Art Plus Time
“One wants to be an artist. One is an artist. One wants to be an artist in control of one’s environment. One is an artist in control of one’s environment. One thinks one is. One thinks one is not. One wants to be one thinking one is in control of one’s environment. One is. One is not.”
AA Bronson, The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat
“In the future, everyone will be a LLC”
Kyle Chayka via Twitter
We are in a neutral room. We are in a conference room. We are at a conference. We are at a professional development seminar. We are reading a blog. We are building our brand. We receive our degree. Our second degree. We are starting our career. We are learning how to make it. We are learning how to make a living. We hear that we are all entrepreneurs. We are small businesses. We are cultural workers. We are owed a living wage. We can’t sell our work. We aren’t sure we want to. We want to sustain it. But is it work?
In a recent article, The Excel Depression, Paul Krugman describes a spreadsheet error two Harvard economists propagated that led to widespread assumptions on austerity and the costs of economic recovery, bluntly stating, “In this age of information, math errors can lead to disaster.” Seems like an apt enough metaphor. The spreadsheet we use to deduce art’s value is built around assumptions, laced with inherent errors. There is an x in our equations, redefining the productive function of art – the ineffable outcomes of artistic action reduced to statistics. Errors can lead to disaster, but perhaps our danger is in the act of doing math in the first place. Art and economics, the shared death grip of both the art market and post-occupy action; the ground we all stand on.
A brief glance through any contemporary art publication, this one included, will read like a primer on Post-Fordist labor, with an added anxiety of art’s existential irrelevance in contemporary society. Perhaps it is this acute anxiety that seduces us to the corporeal language economics lends. Even if we critique, lament and loathe neoliberalism, it is the room we move in, the world we assume to be true. Art’s economic function is one of its few measurable traits. It is demonstrable, so we depend on it for relevance. Framing art as tangential to business allows us a place at the table with civic leaders and entrepreneurs, not to mention granters, galleries and collectors.
Entering a discussion with almost any of these entities, however, typically guarantees that artists are asked to act like small businesses and cottage industries. We must contribute to recovery and growth, tourism and redevelopment. Our output must be marketable and hold its value over time. Social practice bleeds into social work, minus the hourly salary; placemaking and the creative class become blunt tools used by city halls and chambers of commerce. We are being lost to these definitions, allowing the ineffable act of art to be reduced to output, economic indicators, market, measurement. There is comfort in numbers. It is some meaning, at least.
This trend has been decried, of course. The post-Occupy environment is charged with oppositional energy, from the Free Cooper Union actions currently underway and the flyers scattered at Frieze criticizing the fair for avoiding unionized labor, to numerous other micro-movements and local actions around the globe. However, even these groups and other high-profile efforts such as W.A.G.E and Precarious Workers Brigade, foreground art’s relationship to labor and payment rather than its revolutionary or emancipatory potential. If the demands of these actions succeed, then artists are guaranteed more standardized payment as a labor force, fairer hiring policies, and affordable tuition. Is that really what is at issue? Art as an investigation into ideas and experimentation with the forms in and of the world does not correlate with payment. Have artists been seeking proper payment for their work throughout history or is this undermining the very nature of our attempts at creating a new world, alternate spheres of action, and creative thought? Again, is art work?
Our revolutionary ideals haven’t panned out, so in AA Bronson’s phrasing, we’ve become bureaucrats. We are placemakers, grant writers, civic consultants, Kickstarter accountants. As a group, we’ve become a brand — willing participants in systems we neither like nor understand. Of all possible options, entrepreneurial models have dominated the last decade of contemporary art. So far, the primary protest has been to unionize as a group for fairer wages and less debt, with diminishing returns.
Artists understand the dangers of the commercial art market, but at present seem to have a blind spot in regard to the subtle influence of the language of economics on how and why they work. A quick look through any artist survey, course curriculum or training seminar will quickly reveal a pervasive interest in “professional development,” a phrase functionally defined as “how the act of making art can be a career.” Debt has crept into the studio through the educational industry, creating a psychic burden on thousands of artists per year. This simple act of taking on debt for one’s art implicitly inscribes how an artist could even conceive other possibilities. In a recent exhibition I was involved in, someone commented on the statement, “Artists can do many things themselves, but who helps support artists?” with the question of “What do artists need, other than money to support themselves and their work?” It was an earnest question and one that perhaps many artists can’t answer. Does it return, finally, to money? If art’s value is primarily economic, and all that artists need is money, then it is simply an industry among others.
Village Voice art critic Christian Viveros-Faune offers an odd summation of artist Theaster Gates’s characteristic channeling of commercial art success into community-based projects in Chicago, St. Louis and Omaha, stating, “But what strikes me about his art is that he doesn’t turn his back on money. What Theaster understands is that the best kind of art is business art—that is a defining triumph—because he can put it back into the community.” Gates, for his part, recognizes that “the stakes are very high” – both for the communities involved and his own career.
This tight-wire balance is at play throughout the art world, as contemporary art advances further into the fields of entertainment and fashion, while attempting to maintain distance in its supposed intentions. In her recent review of the Frieze New York Art Fair for e-flux offshoot Art Agenda, Karen Archey concludes with a remarkable statement in both its perceptiveness and honesty:
“It could be argued that Frieze (and not entirely unlike this publication) is built on a highly commercial yet alternative, self-sustaining funding system. This well-oiled machine accrues cultural capital from Frieze’s exceptionally edited magazine, which in turn creates an attractive brand, fueling the pay-to-play desire to show in the fair. While this structure isn’t especially pernicious, it explicitly represents a new model of power: just to be rich or cool isn’t enough to claim your place at the front of the rat race. Today, you have to be both.”
This is, in a cruel turn, correct. It is indicative of the explosive stasis of the moment. The world of contemporary art is vital and volatile, speculative and speculated. It is frothing, yet seemingly going nowhere. Is this the defining characteristic of our moment? Highly commercial, yet alternative self-sustaining funding systems – not just Frieze, or e-flux, but Theaster Gates’s unique ecosystem; the online auction industry spearheaded by Paddle8 and Artsy; the CSA’s, subscriptions services and editions; the artist-as-small-business; the academic-adjunct MFA pyramid scheme; the day-to-day ways we all work to sustain a meaningful practice.
But, of course, these are not all equal. Some circulate in a rarefied sphere that never return value to the creators – economic or otherwise. Some attempt the delicate procedure of using commerce to create a viable alternative. This is what we really seek: a full-throated, bodily alternative based on the free creative exchange inherent in art. The question is whether it is created through or outside of neoliberal economics. Art plus time may equal economic growth, but the market grows without us. We know very well by now that economic growth no longer correlates to a real shift in our lived experience. Art as a means of business, as an economic tool, will always dissipate its power into a spreadsheet error. Perhaps our best hope is to provide the spectral glitch new speculations are based on, the unfounded x in our undefined calculus.