Dirty: a manifesto
As an artist I am often asked, “Where does your money come from?” The question usually comes in two variations. The first is largely innocent and occurs whenever my relatives or members of the nonart public, having in my presence come across an artwork I have made, genuinely wonder how it can be possible to get paid for having made it. When I explain that there are many people who like to look at artworks and compare them to other ones over time, and a few in that group who are even willing to pay extraordinary amounts of money (relative to materials and labor) for what they feel are the most interesting examples, my nonart friends squint their eyes a little and cock their heads at me, as if something suspicious was going on. When I resort by way of example to the goings-on at craft fairs and eBay they brighten, because they all know someone who earns a living making handbags or who sold their Star Wars memorabilia for fifty thousand dollars. After they tell me about someone who has been similarly fortunate, I nod and say, “Yeah, art’s just like that.” Unfailingly, their heads straighten and their squints dissolve. They still don’t know anything about art, but at least they understand how it works, and how something works is always a more nagging question than what the same thing might mean.
The second variant of the question about my money is usually posed by graduate students and architects, and is much more angry and troubling. It is intended to undermine my authority as an invited speaker or to expose a conceit I clearly have, a brickbat hurled from behind the stanchions of real-life drudgery that is the domain of graduate students and architects. That doesn’t bother me. My veins are already coursing with the homeopathic toxins of commerce, so I’m immune to such naive humiliations.
What does bother me about total strangers being concerned with my money, though, is the presumption that earning a living is not an acceptable motivation for an artist. To me, and for better or worse, all art is nothing if not a proposal for how the current situation might be altered at a profit. That that profit is often not immediately apparent to us is nothing against an artwork or its maker, and I, for one, refuse to live in a society where skilled individuals cannot earn a living however they please. If my best chance at making a living entails patenting a recipe for synthetic dirt, then I can only expect that a liberal, capitalist democracy such as ours will afford a niche in which I can ply my trade; otherwise, the philosophical pillars of our society would be revealed to be not as liberal or democratic as they seem.
For that reason, and that reason alone, nothing is more impressive or politically reaffirming than an artist who is gainfully self-employed. The energies that have produced this romantic pragmatism are complex and quite unintended. Ironically enough — and as strange as it might seem to people today — such liberal, tolerant, encouraging ideals were an essential part of the founding of our country. Now, amateur scholars and paid commentators alike tend to assert that digital technology is responsible for making our atomized world of independent contractors more viable than old-fashioned, centralized workplaces. That may be true, but it doesn’t explain how such a broad appreciation for being self-employed came about in the first place. Having grown up in Niagara Falls, New York, a region of the United States that is only now recovering from the recession of 1991 and embracing the infotainment casino economy, the current spate of self-reliance is in fact the natural fallout from four decades of corporate merging, downsizing, and outsourcing. The initial shock of so many people losing their jobs and having their lives disrupted has been more than offset by their bedrock mistrust of any institution or corporation that promises to look out for their well-being when profits are at stake.
During my youth, many of my parents’ friends had no choice but to capitalize on whatever they were good at as a means of making a living, turning weekend avocations like crocheting Afghans or restoring cars into legitimate business enterprises. Over time, self-pity evolved into self-survival evolved into self-actualization as entrepreneur, a low-tech, self-sufficient state of mind that is ideally suited to the cottage industry that is the Internet. Current Internal Revenue Service statistics report that one in every five working Americans is self-employed, and some economists, counting people like commissioned salespersons and wait staff who are technically employed but whose incomes are largely self-generated, put the ratio as high as one in three. Thus, the more the necessity of having a unique and profitable skill permeates our culture the more the occupation of being an artist is appreciated, and the more young people can look to iconoclastic artists when choosing a livelihood.
The lesson, of course, is that it’s much easier to make a living at something if as few other people as possible are also doing it. Where thousands of artists continue to burn money and resources slavishly imitating a mainstream culture with which they can never compete, the real growth opportunities are in obscure enterprises where competition is low and materials cheap.
Just as Marshall McLuhan observed that people didn’t know they wanted televisions until televisions were invented, how can the audience for art know what it wants until we, as artists, invent it for them? And, given that opportunity, how can any of us believe it’s in our long-range interest to go on appropriating a popular culture that our customers already know and have?
In the end, and quite ironically, a “difficult” artist like Agnes Martin is a much more profitable role model than her more agreeable counterparts could ever be. Her arcane skills and restrained production methods epitomize such concepts as personal branding, value adding and inventory velocity, state-of-the-art business innovations that she and the likes of On Kawara or David Hammons have never gotten credit for. Until now.
The avant-garde lives! Not because it’s more meaningful or radical than any other activity, but because it fills a legitimate market niche.