Art & Development

the search for silver linings

I usually like Holland Cotter’s criticism, but I found his op-ed, “The Boom is Over: Long Live Art!” (NYTimes.com, February 12, 2009), highly debatable. He suggests that a recession is good for art, even going so far as to say “a financial scouring can only be good for American art.”

So I was glad to see Alexandra Peers respond “Why recession isn’t good for art” (New York Magazine, Mar 1, 2009 ). As she points out:

Not many people would argue that fewer jobs for dancers are a boon to ballet, or shrinking advances are good for literature, or newspapers in bankruptcy are good for journalism.

I appreciate Peer’s skepticism and realism. In contrast, I find Cotter’s optimism to be thinly-disguised cynicism. For example, Cotter makes sweeping generalizations like:

Students who entered art school a few years ago … will have to consider themselves lucky to get career breaks now taken for granted: the out-of-the-gate solo show, the early sales, the possibility of being able to live on the their art.

That’s overkill. While select young artists did benefit from market-driven hype, there’s no need to discount the multitude of other artists who continue to make huge sacrifices and appreciate the minor successes they have attained.

He also floats this vaguely Cultural Revolution-ish vision:

Why not build into your graduate program a work-study semester that takes students out of the art world entirely and places them in hospitals, schools and prisons, sometimes in-extremis environments, i.e. real life? My guess is that if you did, American art would look very different than it does today.

This makes Cotter sound like he’s been sequestered in the art world for too long. Most artists already work in “the real world.” In fact, quite a few artists work in community-based art programs in hospitals, schools and prisons! Needless to point out, in a recession, these programs are vulnerable to funding shortages, and might have to reduce payroll or overextend staff — and that can only be bad for artists. (I mean, when was the last time you heard of an overpaid artist-educator?) If believing that artists should be fairly compensated for their labor makes me a capitalist, then bring me my top hat and monocle.

Cotter seems bent on taking a privileged art world down a notch, but he doesn’t acknowledge how a dismal economy will disproportionately impact those who aren’t privileged. Instead, he imagines that a recession could allow artists to

daydream and concentrate… make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again.

Underemployment as a self-styled residency? I wish I could share Cotter’s optimism, but I don’t have to look far for a dose of realism. Most of the artists I know weren’t swept up in the market fury, and they continue to struggle with finding stable work and affordable health insurance. P, an art student, worked two jobs while in school to make ends meet. Q is entering art school this semester — upon graduation, he’ll join the growing ranks of the unemployed in search of a job. M, a recent grad, financially assists his parents after they defaulted on their mortgage. C, quite optimistically, found a perfect house with space for a studio, but couldn’t find a lender.

It’s one thing for artists to tolerate economic instability as trade-off for a creative life; it’s another for a columnist to deem it desirable for artists.

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