Tuesday, January 31, 2012

See Red: W.A.G.E. Asks "Why Are Artists Poor?"

Damien Hirst Spot Glasses (2012); Kyle Petreycik, Introspective Glasses (2010)

On the heels of recording a conversation about ArtPrize and social justice I was invited by the artist William Powhida to a lecture titled Why are Artists Poor? by the Dutch economist/artist Hans Abbing and sponsored by an organization called W.A.G.E. - a group that is seeking to certify nonprofit arts organizations as artist friendly. I commented on Ben Davis account of the lecture, and Bill and I posted both our reactions to the lecture on Rhizome a couple days ago, but following the lecture we also took part in on a meeting for W.A.G.E. and then, along with the photographer Chris Verene, the critics Ben Davis and Martha Schwendener ended up finishing out the night discussing economic justice and the arts over a few beers. Of the group, all of whom, to some degree or an other have been involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement, I am the least engaged (I am not involved in W.A.G.E. or OWS, beyond joining a couple of the large marches and publicly denouncing the early hi-jinx of Occupy Museum), but one of the things that has come up over and over since Zuccotti was first occupied, is what is the lesson artists should learn from OWS.

It is hard for me to know exactly where I fit in on the political spectrum that night at the bar. Ben Davis told me he was a Marxist, but that was in the context of his outrage over Abbing's negative take on government subsidies for the arts. Its safe to say I wasn't far from the group's mean. The question that got batted around the most that night was how much energy should artists be spending worry about themselves; when does advocating for artists become a drain from the more important focus of the Occupy movement? While I feel strongly that artists should not distract any energy from the cause of fighting for economic justice, I feel strongly that W.A.G.E. is doing the right thing and doing it the right way.

Pretending artists are rich: Damien Hirst posing with his diamond encrusted skull; William Powhida, GENIUS, with his BASTARD doppelgänger.

The most important take away I had from that evening is something that really rubbed Ben Davis wrong, and that was Abbing's point that no amount of government subsides will raise the great majority of artists who live in poverty out of poverty. Davis felt Abbings argument was Malthusian, zero sum game nonsense, and while I understand Davis' point, that is not what I heard. What I heard was that the artists are not like other poor people, that short of a lottery-like dump of money, they are going to spend whatever extra money they on making more art. Abbing didn't make any friends that night when he pointed out "generally, people don't like the poor." It was an indelicate phrasing, but he is not a native English speaker (he sounded just like Mike Myers Goldmember) - and an economist speaking to artists. The crowd seemed to interpret Abbing as approving of the fact that the is normally a powerful negative stigma associated with poverty, but it seemed clear to me he was making an observation, not a judgment.

The answer to the poverty of artists and the disparity of income between the art stars and most other artists is simple: the New York art world is unfair and out of whack, because America is unfair and out of whack. I really don't mind being poor. The worst part about it however is the awareness of how much more unbearable it would be if I had a predatory landlord who felt free to prey on me because I am poor; if I knew that if someone in my family got sick not only could I not do anything to help them, but no one else could either. If people hated me for my poverty. The image that keeps coming to mind since that evening is public benches: here in New York City public benches are always divided into sections too small for a man to lie down across. Rather than house our poor, American designers have been enlisted to make public spaces inhospitable to the homeless. Artists wouldn't need special accommodation for their poverty if the poor weren't abandon to such terrible depths.
Man sleeping on NYC subway bench; Hans Abbing lecture slide.

I believe it is wrong headed for artist to attack museums as if they are somehow equivalents to the vanishingly small group of Mitt Romney-like creeps who crashed the global economy. Before artists transplant the disruptive tactics from OWS, we should emulate Occupy Wall Street's most amazing achievement. Before the drum circles and mace, a small group of radical Leftists elegantly changed the terms of the national debate. Using public debate jujitsu, OWS cut the legs out from under the deficit hawks. Overnight the political discussion went from rich guys harping on from tax-cutting and austerity (truly Malthusian zero-sum games), and for the first time in my adult life, became about economic inequality. OWS did that by means of an elegantly simple rhetorical turn. The radical Left, which has long though of themselves as an avant-garde, the politically conscious 1%, suddenly reinvented themselves as the 99% - that is the lesson artist should learn from OWS.

Artist need to stop thinking of themselves as a special and tiny fringe, unconcerned with crass commercial concerns, or too invested in our vision to sell out. We are poor people. But just because we are poor doesn't mean we shouldn't have healthcare or shouldn't be able to visit dentists. Being poor shouldn't open us to predatory dept, exclude us from pursuing our educational goals, or mean that we should live in fear that any small mishap we land us on the street. The most radical thing artists could be right now is poor. But I do not mean "the proletariat" or "workers." Contemporary artists are poor consumers - a class we usually associate with holiday shopping riots at Walmart. But consumerism was conceptualized by Cold Warriors like Charles Eames as an answer to the seductive threat posed to the asset owning class by the promises of the Soviets. To counter the radical economic equality of the communists, consumerism promised "the best, to the most, for the least." There is no reason that promise should extend to flat screen TVs and not to healthcare and education.
Charles and Ray Eames; Hans Abbing lecture slide.


  1. In the original 1965 National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, the act by which the NEA was ater founded it states...

    "The practice of art and the study of the humanities require constant dedication and devotion. While no govermment can call a great artist or scholar into existence, it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent."

    This policy was the continuation of John Kennedy's belief that the future would be championed by the individual and that not just "the arts" but artists need to be aided by support to foster the cultural society we said we cherished.
    That idea was to be attacked in the 1980's by the religious right when Don Wildmon took out media ads attacking certain art exhibitions and soliciting politicians such as Jesse Helms to aid in his attack. Wildmon went on to established the politically active American Family Association one of the most organized and well funded, far right organizations. And the culture war was on.

    The idea that artists could not be trusted with direct support was created by the religious right and effects public policy to this day. Public support of the arts has intentionally been changed from the support of the creation of art within our culture to the presentation of the arts. The NEA budget today is equivalent to one new f-35 fighter jet and a pilot. That money is parceled out in a politically safe manner from one arts administration to another progressing down nationally to regionally to locally, all who must abide contractually to undefined but strong stressed standards of decency, diversity and the public appreciation. We have turned in Karen Finley for the NutCracker.

    A vision has been sold in America. That vision was one where art really did matter to who we were as a people. That vision was one where art informed us and we informed the world with our art. (sidenote: Kennedy felt pressure to have an American culture that wasn't always looking to europe). That vision has been sold to a Richard Florida type world where artist, writers and performers have been demeaned to a small subset of what he terms the real Creative Class, the media, technology and entertainment groups of society. We are poor because we aren't special anymore in the general societies eyes.

  2. Thanks Richard. I wonder how you explain America's on going cultural relevance in comparison to other nations that support the arts and artists through government subsidies? I ask because I don't have an answer.

    I like to tease European artists when they show me their hard covered exhibition catalogs about how great Socialism is. Part of the joke is that Europeans look at the US art market with just as much longing. For myself, the best of both worlds would to be a New York artist with Scandinavian healthcare. I'd be curious if there are any European readers who want to chime in.

    I would like to see an end to the Neo-Liberal regressive taxation that has made Mitt Romney and the rest of America's 1% so enormously rich. I would like to see that money spent on universal healthcare and education - but not the arts. Let American artists' well being stay linked to the rest of America's poor. As their prospects rise, so will ours. If Abbing is right, and artists are the rarest of all birds: the highly esteemed poor, then maybe the desperation of our poverty will act as a catalyst, for those otherwise unmoved by the plight of the poor. (Again, Mitt Romney leaps to mind.)