Publishers are represented in movies as much as anyone I suppose. In The Shoe Fairy (2006) directed by Robin Lee, the protagonist, a girl named Dodo, works for Jack, a publisher of children’s and pop-up books, who is always folding origami. Dodo does all the menial jobs in the office from cleaning toilets to picking up drawings from the reclusive illustrator Big Cat. There are two others in the office who never look up from their computer screens. As publishing goes, sounds about right.
The Shoe Fairie is a lovely movie, imaginative and touching and totally beautiful to look at. It’s in Chinese with English subtitles.
Artists buy into the idea that great risks earn great rewards and consequently give up their common sense judgment about real career prospects. So Hans Abbing argues in his book Why Are Artists Poor?. Art awards, Abbing says, promote the idea that success is a real possibility when it is clearly not for the vast majority. And the fact that a handful of artists have risen in recent years to rock star-like celebrity further fuels the magical thinking of thousands of artists, encouraging them to not merely endure but enthusiastically embrace low wages and dismal financial insecurity in exchange for the slimmest chance at “fame.”
“The fact that we’re standing here tonight, the fact that we’re able to hold this, it’s just proof that no matter how far out your dreams are, it’s possible,” Marketa Irglova said at the Oscars after she and partner Glen Hansard won Best Song for their tune “Falling Slowly.”
So ripe was this moment with art ideology that Oscar producer Gil Cates asked Marketa to come back onto the Oscar stage after she had been “accidentally” played off after Hansard said his thank yous. As if Hansard’s “This is amazing. Make art. Make art.” had not already done enough damage. [as reported by AP]
As I’ve said before, I don’t entirely buy Abbing’s arguments. While there is no question that the vast majority of artists embrace poverty, I doubt they do so blindly or because they are misinformed about the odds of success.
Everyone knows the Oscars are an extreme, none better than people like Martin Scorsese who went for years without that high honour. Bob Hope and many others used to joke about it. Not so much lately. Is that because the industry has become so bloated that most actors really don’t care so much because the pay is just so much better now?
Someone might argue that awards fanfare actually increases interest in the arts, encouraging the flow of money and that more artists will do better than before but that someone isn’t me, yet.
Hans Abbing’s book Why Are Artists Poor? should be assigned reading for every art student because it talks about the place of art and the artist in society in practical ways, from the viewpoint of the economist, i.e. more objectively, from ten stories up as Abbing puts it.
Abbing, who is both a visual artist and an economist, gives us a view we in the arts rarely see; that in fact we are reluctant to see. It is almost antithetical to the arts to distance ourselves that much, our discipline being so much about focus and imagination and detail. True creativity, we believe, requires immersion, not distance. In effect, the avant gardist posture might be stated something like this, “You can’t think “outside the box” without being deep inside the box.”
What Abbing sees from his vantage point “10 stories up” is not pretty: The vast majority of artists are poor, very poor compared to the general population. Yet despite their poor earnings and meager possibilities, artists hang tenaciously onto their chosen role and ever more young people flock to the arts.
Abbing looks for explanations for this uncommon and seemingly irrational behavior and finds the arts to be submerged in a magma of inaccurate and inadequate information, mythology, and misunderstood and hidden motivations, all of which he sums up as being “exceptional” (the subtitle of the book is The Exceptional Economy of the Arts).
Abbing’s use of the word “exceptional” is carefully chosen, for it simultaneously means both “deviation from a norm” and “special.” It thereby captures how artists identify themselves simultaneously as both marginal and progressive, disdained and privileged, suffering and ecstatic. In no other field, Abbing postulates, do we find such glaring contradictions.
Abbing asks hard questions: How important is art? Who decides how important it is? How do artists make a living? Do they even make a living? If art is so important, why is it so difficult, and rare, for artists to make a living? Is there a relationship between who decides which art is important and why it is so difficult for artists to make a living?
These are not questions we are comfortable asking in normal life let alone in the arts where money, and talk of money, are treated with suspicion and where relations of authority and power can be volatile but are rarely fundamentally questioned.
By all Abbing’s measures, the arts are indeed remarkable. Yet, I had a nagging feeling all through the book that somethings were not being fully discussed.
Every book has its Achilles heel, it’s vulnerable spot, and in Abbing’s book, the weak link is this: What if the economy of the arts is not so exceptional at all, but typical of the experience of many people no matter their profession or vocation. Take just one example: the belief that artists are bad with money and the related idea that commerce or economics should be distained by artists. Look around you. Everyone is bad with money, and nobody wants to talk about it.
But even if the art economy is not as exceptional as Abbing believes, it is still considerably less clear, understandable, and accessible than, say, manufacturing or banking. Abbing’s observations remain valid for what they are, probing reflections on his experience as an artist and economist, and useful for how they reveal something about the assumptions and mechanisms that underly the arts.
Perhaps Abbings most important contribution is to illustrate how little concrete knowledge we have about how money works in the arts. In the absence of fact, it’s hardly surprising that myth prevails.
Hans Abbing’s book Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts is a book that every art student, artist, art educator, curator, critic and arts administer should read. That’s what it was designed for and its observations are exacting and uncompromising. I don’t agree with Abbing’s conclusions, but then that is what good books do, show us new ways of looking at things, which provokes debate.
I’m going to review the book here in stages, perhaps following the chapters.
My thesis, contra Abbing who sees the arts as an unsustainable economic backwater, is that we are on the cusp of a cultural turn that will see:
an artist in every household;
an artist-run centre on every corner;
an artist employed in every business.
I like to think I can prove this thesis using Abbing’s arguments as a starting point.
One becomes jaundiced as one grows old. It is hard to look with ‘fresh eyes.’ One sees everything filtered through experience. Not that you cling to the past exactly. You try not to, to let go. And this is the feeling that I took away with me, a certain openness…
That said, what is it exactly that we are ‘open’ to? What is being asked of us, in the global sense of a presumed-to-be-unified field called Visual Arts? That things have changed we can all agree. But a vision of the future is less clear.
For some, there was, I have no doubt, an appalling lack of depth to the presentations generally. Many presenters admitted (bless their souls) that they didn’t know why they had been invited, but nonetheless offered, generously, some not uncritical points of view.
Nevertheless, there was cohesiveness, for example on the dismal income levels of artists, which seemed to be mentioned at least once every hour. This strikes me as an achievement. 10 or 15 years ago, the majority of artists and others working in the field would not even consider discussing income as an issue to them personally or professionally, let alone collectively. I think this reflects a general concern about incomes. Artists are not so special in this, or in other matters in fact. The disenfranchised and exploited “knowledge worker” is becoming a commonplace, on a par with service industry workers, cleaners and fast-food franchise workers, who at least have nice uniforms and few illusions about opportunities for advancement.
On this one point, call it a pet project for me, much work needs to be done. And it will not be done, let it be clear, by way of diluted regurgitation of already weak Statistics Canada reports. It will take serious research, coordinated the best partners that can be mustered, to sort out how knowledge-based economies are working now and how they can be structured to work best for the greatest number of people.
We suffer the ‘gift economy‘ in the arts, what Hans Abbing calls an exceptional economy, not because it is exceptional in the sense of better, but in the sense of being an exception to the rule. Artists have enjoyed exceptional privilege economically, but also suffered when that privilege is withdrawn or denied or simply doesn’t materialize. No one “enjoys” privilege then. And the suffering is great.
It might be argued that the things that used to make the gift economy of the arts sustainable are disappearing or insufficient now: spouses with incomes that can support a whole family; inheritances sufficient to create annual returns enough to live on; alternate, parallel careers with security, health and disability insurance and retirement plans. None of these are practical prospects for artists under 30.
And in the absence of these invisible networks of support, we are forced to look straight at that other economy, the same economy of production, commodities, markets, etc. that drives every other aspect of our culture, and ask if and how it works for us.
My feeling, which will perhaps, hopefully, change as I think this through more, is that the ‘real’ economy will not work for the visual arts; it is too far away, driven by others and other concerns, which at the moment leads us back to square one… the tangled web of government subsidy, patronage and personal contribution.
Books start out in different ways. Generally, someone comes in with a proposal or a manuscript. Guidelines are available on the press webpage (at YYZ Artists’ Outlet > YYZBOOKS). Publishers also sometimes more actively suggest ideas to people who might be interested in doing a book. And sometimes they initiate books themselves.
We had the idea of doing a book about artist-run centres, or as it is now sometimes called, artist-run culture. The publisher, the artist-run centre YYZ in Toronto (see “Wikipedia: Canadian artist-run centres” for more information), was approaching it’s 30th anniversary (2009) so it seemed timely and possibly useful to do a book that would look at where artist-run centres find themselves at this moment.
Artist-run culture being what it is – a network of artists working in organizations that are artist-centric and collaborative – it made sense to begin such a project in a collaborative way, by consulting with others about the project.
What followed was remarkable; an editorial group spread across Canada and Quebec, a wiki, online forums, Facebook and other groups, and a host of other networking tools. The idea and hope was that this networking would stimulate dialogue, discussion on the many facets of and issues facing artist-run centres today.
Thanks to the hard work and imagination of this group, we are poised to publicly launch a process that we hope will result in a manuscript. The hub of the network is a webpage at www.decentre.info.
The value of participating in a book fair isn’t easily translated into economic terms. Book sales are generally limited. That said, it is remarkable how people tend to find exactly the book they need to find. More than once somebody stopped at our table at the NY Art Book Fair, Sept 28-30th, 2007, and latched onto exactly the book that dealt with their art practice or special interest. That’s a rewarding experience that has nothing to do with the money. And it even happened to me when I found “The Art of Free Cooperation,” which had arrived from the printers so recently the editors, Geert Lovink and Trebor Scholz, hadn’t even seen it yet.
Above, artist Bill Burns visits the YYZBOOKS table at the ultimate book fair for afficianados of contemporary art. 120 exhibitors including many small presses and publishers of art in printed form. Three gorgeous days in New York.
I just discovered this catalog to a 1991 exhibition of artists’ books and multiples by Art Metropole. The cover was designed by Lawrence Weiner and co-incidentally reflects the title of this blog. We believe, like Weiner, that art is to be “read,” tho’ not necessarily only in the double
entendre sense cleverly captured by Weiner (whose own work consists primarily of text).
Many artists and people working in other, non-museum, or alternate-type organizations are suspicious of museums with their business-like hierarchies, authoritative institutional character, big budgets, fundraising galas, etc. And in fact, we don’t share much in common with them. We don’t collect art and therefor neither carry the responsibilities for looking after it and making it accessible to the public, nor interact directly with the market of dealers and collectors.
But as Frenkel points out, we all live with these sort of contradictions and nothing actually prohibits museums from doing important work in the sense of furthering the artist’s intent or the cause of culture.
She argues for more open-ended programming that stops short of drawing conclusions, declaring significance, etc. We could all draw a lesson from that. It is too easy to slip into models of cultural production we think are valid and working but which academicize, anthropologize, historicize, in a word, reify the work, neutralizing it’s active or operative components.
Speaking of operative, the book isn’t available in local bookstores because Blackwell, the publisher, or Blackwell’s distributors, won’t bother to deal with them. Our local bookstore on Queen West, Type, where you’d expect to find a local artist/author’s and Toronto-based book, said they have to pay full price for the book, ordering it the same as you or I would. Sadly, I confess to buying it from Amazon where it was less sadly discounted and shipped free when ordered with another book.