The last reader, Natasha Wheat, decided not to read at all; rather, she turned to the audience and asked, "What does a just art economy looks like?" Immediately, people chimed in. The space turned into a sauna of conjectures, arguments, personal anecdotes, and pleas. A variety of ideas and subjects — everything from emphasizing the importance of guilds and collectives to providing braces for children — were bandied about. These rants often lacked direction. Many were fueled by emotion and gave way to incomprehensible babble about new economies without realizing the previous paths paved by Marx, Adam Smith, and Keynes. But the passion, heretofore dormant, was inspiring.
Interestingly, the only thing missing from all the cries of desperation was a focus on artwork itself. In this small storefront room, everyone — artists, writers, curators, historians, and spectators — was hyper-aware about the lack of funding. But ironically, art had gone missing as well. Not many will disagree with the assertion that workers deserve payment for their labor, but what if their work blows? If I actively paint a canvas for eight hours a day, and no one finds it of value, why should I get paid? If money were a given, we'd all be doodling for dollars.
Zachary Royer Scholz, one of the readers and most intelligent contributors to the discussions, ended the event with a similar concern. He shifted the blame away from the economy and back toward the art. "Canada has strong government and institutional funding for its artists, but look at its art ... it sucks!" Just then, a man on the opposite side of the room descended on Scholz, barking in protest. His ass-length dreads swung in tandem with his raised fists. It looked like a fight might break out, but the affront turned out to be performative — the room was filled with artists, after all.
I don't find it coincidental that Dave Hickey's The Invisible Dragon: Essays On Beauty (University of Chicago Press, 152 pages, $22) stirred from its coma this year. Its polemics could not be revived at a better time. First released in 1993, the book has been out of print for several years. Hickey originally pulled the plug because the "intensity and icy aggression" of The Invisible Dragon's provocation was too great. In other words, people were pissed because Hickey insisted on the importance of art's beauty.
In the collection's first essay, "Enter The Dragon: On the Vernacular of Beauty," Hickey argues that beauty has been replaced by meaning, and laments the art market baton swap from art dealers to institutions. "The institution's curators hold a public trust," Hickey writes. "They must look attentively and genuinely care about what artists mean, and what this meaning means in a public context — and, therefore, almost of necessity, they must distrust appearances."
The problem, according to Hickey, parallels the one in Michel Foucault's 1975's Discipline and Punish, wherein punishment shifts from the external, via physical torture as public spectacle, to the internal — torture of the soul and mind via incarceration and criminal psychiatry. In effect, it's a shift of gaze and surveillance: we now internalize this gaze and monitor ourselves.
But what does this have to do with art? Art limited to meaning loses its subversive potential; it gets too worried and existential. By contrast, allowing art to express itself through appearances also allows it to find new folds within an otherwise predetermined economy of signs — an economy controlled exclusively by arts institutions.
I imagine if Hickey had been in that room that evening, he would have stood up early on to demand that everyone stop acting like economists: You're artists, dammit. You're not here to fix the economy, you're here to create things. Now go out and make shit — but for Christ's sake, make it beautiful. *