Flash Points

Is the Avenue for Artistic Success Ethical?

Shopping bag from the 2009 Armory Show. Photo credit: David Willems.

Accepting the trope of the struggling artist, many decide to go ahead and brazenly attempt to carve out a spot for themselves in the art world. You just need to be willing to work really, really hard, right? Right? If only it were that simple. If only the system that determines success for an artist working in the U.S. today lived up to the expectations set forth by our meritocratic upbringing, where hard work and a little pluck can elevate you to the top.

Instead, most artists quickly find that they are reliant on a system of various profit-driven art institutions with a general mission to foster original thinking and multiple modes of expression, while simultaneously practicing narrowly focused methods of supporting the careers of artists. Jennifer Dalton highlights this point in her recent Flash Points interview with Hrag Vartanian, stating that, “what used to be multiple avenues of artistic ‘success’ have winnowed down into the single definition of conspicuous validation by the art market.” Oh the art market, where artwork can transform into a luxury commodity and where the collectors, museums, and galleries determine what good art is. Considering the interests of these parties, it wouldn’t be too brash to assume that good art should be saleable art as well. Discussion over so-so blockbuster exhibitions and the general consensus that having a gallery in Chelsea does not mean you show quality work seem to confirm that this method of determining the cultural landscape has its definitive pitfalls, not to mention conflicts of interest. For someone like myself outside the boundaries of “success,” the system that artists must work in already seems somewhat fixed and in great need of ethical re-examination.

In conversations surrounding the ethics or code of conduct of the art “system,” the role and expectations of artists themselves seem to be frequently overlooked. While the practices of various art institutions are most definitely worthy of discussion, it is the generators of product — the artists themselves — who directly react to this model of success led by the influence of the art market. When art is defined by its ability to transform into a high-end commodity, not just the artist, but the creative pursuit itself can often be defrauded. In this way, aren’t we also allowing for our culture at large to be narrowly profit-driven, leaving the viewers and consumers shortchanged as well?

Many artists are hard-pressed not to fall under the influence of the market, and this fundamentally affects the daily activities artists take on in order to maintain a practice and to continually try to gain some success in their career. I recently came across an article on the New York Foundation for the Arts website by Geoffrey Gorman entitled “Ten Tips for Success in the Art World.” This gallery director turned artists’ career developer offers the following tips for success:

  1. Set yearly, five year, and ultimate career goals.
  2. Be committed to realizing your goals.
  3. Understand where your work fits into the market.
  4. Document your work and career.
  5. Work with your own mailing list.
  6. Find role models and mentors.
  7. Network with your peers.
  8. Be a visible participant in the art world.
  9. Make efforts to promote your work.
  10. Secure appropriate representation at each stage of your career.

While these tips address some of the facets of the business of being an artist, they fail to mention the “how,” such as how to acquire a solid mailing list or how to initially gain gallery representation, not to mention how one can actually support him- or herself while chasing his/her artistic dream. In fact, this is entirely ignored, and such a disconnect between this former gallery director and the reality of an artist speaks volumes to the expectations of artists by the art market. What this handy list does not address is the fact that artists utilize their time and energy in order to support their basic needs in addition to their more ambitious endeavors. The lucky ones get to work in a capacity that may allow for creativity, but in most cases, the day or night job of an artist is detached from any kind of artistic process. Working as servers, baristas, corporate administrators, or even in a gallery, most skilled artists rarely get to do what they have studied or practice while also being able to afford the costs of living.

Unless they are privileged or supported by someone else, artists are not only responsible for generating enough income for rent, food, utilities, and bills, but also for an additional studio space, materials, website creation and development, and applications fees for residencies and exhibitions. For many Brooklyn-based artists, studio space can run you anywhere from about $250 per month upward to over $1,000 per month. That is an extra $3,000 – $12,000 per year. Throw in Skowhegan‘s application fee of $60, and the “modest fee” of $35 for submitting work for an exhibition, say at a rate of about once every four months, and now you have lived $165 beyond your means with a zero guarantee that any of these for-profit artist opportunities will accept your submission and aid your artistic career. In economic terms, those with more money seem to be afforded more opportunity in the self-purported open art world, negating the ethos of meritocracy, and instead money remains at the controlling core of the art market.

However, no artist enters into this world of sacrifice totally blind, and maybe it is the amount of sacrifice that ends up taking the largest toll. Money is one thing, but the worrying, the anxiety over a prolific studio practice, free time, submission deadlines, job security, health insurance, and relationships —  these may be ultimately what breaks spirits. For many people living from paycheck to paycheck, there is no way to avoid a wearing impact on your psychological well-being and quality of life. Imagine taking on all of the ten tips of success while working a full-time job and simultaneously taking advantage of every waking moment to further your studio practice. Seems like an assistant would be most helpful, but without the time or financial means, you have to have already “made it” in order to “make it.” Pricing unknown artists with potential talent out of the art world just doesn’t seem ethical to me. For, if time is money and money is money, what aspiring artist has either (let alone both) these days?

Kate Goyette is an artist living in Brooklyn, New York.

  1. Ross Selavy says:

    As I wrote in response to Hrag Vartanian’s dialogue with Jennifer Dalton, I find the ongoing preoccupation with the commercial art market and the difficulties of making a living as an artist remarkable. The topic here is: “Must art be ethical?” However, the subject matter is: fame and fortune. For good or ill, we live in a profit-driven, capitalist society. And in the current economy, it’s not just artists who are dismayed by the failure of expectations set up by our meritocratic upbringing, where hard work and a little pluck are supposed to elevate you to the top – or at least let you keep your job.

    Kate Goyette points out, in the contemporary art market, where collectors, museums, and galleries determine what good art is, artwork can transform into a luxury commodity, generating fame and fortune for artists. And Ms. Goyette shrewdly observes that it is artists, themselves, who react to this model of success. It’s a truism that good art is not necessarily profitable. The pages of art history are strewn with financial failures. (Rembrandt famously filed for bankruptcy in 1656.) If fame is a criterion, then the cave paintings at Lascaux are just wall decorations. (After all, no one knows who painted them, and no one even knew they existed until they were discovered by some kids chasing a dog.)

    If an artist works to make his/her art marketable or worthy of Page 6, then the creative pursuit is, of course, affected. However, it is not, as Ms. Goyette suggests, defrauded. On the contrary, it genuinely reflects the values of the artist: a desire for fame and fortune. Conspicuous validation by the art market is intrinsic to, perhaps the hallmark of, contemporary art. Jeff Koons’ success makes this abundantly clear, and may be his most important artistic legacy.

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  2. Meriam Salem says:

    This article is interesting in the way it approaches the idea of ethics within the domain of “success”. As we do live within the structural domains of a Capitalistic society, so do other countries such as those in the UK, Europe, and the Far East. The difference being, we are a culture that has been so entangled by efficiency and “bottom line” in aspiring to acquire, gain, and achieve, that we have lost sight of that which gives life its underlying essence so to speak. The skills of the “philosopher”, “educator”, “artist”, “musician”, “poet”, “theologian”, immanently even “engineer” have been cast aside, deeming unprofitable within our job market. These brilliant cultural and societal heavy hands are then left with a few choices to feed their children. Either give up to find a more marketable career choice, hold down a full-time job while expending quite a bit of energy trying to get famous (not sure how much time this even leaves to family), depending on another until they “get famous”, or go into academia, institutional or curatorial work.

    The “getting famous” part: this is quite the ethical dilemma. Most artists don’t make art to get famous. We know with most other careers with exception to the aforementioned ones above, it is inevitable to make a decent standard of living wage within the hours or effort contributed. An artist can basically put in a lifetime of work, have to pay for it out of pocket, and make a fraction back. There is no sure return. Every year is a gamble. No matter how many taxes are paid, or community contributions are made, the artist will be seen as the one who feasts or famines; either to get famous or to be poor. Money and recognition aside, the ugly face to fame is undeniable to most of us, and can frighten and even inhibit the success of an artist.

    Before the delusions of grandeur can realistically begin, the artist must be perceived as a professional. As opposed to an “outsider artist”, they are highly encouraged to enroll in an institution and receive at least one, if not two degrees. In a highly competitive “market”, they may choose to get ahead by receiving a top rated education. The artist enrolls in a private institution consequently costing themselves an inevitable five to six figure debt. This can assuredly put extra strain on the impetus to make money, even at the expense of potentially producing innovative work. For instance, what role does new media or installation art play in the art “market”? These are not so much commodities, as investigations, leading their worth and value to other industries such as advertising, film, e-commerce, etc. But, this is where the ethical question situates itself. It is uncommon to see the integration of the artist into another field, discipline, or industry as a success so much as a “selling out” point. So, now our options are, get famous, be poor, or sell out. This seems quite dismal and unrealistic to be quite frank. Yet there is something that keeps pushing artists like me to keep pushing regardless of the obstacles. What that feeling of satisfaction that is attained from completing a creation is exactly, is beyond time, space and money.

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