This past weekend, while checking out my friend Joe Borelli’s work as part of the Bushwick Open Studios event, we got in a conversation about art and privilege: Simply, creative pursuits require money and time. Connections help too. As such, those who come from money and an upper class background have an advantage. They can take off for three months to do a residency that allows them to make more work and more relationships in the art world without worrying about how to pay rent and loans and bills. They can take low paying or even unpaid positions because they offer an opportunity to work with a well-known artist or at a prestigious institution. Or they can work part-time, not be burdened by an inflexible 40+ hr a week schedule; they can go into their studios fresh, rather than exhausted after a long day of work for someone else. They can make projects on a scale or with materials that others simply can’t afford to realize. Those projects then get recognition and more funding for even larger projects—the whole thing is cyclical. The rich really do get richer.
But, is this an issue that is unique to artists? Indeed, hasn’t the disparity between the upper and middle and working classes been growing? Hasn’t the cost of higher education been increasing exponentially? Isn’t this just indicative of a larger societal issue?
The answer is of course, yes. But, the issue is even more exaggerated in the arts for the following reasons:
1) Art is the artist’s job. Everything else, at least in terms of employment and career, is secondary. The goal is not to advance in the job or jobs that pay the bills. Those jobs, often only tangentially related to one’s real job of being an artist, offer little help in terms of advancement in the art world, and in fact, take away time from the research, making, schmoozing, and applying that is all part of being an artist—(No, I am not so romantic as to think that being an artist is only about making artwork). So, those with the means to pursue art without having to hold down another job or jobs are able to spend more time on their job of being an artist, and will have an advantage in advancing in that job.
Also, this is different from the lawyer who has to put in her time at a corporate law firm to pay off her student loans before she can start a small practice that focuses on domestic violence issues. She still gets to be a lawyer at the big firm, and is practicing and learning law-related things there. Or, she can choose to ultimately stick with the big firm, and join the ranks of the wealthy. Sticking with art brings no financial security.
2) Related to this, artists are more likely to be freelancers. This means that they have little security in their means of income. Freelancers aren’t eligible for unemployment when their contracts end, and they’ve often been working without health insurance or other benefits. The artist who lives paycheck to paycheck can quickly spiral into severe debt when he becomes un or underemployed, which leads to anxiety and depression, neither of which is good for artmaking (despite the tortured artist myth).
3) Education. The costs of education are rising, and the idea of studying to be an artist doesn’t seem like a viable way to pay back the loans that are often necessary to pay for school. And, many of the best art schools are also among the most expensive. But, unlike, say, the best engineering schools, or law schools, or business schools, a degree from one of the best art schools is still little assurance of making major career advancement as an artist (but it is not worthless— that MFA is a requisite for many galleries now.) This was the case before the economic recession (which admittedly has made job searches more difficult for most disciplines), and now the economy’s downturn has only exaggerated the issue for artists, as galleries close or scale back on shows, or cut down on the artists they represent. So, students without means can abandon the idea of becoming an artist, downgrading art from career to hobby, and pursue something else. Or, they can saddle themselves with the loans that make it necessary for them to take jobs that distract from their real job of being an artist.
The result is that the pool of working artists becomes less economically diverse. Because it takes a certain amount of privilege, or a certain amount of delusion that one can break into such privilege, to identify as an artist. There was an article in the NY Times yesterday about the collapse of Williamsburg, a trendy Brooklyn neighborhood that has found favor with many of the city’s artists, now that so many of the hipsters’ trust funds have dried up. (Full disclosure: my apartment and studio are in the burg) I’m not sure how I feel about it. I’d like to think that it’s the start of putting artists from different financial backgrounds on more equal footing, but in reality, it may just make it even harder for those of us who never had money to make art.