Don’t Be a Bybee
Greetings everyone. I have been invited to write a little for SoCiArts and I have decided to call my column "The Frame" because I wish to explore how creativity is constrained and framed by our political and economic institutions. I have made my living as a visual artist for about 20 years and I found ways of doing this without participating in traditional venues, competitions, grant writing and those sorts of things largely because I believe that our art industry does more to crush creativity than it does to broaden it. The general theme of "The Frame" is to encourage artists (which in itself is an elitist concept that we need to think about) to resist the old institutions of the art industry and to help build our own new institutions in their place. In this resistance lies not only creativity but also beauty and justice.
So here's the question: is it possible to have a fulfilling art career in visual art and not contribute to the general elitism that is so thoroughly part of the art world today? I think it is difficult.
I have noticed, over the years, that many people, when they take a look at art that I make, respond with an apology: "I know nothing about art but...." And then they proceed to tell me what they like or dislike. This common response speaks volumes, does it not? For those of us who make art objects, it ought to set off alarm bells: our audience - and our market - is telling us that there is something off-putting about the world in which we work.
This is how I explain this common response: art is not simply a thing of value; it is the thing of value. Art is, rightly or wrongly, the measure of our species. Not surprisingly, then, in a society where one's worth is measured by what one accumulates, the rich and famous, on becoming the rich and famous, must possess art. It is an imperative. Not only does it give the rich and famous that coveted patina of "sophistication," it does something a whole lot better: it absolves them of their crimes. So for example, Don Fisher may make billions off of Gap sweatshops around the world, but he is a good guy. Why? Because he a major art collector and he is also building a contemporary art museum in San Francisco's Presidio. He doesn't have to account for the crushing of the creativity of tens of thousands; he is Don Fisher, important art guy. And because of this, he is a better person than the rest of us.
This modern day alchemy doesn't happen all by itself. It requires the simultaneous meshing of several gears:
1. It requires, as New York Times art critic Holland Carter notes, "cadres of public relations specialists - otherwise known as critics, curators, editors, publishers and career theorists - who provide timely updates on what desirable means."
2. It requires a certain kind of "art education," one that is premised on the assumption that the public is stupid, that they couldn't possibly understand art the way the experts do and so they must be taught to like art that they find ugly or offensive.
3. It requires that art equals exclusivity. If the public knows what they like, believes in and trusts what they like - whatever that may be, the cadre of experts are out of a job. And worse, people like Don Fisher couldn't buy indulgences or absolution. (Remember that so many great artists, from Beethoven to jazz and Rock'n Roll musicians, were derogated by the experts precisely because the popular response was immediate and positive. That the dangerous classes know more than the experts is, by definition, not possible.)
4. And most important, artists themselves need to play along. It is one thing for an artist to be critical of, say, war or racism or things like conformity. That's to be expected. But if you attack the art industry, that's quite another thing altogether. It's simply not allowed.
What is also of note is how artists, especially those of us who consider ourselves progressive, tend to miss all this. That is an achievement of sorts because even mainstream observers point to the startling corruptions that is all around us. Holland Cotter is offended: "Many of [the art] specialists are, directly or indirectly, on the industry payroll, which is controlled by another set of personnel: the dealers, brokers, advisers, financiers, lawyers and - crucial in the era of art fairs - event planners who represent the industry's marketing and sales division. They are the people who scan school rosters, pick off fresh talent, direct careers and, by some inscrutable calculus, determine what will sell for what. Not that these departments are in any way separated; ethical firewalls are not this industry's style."
Or consider Robert Hughes, influential art critic for TIME magazine: "The art market we have today did not pop up overnight. It was created by the great liquidity of late-twentieth-century wealth....But liquids do not flow where you want them to unless you dig channels, and this patient hydraulic effort has been, since 1960 one of the wonders of cultural engineering."
Or note Alice Goldfarb Marquis in her The Art Biz (a must read):
The sedate language of connoisseurship now veils the most vulgar transactions of the marketplace. The measured tones of critics and scholars mask flagrant conflict of interest. The respected discourse of art patronage conceals within its noble folds the dull gleam of naked greed. The sober prose of critics and scholars obscures a seething bazaar. Within this labyrinth, artists, except for a handful of art stars, are but appendages, of no more significance than the maker of some other novelty, say, Mickey Mouse T-shirts.
So where does that leave us? If we are truly interested in career, we need to build a resume. Often this means submitting work for inane competitions devised by people who wish to sound political but who would rather die than rock the boat. One such competition, called Intersection In-Between, is typical. It invited artists to "contemplate the space in between those occupied by bureaucratic power and humanitarian bankruptcy; between moving images of the imagination and the filmic medium arrested in space and time; between divinity and the body; and between a cross-cultural other and self." Does that make any sense to you?
I'm afraid that many young artists at "good" art schools harbor fantasies of becoming art stars. This truly requires that you sell your soul. Take Andy Warhol, who achieved iconic art star status. He was a true darling of the better people. Not only did he help transform the studio into a miserable factory, but he also transformed the images of America's nobility into priceless collectibles. So "successful" was he that when the Shah of Iran, in the 70s, sought to buy western art to prove that his reign was as chic as any Camelot, there was our man Andy, ready to toady up to the Pahlavis. Warhol in the parlor, SAVAK in the basement, to paraphrase Robert Hughes.
There are little cracks and niches we can survive within, but if we are serious, as individuals, in building a career within the art industry as it exists today, we will always be compelled to serve the powerful in their efforts to control creativity to advance their own privilege. It doesn't matter what swanky exhibition we find our way into; there will always be SAVAK in the basement.
It is worth reflecting on the career of torture judge, Judge Jay Bybee. It wasn't enough that he had a cushy job as Assistant Attorney General in the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel making well over 100k per year. He wanted to climb the ladder. He wanted a federal judgeship, a lifetime appointment. He wanted well over 200k a year, plus access to power, the chauffeur, the attention, pats on the back galore and dignity to spare. So he wrote those really dumb memos to please the boss and get promoted. What dumb things must we do to move ahead?
The whole point of having the privilege of doing creative work is to become more of who we already are, not to be career toadies in a corrupt industry because that means we will never become more of who we are. To do creative work that enables us to grow or as Emma Goldman stated to become "larger, more beautiful, more powerful" requires that we, along with others, exercise control over what we do. It's great that some of us make work with a political dimension. But let's keep in mind that art objects, whatever the intended message is suppose to be, are, in the end, just things. A political artist is not someone who makes art with a political dimension; a political artist is someone who helps build a movement with other artists to confront and transform the art industry for the better.
I'm reminded of Palo Freire, the great Brazilian educator, who taught us that "oppression is domesticating. To no longer be prey to its force, one must emerge from it and turn upon it." So here's my point: don't be a Bybee. We must emerge from the art industry and, together, turn upon it.