I was lucky enough to be employed,
Working for a while on a fishing boat
right outside of Delacroix.
But all the while I was alone
and the past was close behind.
A few months ago, one of Jeff Koons’ ten foot tall balloon dog sculptures sold for a record breaking $58 million.
Based on a composite of differing accounts, it was just over thirty years ago – disgusted by his lack of sales in New York – that Koons had moved to Florida to live with his parents. He adjusted course and studied to become a commodities trader on Wall Street. It was then that Jeff Koons was able to fund the work he wanted to make.
In Part 2 of Who Is The Cross Disciplinary Artist?, we briefly discussed Francis Bacon – his work, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, also sold in 2013 for a record breaking sum. Like Bacon, Koons’ path to art success would be considered unusual by most in the art world. But, should it?
Artist Disqualifier: Employment Outside of the Arts
Many who follow the accepted arts education path go on to a career somewhere “in the arts” – whether it be in an arts organization, gallery, teaching, or the broader field of arts administration, as it is called. This is exactly what some of them want to do. For others, it is not exactly what they had in mind.
For those that are doing what they love, part of the compensation is exactly that – doing what you love. Many in this category accept that there is limited potential financial value but intrinsic value in this career path (For a painful shot of Adam Smith on the topic, here is a Forbes article).
On the faces of those who find themselves in a different reality, you will observe a kind of stupefied look of . . . Why don’t others value what we in the arts do or how hard we work? Or: They (meaning everyone else) should pay for this work we do. It’s important!
As I heard a friend say in a talk recently: “An artist’s time and materials do not factor in to the cost of the work. You can charge $12,000, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.”
That’s some tough love, and in so many other fields, these variables would be a factor. In the end, the kernel of truth in this statement is: What is the added value that this person’s hand has brought to these materials? Whether you like Adam Smith and Austrian Economics or not, the market can be a real bitch.
So, Here’s the Rub: How Do You Fund Work?
For many, like Koons, the motivation to make the work you want to make is greater than a) the need to professionally identify absolutely as someone “in the arts” and b) the discomfort of performing your second, third, or fourth desired occupation to generate the capital necessary to support your art making.
This is an important distinction. It gets at the heart of the importance of the creative mind, its process, and its pursuits. Some spend their days not doing what they want to do most in life, but in turn having the resources to support some or most of their creative pursuits. Others grind their days away doing something closer to what they want to do, but never having the resources to fully realize their visions either.
The fact is this: A creative mind brings that creativity and vision to all pursuits in life. As we’ve unfortunately learned since 2008, high finance can be an incredibly creative field. Half-joking aside, entrepreneurship, for example, is every bit as creative a pursuit as painting, performance, or sculpture. In fact, it’s arguably more creative and more beneficial to more people.
Ultimately, an artist’s practice – if profitability is part of the plan – is an entrepreneurial activity itself. And just like a startup in any other industry, it takes upfront capital and usually, ongoing infusions of capital. For most, that means employment outside of an art practice.
These are the indisputable facts to be observed routinely and repeatedly throughout the art world. At the risk of going on an Objectivism-fueled rant here, outside of private benefactors, until a third party extorts from other parties the necessary funds to satisfactorily support the artist’s self, family, and work, market forces will continue to be the driving factor. Spoiler alert: Those necessary funds will never be enough.
But, Here’s The Other Rub: What About Time?
As mentioned in the first in this series of articles, it is often said by respected voices in the contemporary art world that for one to be a “serious” artist, he or she must work full-time at that practice.
It’s nice to think that this qualifier could be so neatly black and white. And, I once saw some merit in the argument. But, this idea is absolutely wrong, and it stems from fallacies regarding the nature of work and productivity.
Paraphrased and in a nutshell from the Boundless textbook content on the topic:
Given that the technology available in a particular industry or economy allows firms to use labor and capital more or less efficiently, changes in technology alter the combination of inputs required in the production process. An improvement in technology usually means that fewer and/or less costly inputs are needed.
It is for this very reason that fewer executives had secretaries in the 1990s or assistants in the 2010s. People can now perform most of those same tasks on their own. So, rather than send everyone home each day just after lunch, companies quit hiring secretaries and assistants. One person’s time became all that was required to do what was once the work of two people. The Above Average Joe still works his 40 hour week, and the shareholder – who might also be the Above Average Joe – benefits from the profits.
These same principles are at work in an art practice as well. Sure, an artist can dedicate 40-80 hours a week to being an artist and making the work they want to make. That this is required of an artist however, involves a number of flawed assumptions including this critical one: All tasks tied to production demand the same amount of time and resources from every artist everywhere.
Sure, there are always things to be done when you’re an artist. But do those things yield a return on investment – tangible or intangible – for your practice that is greater than “outside” pursuits might? It’s one question an artist asks daily, knowingly or unknowingly.
Skeptical? Check out Hayek’s The Pure Theory of Capital. Or, observe these very forces at work in the studios of the world’s most successful artists, including that of our friend Jeff Koons. How might his time outside of “the arts” have enriched his work, his practice, and ultimately, contemporary art as we now know it? I think we have an idea. The truth is, he was never away from the art.
The sooner we in the arts community take the blinders off and have a more realistic understanding of the economics, motivations, and diverse viewpoints that are really in play, the sooner everyone benefits. True diversity of viewpoints and experience are critical if contemporary art is to meaningfully engage people.
Meanwhile, the creative minds of artists that can solve practical problems and speak beyond the rote topics of artspeak are sorely needed in professional pursuits outside of the usual “accepted” arts occupations.
In the end, the idea that being a serious artist absolutely requires undivided attention to tasks directly associated to being an artist undermines the artist’s potential while shortchanging the viewer and our wider culture. We all lose.
Disagree? Agree? What Would Marx Say (WWMS)? Unload here.