“I’ve always been crazy and the trouble that it’s put me through
I’ve been busted for things that I did, and I didn’t do
I can’t say I’m proud of all of the things that I’ve done
But I can say I’ve never intentionally hurt anyone…
I’ve always been different with one foot over the line
Winding up somewhere one step ahead or behind
It ain’t been so easy but I guess I shouldn’t complain
I’ve always been crazy but it’s kept me from going insane”
[Waylon Jennings “I’ve Always Been Crazy”]
Long ago an immensely respected art-world insider told a sobering story. It went like this. A couple of powerful collectors were working with an equally powerful art advisor to enhance their collections and invest in new talent. For a few days they had been buying up a number of fresh-from-the-studio art works by up-and-coming, “advisor approved” artists, and this was to be the last day of their shopping spree. During the crosstown drive to the rickety studio building one of the collectors gleefully proposed that in addition to buying the work of the artist that they were going to see – they would also randomly choose an unknown artist in the same building and purchase all of their inventory. This would be a gambit to see just how much influence they might have in the Art World. After their purchase of the thrilled artist’s paintings a full-court promotional campaign followed mentioning and lauding the work and the talented “unknown” to other hungry-for-the-new-thing art insiders. Soon the artist was being featured in art magazines, shown in prestigious galleries and traded on the secondary market.
“With spectators, as Waylon put it, it’s a one-way deal, and in the world I grew up in, the whole idea was not to be one of them, and to avoid, insofar as possible, being spectated by any of them, because it was demeaning. You just didn’t do it, and you used the word “spectator” as a term of derision—not as bad as “folksinger,” of course, but still a serious insult. Even so, it wasn’t something we discussed or even thought about, since the possibility of any of us spectating or being spectated was fairly remote. It is, however, something worth thinking about today, since, with the professionalization of the art world, and the dissolution of the underground cultures that once fed into it, the distinction between spectators and participants is dissolving as well.
This distinction is critical to the practice of art in a democracy, however, because spectators invariably align themselves with authority. They have neither the time nor the inclination to make decisions. They just love the winning side — the side with the chic building, the gaudy doctorates, and the star-studded cast. They seek out spectacles whose value is confirmed by the normative blessing of institutions and corporations.” [Dave Hickey “Romancing the Looky-Loos”]
The commercial art world isn’t about artists, ideas or even commerce (because it’s an elite economy) – rather it’s about how the insiders and market players enjoy and covet the power that they can and do exert. As Dave Hickey has said – “care is control.”
Our insider’s apocryphal story shows us that a “career” in the art world is far more complicated than someone just “being an artist”. But that idea of an art world run by the money people hasn’t really changed our understanding of our peculiar circumstances. We approach our careers as if there are pathways, rules, and professional practices to guide us. But art – no matter what the “industry” tells us – does not work this way. Rather as this story tells us, professionalism and the idea of an art career are just fictions – a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
I think the great fact is… that… – it’s fundamental to keep an established art world [so] that the mystery [of art] is kept in place. Because once it falls into the hands of the proletariat – that the ability to make art is, in fact, inherent within all of us – it demolishes the idea of art for commerce and that’s no good for business. And so I think that there’s always a great coming together of a commerce establishment — which the art world is, basically, a commerce establishment — to protect its own.
I mean, the perfect example is that there were many signers or graffiti artists working in the late ’70s and in the early ’80s. Why should it be that only two or three of them — Scharf, Haring and Basquiat — should be taken from the sea of signers that were working in New York, some of them incredibly talented guys, and then elevated to a point that there was something particularly special about those three guys?
It’s– it behooves the art establishment to– to elevate them to a higher plateau as fast as possible, to make them unavailable, aesthetically, to a low-art market. And it does that continually… It [the art establishment] extends its parameters quite widely to capture the new thing and elevate it from low art to high art successfully enough to increase the commerce proposition that goes along with it… to consign the idea of art to a particular world. [David Bowie with Julian Schnabel and Charlie Rose]
We passed upon the stair
We spoke of was and when
Although I was not there
He said I was his friend
Which came as some surprise
I spoke into his eyes
I thought you died alone
A long, long time ago
Oh no, not me
I never lost control
You’re face to face
With the man who sold the world
I laughed and shook his hand
And made my way back home
I searched for form and land
For years and years I roamed
I gazed a gazely stare
At all the millions here
We must have died alone
A long long time ago
[David Bowie The Man Who Sold the World]
If you’re fortunate there may be moments of clarity when the path ahead is laid out, and when that happens – be shrewd and thrifty – take full advantage of good fortune. But most of the time you really won’t have a clue what’s happening or when the next paycheck is coming. The best you can do, maybe the only thing, is to remain dumb like a painter and pretend that tomorrow your ship will come in.
Over the years many other versions of this same story have popped up – told in many ways and with many variables. You, dear reader, have already understood that this wise insider was just pulling a leg – not to horrify – but to teach. In the Art World things only become sacred if the “correct others” make it so, and that always happens through the most profane of experiences.
For instance the artist, the lottery winner that was “chosen at random” in the story, is now well-regarded, collected and having a marvelous international career. It hardly matters how their particular story began, but the work, whether judged good or bad, faux or real, by future collecting generations has been given the economic possibility of becoming something – remembered. And that possibility is a rare and much sought after thing.
But what do I know? This post is really just one more… “tale told by an idiot.”