“Hooverville” (2010), Graphite on paper, 2010. Courtesy of Jade Townsend and William Powhida. (click to enlarge)

Once it seemed to matter — the high end, I mean. Art and money, when you put the two words together, would invariably lead to HirstMurakamiKoons unless they were referencing KoonsMurakamiHirst.

And the crazy gushes of cash that went their way, and the way they flaunted it, became prime rib for glossy magazines and academic panels alike.

But that was so 2007.

They’re still out there, HirstMurakamiKoons, running their tchotchke factories, but truthfully, who has thought about them since the last dot painting was crated up and packed away?

Is the art world finally entering a post-crash, post-Occupy stage?

Recent posts on Hyperallergic, one by Alexis Clements and two by William Powhida, among other reports, provide some intriguing metrics.

Detail of “Hooverville”

The articles by Clements and Powhida centered on the 2010 survey of artists’ payments that was conducted by W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) and presented in a public discussion on Friday, April 20th, at Artists Space.

The survey’s 577 respondents — as reported in Powhida’s “Why Are (Most) Artists (So Fucking) Poor?” — were identified as “artists who exhibited with nonprofit art institutions in New York City between 2005 and 2010.”

While the survey “found that 58% of artists who responded received ‘no form of payment,’” the size or profile of the institution had little bearing on what it paid participating artists. Performa and Exit Art awarded the least amounts, while the most came from Creative Time and the Kitchen. The big museums (MoMA, Whitney, Brooklyn, Queens, New Museum) landed somewhere in the middle.

The group’s concern, as stated in their “W.A.G.E. wo/manifesto” from 2008 and paraphrased in Powhida’s post, is for “the remuneration of cultural value in capital value.”

A look at the survey reveals a telling difference between the capital value placed on artists participating in exhibitions and those presenting a performance, lecture or screening.

The latter (whom I will simplistically categorize as those who show up to do a job) are more likely to receive payment than the former, who make objects in private and then release them to the public.

Relatively speaking, this suggests that an object (i.e., an artwork other than a film or video) is viewed by an exhibiting venue as free expression (in every sense of the word “free”), but if the artist is present, the economic calculus seems to creep along the spreadsheet toward the column for paid labor.

Detail of “Hooverville”

(That screenings are included in this better-remunerated grouping would seem to reflect the cultural-economic consensus that accepts time-based artworks as rentable commodities, as opposed to those taking up space on a wall or floor.)

The dichotomy between uncompensated exhibition participation and paid performance can be put forward as evidence that society’s view of the artist in the studio has not evolved all that much from the template of the medieval monk cooped up in a cell, hand-copying texts for the love of knowledge and the greater glory of God.

Artists, in this construct, do what they do no matter what, and often in inverse proportion to what they materially gain from it. This is played out in the popular imagination with such shibboleths as the artist-as-martyr, artist-as-shaman or artist-as-madman (which feeds directly into the cult of the outsider artist).

When we watch a performance or hear a lecture, our instinct is to respond, if not by tossing money, then at least with applause. The artist in the studio, meanwhile, is largely invisible.

That invisibility lends itself, I would posit, to a mythology that society wraps around artists like the linens an Egyptian mummy. In its spiritual dimension, it is not unrelated to the view of the artist as a monk in a cell, but it pushes the passions entangled in all-consuming tasks to the extreme of self-sacrifice — not in the service of one’s country, religion or family — but in the act of creation.

Detail of “Hooverville”

The self-sacrificing creator or redeemer is of course one of humankind’s most enduring beliefs, and artists have been compared (or have compared themselves) to deities ever since Marsyas challenged Apollo to a flute-playing contest (Michelangelo was Il Divino; Picasso was Protean).

When artists like HirstMurakamiKoons appear to be in it only for the money, their attitude feels far more unseemly than it would if it were coming from a pop musician or a hedge fund manager.

We are predisposed, it would seem, to erect a wall between the divine juice of art and the grubbiness of money, a posture reinforced as much by the backroom transactions in private galleries (which were forced by legislation to provide price lists to the public) as by the transgressive spectacle of auction blocks.

On that note, also this week, a Yes Men-style hoax was perpetuated on the Whitney Museum (via the deceptively labeled website, whitney2012.org) in the form of an official-looking press release:

In response to overwhelming demand, the Whitney Museum will close its doors on May 1 so that artists, museum workers, and patrons will be able to join the “day without the 99%” and general strike planned for May Day. By taking this action, the Museum acknowledges the labor performed not only by the artists in our exhibitions, but also the labor of everyone who cleans our building; sells tickets and checks coats; guards, handles, maintains, and conserves the art; curates and programs our exhibitions; and educates our public.

And so forth. In an article posted on Tuesday in L Magazine, Paul D’Agostino playfully compared this punking to Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses (which protested the sale of indulgences, among other clerical crimes) to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg in 1517:

A latter-day secular Martin Luther of sorts has nailed some incendiary, disputatio-ready claims to the door of the Whitney Museum of American Art — while posing, no less, as the institution of critique itself. … At any rate, among the sweeping administrative and institutional reforms “The Museum” announced, such as shedding itself of significant financial support (indulgences!) from Sotheby’s and Deutsche Bank, it also claimed that it will “cease business as usual” on May Day and “take art into the streets.” It would then reopen on May 2nd “a wholly changed institution.”

Detail of “Hooverville”

The Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation marked a turning point not only in the history of Christianity, but also in the history of Western art, as the Lutherans banned images from their churches altogether and the Catholics scrambled, not always successfully, to identify a more sober view of faith for its sacred painting and sculpture.

In any event, the sound of Luther’s hammer signaled that the high times of the High Renaissance were about to come to an end.

By questioning the fairness of exhibiting works without payment, W.A.G.E. is in its own way seeking to dissociate an artist’s labor from the myth of self-sacrifice.

By calling attention to the Whitney Museum’s funding sources, the anonymous pranksters at whitney2012.org are offering a vision as quixotic as Luther’s ideal of a corruption-free church: an aesthetic realm “apart from the dictates of finance, profiteering, and austerity,” in which the museum (or at least the Biennial’s fourth-floor performance space) could be turned into “a cultural commons available to all, creating a space for collaboration, performance, organizing and creative reuse where public, nonhierarchical, radically democratic groups can freely gather.”

If artists have been regarded as otherworldly — monks on the low end and gods on the high end — for the past several centuries, these activists have decided that it’s time to get over it.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.

3 replies on “Pie in the Sky When You Die: Art, Money and Myth”

  1. Life is too short to not be paid as an artist. Purity leads to the poorhouse.
    Art is not free. A recent report said, a Cezanne recently sold for two hundred million dollars.
    This good in my opinion. Two hundred fifty million to be exact.
    Good for KoonsHirstMurakami.

  2. Artists have to heat and eat. Gas was going up as I remember.
    If you got cash, you don’t have to take no trash!!!!!!!!!!

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