Middle Class’s Plain Vanilla
A.W.: Why do art laborers earn so little?
B.E.: First let’s define an art laborer for the course of this conversation as one of many categories as well as the crossbreeding roles that often occur between these categories: the artist, the art organizer, the art handler, the art builder, and the art thinker.
The trade of actually making art objects for the self or other artist pays little. Artists, without trust funds, will work for low wages. They are often subject to the internship phenomenon for experience, often quite necessary, to hone applicable skills void in their art education. Artists need flexibility in order to focus on their work and thus must sacrifice security in order to maintain time for their own work. Elite art labor can legitimize the personal practice, great for proud small talk. Conversely, many artists soon realize that no one cares what their day job is, as long as their art is good. But, that said, we should not be too hasty on this topic. Many art laborers admittedly glean knowledge from working for low wages for underpaid yet successful artists. There is much to be earned from supporting the small gallery or non-profit or mid-range artist.
A.W.: Why do art laborers earn so much?
B.E.: Often those that “fall into” well paid positions in the art world quickly were already wealthy and as such, legitimate children of the arts. The art elite must raise its own via a form of class based nepotism. Similarly, Joe Scanlan wrote in 2008, “Likewise, art historians, curators, critics – who as a group seem invested in protecting art from the corruption of finance – are reluctant to discuss the possibility that modern progenitors of this kind of contemplative, non-productive view of art that they prefer (Charles Baudelaire, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, Walter Benjamin) were able to behave accordingly in part because their industrious families had already amassed enough capital to guarantee their unencumbered ruminations.”1 The trade of talking about making objects pays these days. These talking jobs are not flexible, and thus are often geared towards the networker-curator role. The artist is left broke surrounded my well-paid taskmasters. Six months after the 2008 crash my friend said, “Most of my friends have become teachers in public schools or yoga studios. The only people I know who are still making art seriously don’t have day jobs and paid full price at ivy league schools.”2
A.W.: Is the receding middle class in our late neo-liberal American economic landscape reflected in our art world?
B.E.: Of course. Our generation, ages 20 – 45, are no longer protected by national policies that granted our grandparents security. Yet, our blanket cultural attitudes, art etiquette, and our desire to ‘make it’ protects the free-market zeitgeist by hushing dialogue on personal economics. We live in a landscape in which the optimism for alternatives is so deeply understood to become co-opted, that our one loop-hole out of this catch-22 is …survival. The American art world economy provides and engineers a system in which how we work reduces the likelihood of becoming a middle class artist.
Our economy, driven by the creative class, is one where art-centric entrepreneurial ventures pave way for gentrification; chrome metro shelving units suddenly freshen up our neighborhood bodegas. I mean, has anyone found it curious that loft living, once the architectural site for industrial production has become the home of “creative” production in the post-industrial world? We, the creative class are akin to industrial factory workers. We, artists, serve real estate markets, as Martha Rosler repeatedly reiterates in her work, which continually put the free (lancer) artist at risk.3 Burrowing in the studio obliquely abates our collective confusion. We barely talk about how poor or how rich we are. And as far as the middle goes, it seems those are the ones who suffer most. Especially revealing after the 2008 crash, it was not the Koons, nor the poor artists happily deemed un-established, who have little stakes anyway, but the mid-career artists selling work for midrange prices $5,000 – $30,000.4
A.W.: Something is being maintained – the high art market rode the wave of the recent crash rather elegantly, no?
B.E.: The psychology of silent middle road and loud high-brow explains one thing, desire. These systematic highlighted high and lows maintain an audience, one full of desire, desire to also be in that show that they are attending. Labor in the art world mirrors the psychology of making a sale, getting a show, getting sex and investing in your career. Be Quiet! There must be mystery, not transparency. The lack of a middle sustains desire and results in an enormous audience of artists. This aura doubly ensures that free-market policies continue to insidiously choreograph our excitement. This also makes the cool risk-free galleries promoting already young and hot list – poachers, you know who you are – the best solution.
There must be a audience rallying around the work to keep money in the banks – the dirty sexy audience is in fact, a commodity. Whenever I walk by the site of the last Dudeiennial, I think of everyone peeing inside, covered in feathers and cigarettes and how that activity directly resulted in that Soho floft’s [fake loft] now sparkly façade.5
Helen Molesworth articulates this silence, or as she deems it, an invisible condition, perfectly: “In Virginia Woolf’s day, the maintenance of gender and class distinctions was transparent and unabashedly top down. We, other hand, operate within society in which the policing of these categories is typically invisible but always nimble. To stay one step ahead of the game the artist needs to be nimble too.”6
A.W.: Are you a Gallerina or an art handler? Do you make objects for people or do you organize ideas for people?
B.E.: All of the above. In the post-BFA landscape, hot women get jobs filing and hot men get jobs lifting. Understandably this is to the advantage of everyone, but we are also hired to do these jobs because of our intellectual commitment to art. In this hiring system, when we get jobs lifting and filing, we are there because we hold in high regard the art object – thus substantiating our need to be there, often underpaid, and submitting outlandish NYFA job posting requirements. I thank god I am not a woodworker; I remember those characters being so highly lauded in art school, because I have what art handlers don’t, options, “Art handlers have no upward mobility, what are you going to do, build a bigger crate?” professional peer.7
And while we are on the topic of our obviously gendered employment roles, I remember the day I walked in the back of the Luhring Augustine office 5 years ago. I was taken aback by the “team” of nearly 10 women running the back end. Why are the back ends run by beautifully back ended women? Whether or not these “organizers” actually gave up art is beside the point, it hits home, to think of so many women organizing and moving others’ visual ideas. To that end, that gallery has 6 women on its roster of 26 artists.8
A.W.: You mentioned the voids in art education, does art school not prep the preps?
B.E.: Here is my list of art education qualms: Art schools maintain an aura of making art while they neglect to simultaneously honor their artists by giving them employable skills. Art education should require us to become aficionados of Adobe software. Art education neglects to outline different types of success outside of the gallery system. And this must be emphasized: women dominate higher art education (and all education) because we need more legitimization in order to ‘make it’.
“I work full-time. And I am determined not to go to graduate school, and still ‘make it’”9, my colleague stated. I wonder whether the business of art education encourages short-lived careers to keep the art economy as a whole strong and always fixated on the next best thing. As each new graduating generation is pumped out, every 5 years, 5-year art careers seem suspiciously to be the norm.
A.W.: Conservative times for U.S. us not them?
B.E.: We are in a post-institutional critique and post-relational aesthetic art world. Big budget “projects” (ahem, for example the acme of relational aesthetics Holler’s slide at the Tate) conformed and exposed the museum as a place for entertainment. This left the next generation baffled. Pay school loans and make giant, unsellable, ephemeral work while maintaining day jobs for which they are not well-equipped? The current young American art generation answered the “post” situation by making hoards of abstract paintings, and this blatantly points to the enterprise of selling objects. Out of necessity, American artists make more traditional objects, unlike their European counterparts, who can be supported by Kunstvereines making new kinds of air, and we can’t, because the U.S. government does not support it. We have to focus on objecthood. A friend said, “iphones negate subcultures”.10 It made me think that making object-light art negates any fantasy of a sustainable life in the United States.
A.W.: Is there clear talk on transparency now?
B.E.: Yes. People are talking about their economic situation, at openings! W.A.G.E. asks us to be paid for making the world interesting.11 We support each other and talk about what it means to be paid and what it means to give things up to devote your life to art, work in your bedroom and find a job that offers flexibility. I know and support many young artists who actually “made it” by practically making art underneath their mattresses. Talk about art fairs provides endless entertainment on the angst around mega exhibitions, but also a keen panorama of the situation. A successful dealer remarked, “Yeah, the Independent [art fair], independent of what?” He was saying what we were all thinking, that the for-profit shift of that fair was only substantiating the already successful. Another remarked that the Armory was almost more transparent in its blatant commercialism and unionized construction workers and security teams.12 It is our responsibility to face the art world’s ultimate taboo: the middle class.
- Scanlan, Joe. Art Forum, Modest Proposals, April 2008. P. 313
- In conversation with sociologist, Brooklyn, New York, 2008
- Read If You Lived Here!
- Spend time on artnet.com, see who is being auctioned for the underbidding.
- Walk by 350 West Broadway, New York, New York.
- Molesworth, Helen on Klara Liden: P. 221 March 2011 Artforum
- In conversation, with professional at Krojer Fine Arts, 2011
- Luhring Augustine
- In conversation with artist at Miami art fair 2007.
- In conversation during a studio visit with artists whose day job is an investment banker on Wall Street.
- In conversation regarding The Dependent art fair, 2011.