Alpha & Omega

To think, that in one day, I would read these alpha and omega stories which bring into sharp contrast the disparities of the art world. The alpha world points to the fact that the trillion plus dollar government stimulus plan has averted a financial catastrophe for those wealthy enough to live lavishly from their investment portfolios. Collectors, everywhere, are feeling flush again, and the art world is busy looking to loosen up some of that stimulus loot.

“For better or for worse, much of the art world is feeling flush again. Since the recent auctions did better than anybody expected, Nick Acquavella of Basel Miami star Acquavella Galleries says he’s bringing pieces ranging from $45,000 (a Lucian Freud etching) to an $8.5 million Picasso. In June, when the Art Basel fair is held in Switzerland, sales were strong. “We believe the art market is coming back,” says Basel Miami co-director Annette Schönholzer.”

But the question remains – coming back as what? The same old “same old”; more of the New New from the tired bag of tricks continuously hoisted on us by the same gang of POMO Players? Look, I understand that investments in certain artists making certain kinds of work have been made. I understand the “value” of a collection is derived from its exchange value. I also understand that that “value” has to be protected. But does that mean that we, as “artists,” no longer have to question what we are doing? Is it our responsibility to ensure the “value” of the art in some collector’s treasure trove? Must we remake what has already been remade – updating and customizing in order to be considered “collectible?” For those lucky enough to be in that system this very well may be the case. For those of us who don’t particularly find a resonance with these collections, well I guess we will have to read about ourselves in the omega story.

The omega just goes to show that market success for an artist is a very, very rare thing. If you read the actual report that is discussed in the article you’ll find some eye opening facts about our “profession.”

“Most artists have relatively low incomes, even though the majority (62%) are college graduates and hold at least one additional paying job. Two- thirds reported their total 2008 income was less than $40,000, including nearly one-third who earned less than $20,000. Artists tend to earn very little of their income from their art work or almost all of it. Unexpectedly, artists who spend more than 80% of their time on their art work have the highest income levels, while artists who rely on cobbling together an income from a mix of sources are most likely to earn under $20,000 a year. Years as an artist and time spent working on art each week also positively influence the percentage of income earned from art.”

It was the 1980s when the art world drank the institutional Koolaid. Art began to be described as a profession like any other, complete with the proviso that artist professionals should be paid accordingly. Rene Ricard’s famous essay, a beautiful and poetic tribute to the artist’s struggle, helped to define an artist’s “right” to be recognized as a valuable member of society. Unfortunately, the meaning within his poetry was perverted. He was talking about poetry, not professionalization. Artists came to expect their due, and in doing so, we sacrificed the poetry in order to get it. As is made clear in the report, most of us don’t make ANY real money from what we do even as we sacrifice the poetry in order to do so. Our deal with the devil has left us with both the old struggle and the new Postmodern conformity.

You’ll hear many an artist yearn to be in that group of artists that spend more than 80% of their time on their art work. But what isn’t detailed in the report is the fact that most of that 80% is spent networking and looking for the next gig. For anyone in the arts it’s always the next gig that one is worrying about. Continuity is the secret to professional success. And it is that sort of continuity that always make me hesitate. Regardless of what you may have read, what you may believe, art as a profession will NEVER make poetry. Poetry and the few poets that make it need something more than the 9 to 5 grind. This doesn’t mean they don’t work hard and long, it just means that they haven’t dedicated their lives to a fictitious professionalism defined by a quantifiable 80%. When one sacrifices what one loves in order to be a professional one becomes a whore. (yes that’s strong, but necessary.)

I came across this NY Times blog post by Glenn Branca. The downtown musical impresario is leveling many of these same complaints about Postmodernism and its links to the larger economic culture:

“For more than half a century we’ve seen incredible advances in sound technology but very little if any advance in the quality of music. In this case the paradigm shift may not be a shift but a dead stop. Is it that people just don’t want to hear anything new? Or is it that composers and musicians have simply swallowed the pomo line that nothing else new can be done, which ironically is really just the “old, old story.”” (italics & bold are mine)

And in Fluff Chance’s wonderful blog on the fashion industry written in this post by Brooksie:

“The editors of mainstream fashion mags seem to get stuck in a rut of encouraging young designers to make the same things over and over again, but trying to pass it off as “new” to the public. Some of us have longer memories than this. Where are the real critiques in fashion today and why are they lacking?” (bold is mine)

The wonderful Charlie Finch in his recent column on Artnet:

“What has been built on the Warhol plinth is an inverted pyramid of static, plutocratic branding that crushes the hope of any further development in artistic innovation. Everything is a rerun. Until the walls of the wealthy are destroyed, there is no hope for art.”

And finally, Dave Hickey in his recent Art in America column breaks it down for us:

“When the goal of making a profit is replaced by the goal of making an enormous profit, the vision of the artist, high or low, is replaced by the dream of a franchise that can be perpetually reconstituted, a Pirates of the Caribbean that can please almost everybody but no one in particular.” AIA November 2009

It is the lockstep conformity and the lack of questioning ourselves that drives our current alpha market. We accept and believe what we are are told and we marvel at the price tag and the salary.  We see this alpha market in the current controversy at the NuMu. We see it at the art fairs, auction houses and galleries. We see it in the institutions, academies and studios. We see it in our reliance on the computer screen, the program and the lens.

As more voices are raising questions, maybe we can finally say that we are approaching a tipping point, that new and different ideas will be sought out and heard. However, before we reach the tipping point, it’s going to take a bit of a reality check in our omega world. We have to do some real soul searching so that we can shovel out the alpha world along with its 80% bullshit. Real change comes from the bottom up. It always has and it always will. It’s up to us to change first.

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