Art & Development

Art and Recession: Outlooks

Following Holland Cotter’s “The Boom is Over. Long Live Art!” (NYTimes.com, February 12, 2009), several more articles on the intersection of art and recession have cropped up.

Overly-optimistic authors suggest that a recession can be good for art and creativity.

In “Creative buds can bloom in a recession,” (Sydney Morning Herald, March 16, 2009), Marcus Westbury reiterates one of Cotter’s vague predictions:

[In a recession, artists] can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again. (Cotter)

Higher levels of unemployment can mean that talent has more time to experiment and innovate… (Westbury)

I don’t know how other people feel about being unemployed, but I find being on a tight budget oppressive, not liberating. While I might have once romanticized Dumpster-diving as a rejection of over-consumption in my youth, I no longer idealize the “poetry of poverty” (author Marlon James on Studio 360), or subsidizing my practice with credit card debt.

So it grates, because when unemployment figures for the general public rise, politicians, the media and the public are obsessed with the stress, risk and instability. But these writers suggest that artists enjoy a magical, innate virtue that transforms penury into dreamy studio lives, with few consequences — financial, professional or personal — to pay.

In “Getting creative to survive” (Philadelphia Inquirer, March 4, 2009), Melanie Cox McCluskey wrote about creative agencies:

Being inventive comes in handy in a bad economy, and creative people are finding solutions to sluggish times. They are taking on every project that comes along.

Wrong! For a creative agency to accept every job that comes through the door — even if the client or project is a bad fit for the agency — is not being creative. It’s being desperate and financially conservative.

I think these authors are overestimating the power of creative traits like flexibility and spontaneity. As Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd explain in “The Time Paradox” (Rider, 2008), these traits are helpful in art-making, but they are present-oriented. And too much present-orientation can lead to imbalance and unhappiness:

In a society that is politically and economically unstable, you cannot predict the future from the vantage of the present…. Political and economic instability also causes instability within families…. The less people can rely on the promises of government, institutions, and families, the more they eschew the future and focus on the present, creating a world of yes and no, black and white, is and is not, rather than one filled with maybes, contingencies, and probabilities.

Zimbardo and Boyd advocate a more balanced time-perspective, which includes healthy past- and future-orientation. Planning for the future is related to hope, ambition, health, well-being and a sense of personal efficacy.

I think these realist writers, who argue that artist’s already-fragile positions become more vulnerable in a recession, would agree.

Charles Fleming, “For artists, the picture is bleak.” Los Angeles Times. March 10, 2009.

Matthew Shaer. “Artists in survival mode as market crumbles.” Christian Science Monitor. March 13, 2009.

Despite their optimism, it seems like Cotter, Westbury and McClusky believe that artists belong at society’s margins, where they can happily make work in spite of dire economic circumstances.

I differ.

Instead of encouraging artists to espouse scarcity and self-sacrifice from the margins, I’d rather see artists expressing leadership and generosity from the center. Professionalizing and de-marginalizing artists inspires good ethics, values, and sense of agency.

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