Engaged in a Commercial Profession

The sixties were about blurring boundaries. Warhol triumphed because the frontiers—between high and low and art and commerce—never existed for him. Look at every other important artist then, especially every Pop artist, and you will detect some or another skittish irony. Warhol wasn’t ironic. He was neither naïve nor cynical. He was innocent and greedy. Middle-classniks tied themselves in knots trying to fathom the complexities of a mind whose secret was simplicity, as efficient a life-form as a shark, a cat, or an honest businessman. He gave himself with no strings attached, only price tags. [Peter Schjedahl on Andy Warhol]

The generation of artists that emerged after World War II were both conditioned by and responsive to this environment. The romantic vision of the artist as an outsider, maligned and downtrodden. alienated from a world that did not appreciate his talent, was no longer valid. Artists were now college-educated and engaged in a commercial profession. Allan Kaprow neatly encapsulated the change in his insightful article “Should the Artist Become a Man of the World!’: “If the artist was in hell in 1946, now he is in business.” And artists were not only in business but also in the limelight, bedecked by the glitter of Hollywood and backed by the merchandising of Madison Avenue. As never before, they achieved celebrity status, their names becoming widely recognized outside an circles and topping guest lists of important dinner panics and public events. No longer did young American artists expect to live without fame or fortune or recognition during their lifetime. As Larry Rivers observed, “For the first time in this country the artist is ‘on stage.’ He isn’t just fooling around in a cellar with something that maybe no one will ever see. Now he is there in the full glare of publicity.” [Sidra Stich on the Americanization in Modern Art]

Mark Rothko Number 18 1951

Brancaccio: When you say business-art, you’re not talking about the guy with the chain stores in the mall selling oil paintings to the passers-by. It’s the structure of the business was seen as a kind of work of art. 
Gopnik: Yeah, Andy Warhol claimed that the act of being a good businessman could make you a different kind of artist, a new kind of artist. But, you know, when he tried to make money, the things people accused him of doing to make money, make no sense as moneymaking enterprises. He got involved with the Velvet Underground, a screeching, insane band that turned their amps up to 11. When, if he wanted to make money, he should have gotten involved with something like The Monkees. To imagine the Velvet Underground was a moneymaking scheme made no sense. [Andy Warhol and the Business of Art]

“Mercedes Matter, the daughter of Arthur B. Carles and a member of the artists’ circle since the 1930s, lamented: “The minute success entered into the art world and it became a business, everything  changed. It  was  all ruined.” The changed expectations, and the effect they had on behavior, can be gauged from a proposal that Pollock, Rothko, Newman, and Still made in 1951 to their long- time dealer, Betty Parsons: they wanted Parsons to drop the  other  artists in her gallery and concentrate her energies on promoting their work. “They said they would make me the most famous dealer in the world,” Parsons recalled. “And they were probably right. They really were paying me a great compliment.” The proposal was not made as a tribute, of course, but as a way of more vigorously pursuing the fame and (possible) fortune that seemed to the four now within their reach. We should observe that the four were willing to sacrifice the well-being of a number of colleagues to these selfish goals.” Parsons refused the tempting offer to forsake her other artists: “I did not want to do a thing like that.” She remained committed to uphold purely artistic values. As her assistant, Richard Tuttle, explained: “It’s not true that she’s a bad businesswoman…. But that’s not her real interest. Betty cares about growth… she  cares mainly about your growth as an  artist.”
Rebuffed, Pollock, Rothko, and Still decided that Sidney Janis (who represented Picasso and other famous Europeans) could better serve to realize their aspirations. In a sense these artists were justified in making their offer to Parsons and in their subsequent move to Janis. They had suffered significant deprivations for their art and felt entitled to some  rewards. From a practical standpoint, greater success in the marketplace would have meant that Rothko and Still could quit teaching. Who can blame them for wanting to profit from the new situation – especially if those rewards and the pursuit of them did not compromise their art. That a new system of rewards would produce certain changes in conduct is not surprising. What is curious, however, is that their behavior changed but their uncompromising rhetoric did not. De Kooning’s frank admission that painting had become “a good living” was exceptional; the  others refused to acknowledge that their painting no longer was the pure, disinterested calling it had been.” [Bradford R. Collins on the Abstract Expressionists and Life Magazine]

“The heart of Warhol’s idea — that by playing the role of businessman, an artist could turn himself into the latest, living example of a commodification he believed none of us can avoid — was perhaps as revolutionary in its time as Marcel Duchamp presenting a humble urinal as sculpture had been in 1917. Duchamp’s gesture declared that artists alone get to define what is art; five decades later, Warhol took that as permission to treat the spreadsheet, press release and launch party as creative endeavors. This set an example for some of his most notable heirs in our current century.
“I’ve wrestled with money — in an art sense — all through my career,” Damien Hirst, the longtime British art star and entrepreneur, said. “And I saw through Andy Warhol that it was possible to do that, that it was acceptable. Even though it raises questions, it’s not something to be afraid of.”
…And yet Warhol, the Business Artist set such a “strange, exciting, almost toxic example,” said Mr. Rothkopf, that many artists have found him a hard act to follow. Business Art so thoroughly rewrote the rules of art-making, even maybe its morality, that many artists found more direct inspiration in aspects of Warhol’s art that are less conceptual — his techniques, his grasp of pop culture, his pioneering work on gay and transgender subjects and culture.”[Adam Gopnik on Andy Warhol and Business]

Belcher, Nagy, and Sevard suggest that terms like “community arts non-profit” or “alternative space” are concepts from a different generation.  Dixon thinks that perhaps these new galleries are looking back to a pre-NEA time when artists like Claus Oldenburg opened his Lower East Side store front in the early 60s. “There’s a great feeling of OK the NEA is here” Dixon says, “but sometimes, often, perhaps artists can do more when they don’t feel like they have their fingers tied [with federal money].”
“…With all the Reaganomics talk we just assumed that grants were no longer available. There were sort of enough places eating up the grants, and so we thought that if we could offer enough art at low enough prices then people would buy and that would keep us afloat.
… How did you finance your spaces? By working during the day. We all have jobs during the day…. artists help us, they babysit the place [when we can’t be there] … usually artists do what they can… grateful for the opportunity [to show their work] … It becomes easier to start something yourself than to try to join something that’s already in progress, because there are always people willing to join you and say this is the right thing to do.” [Discussion with Peter Nagy, Alan Belcher and Dean Sevard on Galleries, Careers and Money in the East Village]

2 thoughts on “Engaged in a Commercial Profession

  1. Is the art fatigue from all sides (artists, art lovers, art collectors, reception, lack of vision) in the age of electronic media just imaginary or do you feel it as well ?

  2. Hi Hans – Of course we all experience this feeling. Today, there are so many artists making similar work in similar styles, work that luxuriates in the past, work that looks lovely or handsome because it’s familiar and time tested. Picasso kept his Demoiselles turned to the wall for many years. Newman lived with his zip in secret. This kind of challenging painting was about an idea not about a profession, and it was fearsome. Today paintings that are still wet are put up on the wall for sale. This work can’t be – memorable – because this work must be fashionable, temporal, stylish more than it is constructive, presumptuous and contentious. Our painting comes with an audience already formed. And the truth is that the days of the art world “outsider” throwing bricks through plate glass windows is over. What is apparent is that contemporary painting is a commodity based on economic theories rather than aesthetic ones. The work we value does not challenge the past. It channels the past. And maybe that’s how we ultimately “saved” painting from the endgame of Post-War American reductionism. We changed the rules of our game one last time – made Art and Painting more a part of our contemporary economic culture. No real rebels. No real outsiders. No real disagreements. Who would have ever thought that the end of history meant that we would all become economic animals – Homo-economicus?

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