost gave up over and over, but you hang in there and somehow things work out.

    I guess, despite all of this, that I feel really optimistic about the future. One thing I am super grateful for at this point is that the economic crisis has at least forced all of us to admit how hard it is and to do some soul-searching and realize that the current system is broken. Setting young artists adrift with tens of thousands of dollars in debt (or more) is horribly wrong; ditto the lack of health insurance, housing, jobs that pay decent, etc (and it’s not just artists – it’s anyone not born to generous parents with very deep pockets). It’s time we woke up and realized this to be true and fucking did something about it.

    Last thing I’ll mention – now more than ever, I think you have to build a supportive community around you. Love and be very good to people who are good to you; kick people who aren’t out. I have a fantastic husband, great artist friends (and great non-artist friends), an awesome gallery and lots of cool art people around me… we look out for each other and keep each other going. No one in this community is going to crash and burn, because the rest of us won’t allow it – we’re all there to help each other out. It might sound hopelessly naive but really, t’s the best thing there is.

  3. alexisv said,

    The terrifying bit is right– and I vacillate between terrified-optimistic and terrified-pessimistic. I don’t know that it was the best idea to jump ship and move to Seattle after grad school as nothing I had intended to happen has actually worked out, but I’m here regardless. And we even had a class, The Writer’s Life, trying to help prepare us. Nothing can prepare you for the lurch after school though and the uneasy way we all have to find our place in the world.

    We’re supposed to be the ones fixing this, because we have to be, but I can’t help feel a bit desperate sometimes. I’m in the middle of the generation that, for the most part, has no health care and has wicked amounts of student loans while we try to enter a work force where the retirees aren’t retiring because they’ve lost their pensions. It’s a frightening and unstable place where the small achievements, an exhibit or a publication, seem so little and inconsequential.

    But we have to make it through, because that’s the only option. We have to survive it. And art will survive all of it in whatever shape it has to take, because it has to.

    Sometimes I’d just like to fast forward to see how it will all turn out, but that’s life, isn’t it? There isn’t anything to do but slog through the Now and Present doing everything we can to make it work until it does.

  4. Andrew Thornton said,

    You know, I’ve had a shit time of it. But at least I’m still creative and working on stuff. I know so many people who did end up abandoning “the Dream” for a life with health benefits, retirement, and a semblance of security. I can’t fault them for that. It’s scary and tough and rough and not easy at all.

    I’m lucky though because we do still have a community loosely knit together of the survivors of SVA who are still trying to make things happen. I don’t think any of us have had any real luck after graduation. Some of them are assisting other established artists and a few of them have had shows pop up, but I don’t know any of them who really doing it just yet.

    Your post in combination with a surprise email from someone from my past really made me evaluate the idea of sacrifice. We’ve all had to give up a lot, at one point or another, but it’s within each of us to approach it with reverence or to write it off.

    Ha ha ha! Hopefully my sacrifice was so big that the gods will smile on me from here on out. 🙂

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