Art, work, and artwork

Artist-run groups move beyond doodling for dollars in a screwed-up economy

VISUAL ART The global financial crisis continues to impoverish and displace those within reach of its residual tremors. Yet in the art realm, there have been signs of hope. Recent fairs — Frieze Art Fair in October and Art Basel Miami Beach earlier this month — brought reports of strong sales and optimism within the distressed economy. So why are artists everywhere worried about their futures, and more critically, panicking about their present tenses? The squeeze has to do with the work in artwork. More often than not, artists aren't getting paid for their work.

The general prosperity of the current art market does not reflect the financial success of most artists — it just means that artworks are selling, and many of those works are by artists who are already established or dead. The other artists, the worried ones, the ones scraping by on paint chips and uncreative, menial part-time jobs and unpaid internship after unpaid internship, are starting to organize. And talk. Worried as well, I recently attended two events, one in New York and the other in Oakland, that call for a shift of terrain in art/work.

The New York event, titled, "What Is the Good of Work?" — the second in a four-part series organized by Goethe-Institut New York — was more abstract in its approach, seeking to redefine work through film and literature. For instance, when British novelist Tom McCarthy roused Herman Melville's character Bartleby in order to express the potentials of "recess" in a "recession" and promote a politics of pause as escapist rather than reactionary, an audience member inquired: "But how can this be implemented in real life?" Here, McCarthy went quiet. The rest of the panel, too, including the nihilist philosopher Simon Critchley, only seemed capable of speculating on a new function of work, as opposed to how this new work would, well, work.

Comparatively, the Oakland event was more concerned with brass tacks. Organized by Sight School, an artist-run storefront newly opened in November, its aim "to create dialogue around new modes of living and being in the world in order to reveal connections between art and life" was actually visualized.

The evening began with local artists and writers reading primarily from a newspaper compiled by the Chicago-based collective Temporary Services. In it, more than 40 artists and writers pinpoint problematic issues and propose a way out. The front page introduction succinctly outlines its motivations:

We can see how the collapse of the economy is affecting everyone. Something must be done. Let's talk. No, it can't wait. Things are bad. We have to work things out. We can only do it together. What do we know? What have others tried? What is possible? How do we talk about it? What are the wildest possibilities? What are the pragmatic steps? What can you do? What can we do?



The urgency of this situation was emphasized most strongly by Julian Myers, an assistant professor of curatorial practice at California College of the Arts. He fervently read the group Research and Destroy's "Communiqué from an Absent Future: On the Terminus of Student Life," which was drafted in response to the current University of California crises. Myers conveyed the text's uncomfortably accurate detail of a bankrupt future not just for students, but anyone not already financially secure. The text incensed everyone in the room, as they realized the gravity of student debts and of academia as a new factory — a neverending rabbit hole of false security.

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