Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Artist as Debtor vs. The Federal Art Project

Everything I've ever read about "doomed millennials" has been of the opinion we are doomed for one of two or both of these reasons: A.) We can't afford to buy cars. B.) We can't afford to buy houses.

On the other hand, we're doomed because of global warming, and we're all going to die.

Perhaps the two parties of authors on this stuff should get together and have a meeting.

I find it hard to believe that since I won't be able to afford another gas-guzzling car once my KIA dies means that I am "doomed." In fact, biking plays a much bigger role in my life since moving to Milwaukee than it ever has before, and I feel much happier, and spend less money. Not to mention it has a much lower environmental impact than driving, reducing (albeit in a very small way) the third pinnacle of the millennial doom factor.

Don't even get me started on being able to afford a house. I've considered moving into an immobile trailer.

I recently started following the arts/culture/arts criticism website Hyperallergic on Instagram. I usually pass by the photographs on their feed with relative indifference. A lot of it looks like contemporary, academic stuff I'm not really that into anyways. But a few weeks ago I noticed they were following something called the "Artist as Debtor" Conference at Cooper Union. Curious, I checked it out. Here is the description on the "Artist as Debtor" Conference website:

Contemporary art institutions amass great wealth through real estate development and the value of their holdings- why then do museums, art-related businesses and art schools rely so heavily on precarious and unpaid labor provided by artists? What are the connections between big money in the art world and the big debts taken on by so many young artists? Are artists encouraged to believe that extreme economic disparity is just part of the way the art world works? Do romantic ideas about merit and talent mask a system of indenture?

Very dramatic. A little bit whiny, too.

A quick search revealed that the tuition at Cooper Union is $36,900 a year, although the school has recently started offering a non-need based, half tuition financial scholarship for new and returning undergraduate students. This reduces tuition to around $20,000 a year. Still not cheap. I'm not scoffing or offering up any kind of jealousy for those who can afford to go to Cooper Union. I went to Lawrence, whose tuition is now up to $51,465 a year. Woof!

But that's just my point right there. The problem with the art world isn't that the people who go through the costly academics aren't making money after they graduate. The problem is that the majority of people who want to pursue a career as artists can't even afford it in the first place. I recently read this article in the Atlantic that reveals that although most people are aware that MFAs are a costly scam, more and more artists are choosing, of their own free will, to get MFAs.

The paradox never ends. While hinting at the irony of the "Artist as Debtor" Conference being held at Cooper Union, I would also like to point out that nobody who spoke at the conference even got paid. But that's just a funny, irrelevent side note. In addition, it's not just artists who aren't getting paid after they graduate. It's a large portion of recent graduates of all disciplines. The aforementioned "doomed" millennials. So stop whining, artists.

Interestingly enough, the last time the country was in a depression, artists got paid. It was actually part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal program during the Great Depression, which enacted programs that provided relief and recovery for the poor. Artists included. It was called The Federal Art Project, and it aimed to employ artists to create works of art for non-federal government buildings. It lasted from 1934 to 1943. Artists including Jackson Pollock were able to get their careers started because of The Federal Art Project. It is said that over 200,000 works of art were created during the time, and many of them are archived today at museums and through programs like the New Deal Art Registry.

Of particular interest to me are the scenes of wildlife, nature, and conservation that came out of the era:

Frank S. Nicholson, The National Parks Preserve All Life, poster for U.S. National Park Service, 1940 [source: New Deal Art Registry]

Various artists (including: Aloys Bohnen-assistant, Arthur Ames-painter, Hazel Sheckler-assistant, Jean Goodwin-painter, William McAuley-assistant), San Diego Scenes-Conservation, San Diego County Administration Center, 1939 [source: New Deal Art Registry]

You can still see this painting today, if you go to the San Diego County Administration Center. The National Parks posters, which are practically iconic now, are still used in NPS advertising. During the time these works were created, artists weren't seen as a burden on society, but as a way to help foster morale and promote hardwork amongst the people. They were valued then, and their artwork is still valued today. And, as we all know, the country made it out of the Depression. I won't say it's because of the artists, but Roosevelt thought that they were important, which is huge (almost unheard of) in government today.

Contemporary artists don't receive much government money, at least not from the Obama administration. I recently read this article on the 20 most powerless people in the artworld (also Hyperallergic) which quotes Obama saying something along the lines of "art history isn't very important for the economy right now." Don't worry Obama, I thought it was hilarious. And in a lot of ways, true. In these seemingly desperate times, art and art history aren't very important, in immediate ways, for the economy. But they are certainly important for other things, IF artists commit to using art in the right way. If we are indeed in a war with our climate and our environment (we are), it's important to study the ways in which artists have rallied for nature and conservation in the past. The poster and the painting I cited above are good examples. Nicholson's beautiful prints portray the utopian worlds that the National Parks could be if we preserve them, and the County Administration Center piece shows humans actively working together to conserve natural areas.

I am not advocating that every artist has to be a creative activist. However, I do think more artists need to start thinking less like they are poor, starving artists, and start thinking more like they are people who can make a difference in this society. I will bring up the example of vernacular artists. If you don't know what that is, a vernacular artist is (in very trendy art world terms) "an artist who creates their own environment." The best examples I can give are Emery Blagdon, Howard Finster, and Eugene von Breunchenhein.

Emery Blagdon, The Healing Machine [source: jmkac.org]


Howard Finster's Paradise Garden [source: Chatooga County, GA webpage]

Eugen von Breunchenhein, Summer Day on Venus [source: vonbruenchenhein.com]

These three artists, although very different from one another, have one thing in common: they all sort of "made due" with being poor throughout their artistic careers. They certainly weren't attending any kind of "Artist as Debtor" Conference or complaining because they couldn't afford grad school (or undergrad, for that matter). When von Breunchenhein ran out of money he made brushes out of his wife's hair. Blagdon made money off of being a landlord, and transformed a shed in his yard into the magical fantasyland of scrap metal and paper clips you see above. Finster made his environment out of hubcaps and discarded mirrors he found by scavenging around Georgia. With very little money or new supplies, they made some of the most famous works in the world of vernacular art, and also made names for themselves. 

Which brings me to my next thing. (This will all make sense in the end, I promise). I recently read about a neighborhood in Taos, New Mexico that was constructed by a group of people who call themselves "The Greater World Earthship Colony." Sounds a little bit Wicker Man-esque, but what they're doing is important. They're essentially doing what vernacular artists do: creating their own environments from the remnants of society that other people in Taos County have deemed to be "scrap:" plastics, old tires, styrofoam, etc. 

Architecute of the future- "biotecture"

Their intentions are a bit different from vernacular artists. They aren't building their own environments from an instinctual, aesthetic urge, but from a crippling need. They're also a bit more high-tech, and have a long-term plan for the future (sadly, and ironically, they won't be able to execute the plan fully for at least twenty years due to Taos County's "financial problems"). Their major objectives, laid out on their website, are to:

-Reduce the economic and institutional barriers between people and sustainable housing
-Begin reversing the overall negative effect that conventional housing has on the planet
-Create a less stressful existence for people in an effort to reduce the stress that they in turn place on the planet and each other
-Interface economics and ecology in a way that immediately and tangibly affects current pressing problems with existing life styles
-Provid a direction for those who want to live in harmony with their environment
-Empower individuals with the inarguable forces of nature

In layman's terms, they're trying to save the freakin' world, man.  

A year ago I might have thought they were crazy. But now I realize the importance of living resourcefully. When my seasonal job ended last September, I was scared. I had no idea what I was going to do. I didn't start looking for a job early enough because I didn't think it would be that hard to find one. I was wrong. It took me a good two months to find a job, and the one I did find is not a lucrative one. I complained, and whined, and stressed. A lot. But now I don't complain. I'm okay. I'm fine. I made it through. I had help, but I did it. In some ways, losing my job was the best thing that ever happened to me. It gave me the space and the time to reassess what I want in my life. It forced me to be more resourceful, to cook for myself more, to drive less, to spend more time with people I care about, to read more, and above all, to make more art.

So, world. Stop telling me that I am doomed because I can't buy a house. Stop telling me I am doomed because I can't buy a car. And artists, stop complaining that you are poor, and start using the astounding variety of available materials that are around you to start making the world a better place. You don't need to spend thousands of dollars on materials (paint, canvases, brushes, film, etc., etc.) to make artwork (no one's going to buy what you make anyways-ha!). The world is entering into very uncertain times. The fact that you can't pay for your MFA is the least of the world's problems. Let's start figuring out how we, as artists, can start turning this crap world into something a bit nicer for future generations. I guess I was kind of hinting at this in my last post about the relatively unpopular "bus stop of the future"/public art spectacle in Bay View. Yeah, it's ugly. But so, so, so, much of this world is ugly. The bus stop, at least, had beautiful intentions: to make art in a sustainable way that promotes a sustainable lifestyle. 

In the words of Roosevelt (the other Roosevelt), "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are." 

Everything, literally, on this planet, is connected.

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