Teaching with Contemporary Art

On representations of the artist at work (Part 2)

Jackson Pollock at work in his studio, photographed by Hans Namuth, 1950.

Jackson Pollock at work in his studio, photographed by Hans Namuth, 1950.

Following up our discussion about documentation of the creative process in the cases of Mark Bradford and Jackson Pollock, my students and I talked about what we might include in an Art21-style documentary about the artist at work* based upon our own experiences and observations. In the interest of  presenting a more representative picture of the artist at work in the 21st century, we brainstormed a list of scenes and topics that included:

Working at a day job
Many (if not most) artists need to find day jobs to support their art practice. This goes for both young artists who are just starting out as well as artists who are actively showing their work. Unlike in most professions, artists do not receive a regular salary or wage for their creative labor. An artist’s day job may or may not relate specifically to his or her artistic interests. These jobs may include: working as a studio assistant to a more established artist, museum administrator, teacher/professor/educational staff, gallery receptionist, retail associate, bartender, and freelance gigs (to name a few).

Art school
We talked about some of the (sometimes intangible) lessons and skills that we learn in art school. One is the importance of being part of an artistic community of peers, collaborators, and mentors. Another is discourse, or learning how to talk about art. This is a skill developed in both group critique settings and faculty reviews. Group critique is a process by which an artwork’s meaning is generated through collective conversation and debate. It is also a process of judgment and consensus. It is difficult to say whether art school prepares students for a career, a way of life, and/or a way of thinking. But upon graduating from art school, a common concern among young (American) artists is the need to pay off their student loans for tuition debt incurred during their artistic training.

Career trajectories
Artists are usually chosen to be featured in a documentary when they have achieved a measure of success and recognition in their careers. They have been included in major exhibitions, collections, and commissions.  Their work has been written about in influential publications, and it has attained a level of maturity and context. However, besides focusing on this select group of artists, a documentary series could also represent artists at different points in their careers to show the highs, lows, and plateaus in the life of a working artist. This would include artists who are just starting out, artists who have had long careers without wide recognition, as well as individuals who have stopped pursuing careers in art for various reasons, or are doing interesting things that may not be called art.

Democracy in America: W.A.G.E. from Creative Time on Vimeo.

K8 Hardy speaking on behalf of W.A.G.E. RAGE at the Park Avenue Armory (2008). From Creative Time on Vimeo. Video by Benjamin Brown.

We considered two artist projects that tackle the subject of the artist at work. The first being W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy), a coalition of artists working “to draw attention to economic equalities that exist in the arts, and to resolve them.” The latter was brought to my attention by Naomi Beckwith‘s recent Art21 blog post, “Lilly Ledbetter* Art” We watched artist K8 Hardy’s W.A.G.E. RAGE address at the Convergence Center at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City, which was part of the Creative Time event Democracy in America: The National Campaign.

In her address, Hardy directly challenges exploitative practices and systemic flaws in the art world that artists have quietly accepted over the years. Namely, when art institutions and curators show (living) artists’ works, it is assumed that artists do not need to be paid because they are gaining “exposure” and “cultural capital.” Hardy and the other W.A.G.E. representatives argue that these intangible quantities simply do not pay the rent, other living expenses, and material expenses incurred by artists, especially in an expensive “cultural capital” (ahem, pun intended) like New York City.

(FYI, For those of you in New York City, the next W.A.G.E. meeting will take place on Thursday, March 26, 2009 at 7 pm. Location: Judson Church – Assembly Hall; 239 Thompson Street; New York, NY 10012. E-mail wageforwork[at]gmail[dot]com to join their mailing list.)

"The Pablo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style" by Pablo Helguera, Jorge Pinto Books, 2007.

"The Pablo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style" by Pablo Helguera, Jorge Pinto Books, 2007.

We also discussed artist Pablo Helguera‘s book The Pablo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style (2007). The book is a take-no-prisoners tongue-in-cheek social etiquette guide to the mannerisms of and power dynamics among contemporary art world players. My students and I read the book’s introduction together, called, “The Rose-Colored Glasses Syndrome (A Realistic View of the Art World),” which includes the following passage:

Many of those who enter into the visual arts field—typically, the art and art history students—have a set of early experiences that has made them extremely critical of the art world. In certain cases, their disappointment is so deep that they cannot appreciate any value in art. But without being able to consider abandoning it, they remain in it, making their lives, along with the lives of those around them, even bitterer. Some of them will resort to teaching in order to sabotage the careers of the younger generation; some may choose criticism in order the sabotage the careers of all artists; and some may choose arts administration in museums in order to expand their destructive capability to include the general public.**

The book is a collection of observations of that which ordinarily goes unsaid in the art world, which complicates and ruptures “an idealistic notion about…spiritual or metaphysical fulfillment” in art. However, Helguera maintains a bemused ambivalence about his subjects by writing in the tone of a “Miss Manners” guide, allowing for subtler truths and subtexts to emerge.*** I introduced this text to my students in France because I want our discussions about contemporary art to also function as a forum for addressing the students’ own practical concerns beyond school walls. In art school, it can be difficult to bring up the topics of “success” and “the art world” without making people cringe. However, it’s a disservice to young artists not to talk about these subjects in a pro-active way.

What both W.A.G.E. and Pablo Helguera accomplish in these projects is a structural analysis of the art world from an artist’s point of view.****

* The link is to Wikipedia’s synopsis of the wonderfully moribund Albert Camus short story, “The Artist at Work” (Jonas, ou l’artiste au travail).
** I fear that this passage diagnoses my current mental state as an artist and educator.
*** Personally, I prefer Helguera’s book to Sarah Thornton‘s Seven Days in the Art World, which presents itself as a more objective sociological study of many of the same subjects.
**** Another classic read on this topic is Adrian Piper’s essay, “Power Relations Within Existing Art Institutions” (1983), published in her book, Out of Order, Out of Sight (Vol. II).


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