The Free Artist

“In a vital community, art is promoted in three ways: socially by appreciation, economically by patronage, and essentially by liberty. These are the three necessities upon which the life of art depends: appreciation, patronage and liberty.”

“United we bargain; divided we beg.”

 

It’s an old problem, and much discussed. The reintegration of art and work (the so-called art market) has recruited art into a range of professions and intermediaries: the artist, the curator, the dealer. Absorbed in the industrial hierarchy, and regardless of how enlightened their public may be, even the most exceptional individual is in the hands of the bureaucratic scrutiny and commercialisation.

Creatives must eat. Educators must pay bills. Visionaries or divine mediums or political beings – they may be expected to think ahead of their times, but artists are remunerated by their contemporaries. The simple, pragmatic truth is that the majority of us are always one step away from poverty.

So we fuse professions, interests, stretch our time to accomodate. Artists’ CVs sport more slashes than a Fontana: artist/curator/critic/filmmaker/fundraiser, with all the corresponding duties being added as a bonus. The job market fads come and go with seasons, with the ever-shrinking time to gestate ideas, experiment, enrol a course, have a family or make career u-turns without risking everything.

When a job comes along, we take it. Paid or not. Because it signals the fulfilment of that first necessity: appreciation. Artists face surrender of a great deal of their effort and experience for practically nothing, in favour of greater communicability of their ideas.

This results in some hilarity: in the upside-down economy in which institutions use artists’ guerilla models and outsider status to face-lift their corporate image, cloak own agenda as a spontaneous socio-cultural action, or simply ask to be handed cultural capital on a tray, artists’ questioning of the patronage structures ironically leads to even more precarious projects. In each of these cases artists, curators and theoreticians are the mere  content providers. It’s just some stuff you’ve made before, we hear. It’s something you have knocking about the studio already. It is there – why would you want not to show it?

The ability to compromise (‘negotiate’) own work is considered to be a gift. Emotional spontaneity, which works to one’s advantage during the creative process, shoots you in the foot if a mate asks a favour.

It’s funny how the words that used to define artistic capability are mostly relegated to commerce: He has a real talent for PR. She is a genius of Twitterverse.

Artists that don’t have this gift are seen as daft ducks or incurable romantics. Those without independent income, commercial or personal bonds, those not quick to respond to the market (in an astonishing celebration of reactionaryism), those who can not be creative in servile dependence – they’re clearly stupid. Depending on how close I slice it that particular month, I find myself questioning my survival sense with more or less good humour. The suggestion is that we are not looking out for ourselves – not being individualistic enough – possibly pathologically or counter-evolutionarily.

As brought home by Ken Loach this year in Cannes: “There is a conscious cruelty in the way that we are organizing our lives now, where the most vulnerable people are told that their poverty is their own fault.”

How does this feel, being told it’s your own fault? Numerous articles about depressed creatives and academics attest it can be very crippling. How much worse is it if the request for a freebie comes not from a nameless institutional abbatoir, but from a person you usually like and trust?

It bears repeating: the process may be self-rewarding and fuelled by conviction, but creative endeavour does not imply free labour. To ensure that remuneration is a tribute to the effort and not a charity or an indignity, we must be safe from our own milieu. We must speak out. We must be able to organise ourselves apart from the industries – in artists’ collectives or unions. It’s not so much as a matter of a standard of living, but a basic survival.

There will always be work which must remain free and unpaid, in support of fledgling projects or in solidarity with causes that need all the help they can get. But to reconcile creative duties and rights, there must be a reserve of time for work in solitude, apart from insistent fears of financial pressure, blacklisting or torture of self-exploitation. The noisy periods of connectivity, of collaboration, networking, promotion have to be followed by periods of creative gestation that rebuild a sense of concreteness and direction. Time has to be made for this. I don’t know of any better armour to survive the whip of the market.

 

 

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