To Commerce Books / People In Trade

by Robert Storr
Translated from the French by Julie Dault

In the sweltering heat of Venice, crowds are milling in Prada frippery, passing the whos-who of the art world, assembled here thanks to the organizations commissary team. The murmurs arent all approving, though the disapproval is necessary for the rumor mill, where, whether met with irritation or enthusiasm, names are duly noted, if only for the space of a single moment.

At the same time, in the sweltering heat of Brooklyn, Im walking in the evening, strolling past the abandoned underground vaults from past glassworks factories that today house artists studios. Hundreds of various practices call these enormous structures home, getting to them before developers could turn them into "luxury lofts with view". The view, in this particular case, is of a long, industrial panorama of factory roofs, with a far off view of the radiating Chrysler Building. Multiply this labyrinth by a thousand units in hundreds of buildings of more or less the same size, and you have the phenomenon otherwise known as Greenpoint-Williamsburg-Long Island City, the next-to-last location to house New Yorks bohemians. Following the rapidity with which Harlem was colonized -- and Im weighing my words -- after this there is only the Bronx. Multiply this patchwork of marginal urban zones to comparable neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and other cities, and you get a map of districts that house the crystallized diaspora of five generations of aspiring post-war artists.

In these buildings, the walls are huge and humid. Life is reduced to bare necessities and there is an air of perpetual, moderate production, where medium and size are tailored to fit the economies of space. The furniture varies according to the taste of the inhabitants -- though most carry an art-deco feel -- and almost nothing is new, with the dominant style set by the available aesthetic at the local discount furniture and charity stores. Generally, near an entrance, youll find a small display of drawings, photos and objects, in other words, presents, trades and ephemera from local art fairs, resembling miniature museums of friendship and admiration. Occasionally, theres a notable signature -- an old prof, an artist who shares the studio, a classmate who made it -- but for the most part, these are local artists work. While some of them enjoy a certain notoriety in the neighborhood, there is a more general orientation toward the anonymous author with this generation. The trends of the moment point to the obsessive gesture and a science-fiction grotesque. Not far from this brand, and visible in one of the offices here, is a series of business cards, resumes and articles on the artists-in-residence. More often than not, these articles are out-of-date.

Then, there are their showpieces -- of all sorts. Elevated works of varying color, indeterminate and almost obsolete everyday. In certain cases, the distance between living and the studio marks the schism between the romantic ideal of the artist and the more startling reality of creativity. In other cases, as characteristic and common, the two spaces are so consistent that together they appear like a vast installation, and we strive to imagine how, without this context, this self-sufficient art might survive, especially in the confines of an immaculate contemporary art gallery.

The hard reality is that the vast majority of these works are never seen beyond these sites of production.

Last summer, several Parisian galleries carried out an exchange with their Brooklyn counterparts, and certain mainstays of the Williamsburg community like Bruce Pearson were able to show for the first time in the capital of the old Avant-Gardes. But this was an exception. In general, the work of these "artisans," men and women, only see the light of day in artist-run centers or alternative galleries, in the scholarly or academic circuit where artists teach for miserable salaries, or further, in small galleries where, despite a commercial status, they are incapable of rising to the necessary levels to pull their artists from obscurity.

Here, artists arrive young and become old, financing their efforts with crummy jobs and the irretrievable decline of their emotional and physical states. Here, imagination is ignited and then frustrated. All the while, against all expectations, this fact does nothing to deter the floors of artists in this dark urban corner. From time to time, a critic or curator will let it be known that he liked what he saw. It could have even been a sincere reaction, but generally it wont be followed up by any action. More rarely, a gallerist or intrepid collector will open his or her wallet, but its likely theyll never be heard from again. Here, tribute is paid to the patience it takes to survive the long silences between opportunities, to endurance, to the strength to survive on the brink of exhaustion, to deny the corrosive bitterness.

Of course, its a fate with a long history. It is nourished by a long trajectory of artists struggles, from Murgers Scenes de la vie Boheme to photos of Giacometti or Pollock heroically subsisting in austere environments. These myths require correcting, a radical demythification, what with their constant capacity to mistake and bewitch the wells of time. Additionally, Adornos theory on the "Culture Industry" doesnt account for the prolongation in the 21st Century of the overabundant class of solidly educated artists, a lumpen bourgeoisie, who reproduce optimistically, but at inverse rates to any available opportunities.

Beyond Venice, there is Brooklyn, and, from Rome to Buenos Aires, from Moscow to Tokyo, in all of the cities where the diaspora settles, you can find a version that, depending on scale, is more or less similar to what Ive just described here. And the real question that hovers over this entire phenomenon is that of the wrenching truths of social Darwinism. Over time, like the sculptor David Smith said fifty years ago, "Art is a luxury artists pay for".

First published in Artpress No. 294 (October 2003).