There is an attitude held by many of us in visual art, and especially by those of us who are considered/consider ourselves to be outsider artists, that money is simply not a part of the equation of art. It is an attitude with its roots in the heart of the modernist mindset, and it is an attitude of self-defeat and self-marginalization. The attitude is as follows: for artists to create truly progressive and provocative work, we must be unattached to the demands of the population at large; that art made for the masses is inherently watered-down; that to make capital-A “Art,” that goes beyond what everyone is already expecting, we need to be specialized and isolated—protected from an expectation to be popular.
And so, in the visual arts, we heroize artists who go their own way—who ignore the dictates of popular fashion and create their own vision while living in poverty, presumed (and real) insanity, and struggle. It’s as if every art student wants to be Vincent Van Gogh. Of course, artists cannot live on dreams of future fame and ear trimmings alone. Artists, like anyone else, need to be paid for their work. Thus, in the United States, the age of modernism has an uneasy marriage between artist and commerce that is facilitated through galleries, auction houses, museums, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
However, the attitude of independence is deeply engrained in our notion of what an artist should be. From Michelangelo to Jackson Pollock to Damien Hirst to Takashi Murakami, we have painted artists as self-reliant free-thinkers, operating without any assistance or source of income, even when that characterization is false. Michelangelo worked on commission and was primarily supported by the papacy, and Hirst and Murakami are closer to marketing-savvy CEOs than Vincent Van Gogh.
I write of the attitude of the artists because it is the part of our society with which I am most familiar, but the attitude is one that carries across all segments of modern society, and is also the keystone of the American Dream. We Americans see ourselves as self-reliant masters of our own destiny, just like artists. We can “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” and make our way toward prosperity by the purity and strength of our will alone. But Van Gogh couldn’t stay alive without the financial assistance of his art-dealing brother, Theo, and the worker cannot advance to CEO without others working to help him.
The duality of the American Dream is not lost on the organizers and workers of Union Labor. It takes the collective strength of people en masse to convince not only management, but the consumer population at large, that fair pay, adequate benefits, and safe working conditions will benefit management and consumer as well as worker. Union members aren’t the only ones involved: families, friends, supporting businesses, and even law enforcement have to work in concert for a strike or lockout to benefit the collective good. It isn’t just workers who walk the picket lines, and it isn’t just union members who refuse to cross them. Whether they are paper mill employees, longshoremen, steel workers, or symphony musicians, an entire population has to come together to advance the conditions of their livelihood.
And for that reason, the occupation of art must be seen as accessible. When it is deemed obtuse, distant, or unnecessary, convincing a civic population to support any source of livelihood can become next to impossible. This was the fate of visual arts, sealed in the massive defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts in the late 1980s and early 1990s known as the Culture Wars. (For more of my thoughts on the Culture Wars, click here). Artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano had already taken positions firmly outside of the mainstream, and high art itself had been positioned on the fringes of society since the Impressionists. Outsider and activist artists stood by and watched the evisceration of public funding, already jaded and purposely outside of the society many of them were critiquing or attempting to advance.
By and large, music has not been an area of the arts that has needed much work to convince people of its importance throughout society. People readily pay for recorded music and live concerts from popular musicians, and the Culture Wars did not result in the kind of massive NEA cuts for classical music and theater funding that had come down on visual art. But, while “High Art” music, like symphony, may not receive the same disdain as Avant Garde visual art, it has come under increasing fire and threats of defunding in the face of the Great Recession and the public and private sector budget cuts that have come with it.
In Spokane, Washington, the city-funded arts commission, as it had existed for over 30 years, is gone. Toast. It is no more, and it’s not coming back. While it may be gone, there are other battles to fight regarding the place of the arts in the soul of Spokane—and those battles begin at the Fox Theater. Even the name of the theater underlies the battle at hand. It was constructed as a studio-owned movie theater and has been re-purposed as a theater for the performing arts and the home of the Spokane Symphony. Its new official name, The Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, honors the philanthropic donor who made the renovations possible. Money keeps the doors open. Money keeps food on the tables of musicians’ families.
In the interests of keeping that food on their tables, the musicians of the Spokane Symphony have gone on strike. Unlike the romantic notion of the visual artist toiling alone in his studio, symphony musicians are, by their nature, collective and collaborative artists. Like a community for any other striking workforce, it is up to all of us to make this successful.
In a small town dependent on a paper mill for employment, the entire population can be directly affected by a work stoppage. The work is the heartbeat of the community. The work of the Spokane Symphony has to be the heartbeat of this community, because this doesn’t affect the symphony musicians alone. It affects every artist: every rock band, every poet, every novelist, every painter, every aspiring rapper, and every news-and-opinion blogger. When the musicians of the Spokane Symphony receive a pay cut, we all receive a pay cut. We are all told that our work is not worth what we believe it to be worth. When the musicians of the Spokane Symphony are shut down for a month of concerts, we are all shut down. We are all told that our work is not important enough to be our primary source of income; that we need to go out and get “real” jobs. When the musicians of the Spokane Symphony are disrespected, we are all disrespected. The notion that art is a hobby—that it can be done in the time left over after we spend our lives doing “real” work at minimum wage jobs that serve the purpose of capitalism by creating wealth for those that are not ourselves—is an insult.
As artists, what we do is real work. We create wealth, and that wealth can be quantified in terms of dollars and cents. Work is something that should be compensated. Pay for your friends paintings this holiday season. Hand that cover charge over to the doorman at your favorite bar or restaurant to pay the wages of the musicians, poets, artists, and writers who perform there. And, if you value the notion of fair pay for fair work, do not cross a picket line. Any musician who performs as a scab in the place of the Spokane Symphony is doing themselves a disservice, and any concert goer who crosses a picket line is telling those picketing musicians that their livelihoods and their families are less than equal.
Artwork IS work. It is up to the entire community to make sure that art-work is the kind of work that can support, sustain, and grow. We are all a part of this, and it will take all of us to make a brighter future for art in Spokane.