Art & Development

Art and Recession: Outlooks

Following Holland Cotter’s “The Boom is Over. Long Live Art!” (, 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.

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!” (, 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.