PEOPLE IN TRADE, or:
by Joe Scanlan
As an artist I am often asked: *Where does your money come from?* The question comes in two variations. The first is largely innocent and occurs whenever my relatives or members of the nonart public, having in my presence come across an artwork I have made, genuinely wonder how it can be possible to get paid for having made it. When I explain that there are many people who like to look at artworks and compare them to other ones over time, and a few in that group who are even willing to pay extraordinary amounts of money (relative to materials and labor) for what they feel are the more interesting examples, my nonart friends squint their eyes a little and cock their heads at me, as if something nefarious was going on. When I resort by way of example to the goings on at craft fairs or The Antiques Road Show they brighten, because they all know someone who earns a living making handbags or whose Star Wars paraphernalia was appraised at fifty thousand dollars. After they tell me about someone who has been similarly fortunate, I nod and say, *Yeah, art's just like that.* Unfailingly, their heads straighten and their squints dissolve. They still don't know anything about art, but at least they understand how it works, and how something works is always a more nagging question than what something means.
The second variant of the question about my money is usually posed by graduate students or architects, and is much more angry and troubling. It is intended to undermine my authority as an invited speaker or to expose a conceit I clearly have, a brickbat hurled from behind the stanchions of real-life drudgery that is the domain of architects and graduate students. That doesn't bother me. My veins are already coursing with the homeopathic toxins of commerce, so I'm immune to such naïve humiliations.
What does bother me about total strangers being concerned with my money, though, is the presumption that making a living is not an acceptable motivation for an artist. To me, for better or worse, all art is nothing if not a proposal for how the current situation might be altered at a profit. That that profit is often not immediately apparent to us is nothing against an artwork or its maker, and I, for one, refuse to live in a society where skilled individuals cannot earn a living however they please. If my best chance at making a living entails drawing snowflakes with a compass and gouache, then I can only hope that a liberal capitalist democracy such as ours will afford a niche in which to ply my trade; otherwise, the philosophical pillars of our society would be revealed to be not as liberal or democratic as they seem. For this reason, nothing is more impressive or politically reaffirming than an artist who is gainfully self-employed.
The confluence of energies that have produced this romantic, earnest climate are complex and quite unintended. Scholars and commentators tend to assert that digital technology is responsible for making our atomized world of independent contractors more viable than our old-fashioned, centralized workplaces. That may be true, but it doesn't explain how such a broad appreciation for being self-employed came about in the first place. Having grown up near Niagara Falls, New York, a region of the country that is only now recovering from the recession of 1991 and embracing the infotainment casino economy, the current spate of self-reliance is the natural fallout of four decades of corporate merging, downsizing, and outsourcing. The initial shock of so many people losing their jobs and having their livelihoods disrupted has been more than offset by our bedrock mistrust of any institution or corporation that promises to look out for our well-being when profits are at stake.
During my youth, many of my parents' friends had no choice but to capitalize on whatever they were good at as a means of making a living, turning their avocations for crocheting afghans or restoring cars into legitimate business enterprises. Over time, self-pity evolved into self-survival evolved into self-actualization as entrepreneur. Today, entrepreneurship is a state of mind that is ideally suited (if not in material then in spirit) to the cottage industry that is the Internet. Recent IRS statistics report that one in every five working Americans is an independent contractor, and some economists, counting people like commissioned salespersons who are technically employed but whose livelihood is self-generated, put the ratio has high as one in three. Thus, the more the necessity of having a unique and profitable skill permeates our culture, the more the business of being an artist is appreciated, and the more young people can aspire to be like John Cage or Vija Celmins when choosing a livelihood.
Now, if you are like my relatives and nonart friends, at this point you will be completely satisfied with the legitimacy of my profession, and even go so far as to wish me well at it since, given our shared belief in the aforementioned principles, it would be unpatriotic not to be so. And if you share the same chemistry as graduate students and architects, you will first need to square my philosophy with that of a figure from history in order to bring it under control. Which usually means you will cite Warhol.
It may surprise you to learn that when I say artists are the epitome of independent contracting, I do not have Andy Warhol in mind. I admire Warhol's enterprise, it was impressive in its day and all, but I think there is little about his methods or his oeuvre that is of use to independent artists now. The idea of art being made in a factory might have been a radical concept in the nineteen sixties, but we do well to remember that corporations at the time were already in the process of rendering Warhol-type factories obsolete. Factories mean overhead, and if art and independent contracting share anything it is the desire to minimize overhead costs. Even if I were to assume that Warhol's Factory was important in some absolute sense, the fact remains that Andy still didn't make anything of greater intrinsic interest or better quality than what could be found in the nonart world of his time. And that may have been his point. Indeed, that lack of distinction was perhaps Warhol's most important contribution to the then broad (and earnest) assault on art and life. Warhol meant to rely on the category of Art to distinguish his sameness from the sameness of the rest of the world.
Naturally, that category no longer holds once we begin to lump artists in with all other people in trade. Except, of course, when the activity of an artist is truly unrivaled by anyone else in the world, at which point it doesn't matter whether that person is an artist at all. He or she is simply *the best*, and it is on the basis of that often highly profitable status that the value of any activity rests.
Take Agnes Martin. Although she died in 2004, her work still dominates the market for imperfectly ruled pencil lines on unprimed canvas, even though her materials were inexpensive and her technique can be performed by anyone with work surface and yardstick. No one does. Martin so thoroughly wove her endeavor into herself as to make it seem impossible to impede on the terrain of her invention. In fact, her paintings — stripes and grids of graphite on canvas whose interstices were sometimes filled in with thin washes of color — can be seen as poetic evocations of the absolute distinction in relation to all other art that her work itself has come to represent. Despite her best efforts (or perhaps because of them), every line, space, and intersection that she delineated is different from every other, due to the weave of canvas, the pencils dragged across it, and the fact that Martin herself pulsed and breathed. The sublime residue of precise imperfection that resulted is unmatched by anyone, in any field.
The lesson, of course, is that it's much easier to be the best at doing something if there are as few other people as possible also doing it. Where Warhol's thousands of imitators continue to burn money and resources slavishly imitating a mainstream culture with which they can never compete, the real growth opportunities are in obscure enterprises where competition is low and materials cheap.
Just as Marshall McLuhan once observed that people didn't know they wanted television until television was invented, how can the audience for art know what it wants until we, as artists, invent it for them? Given that opportunity, how can any of us believe that it's in our long-range interest to constantly rearrange a product (such as popular culture) that our customers already know and have? In the end, and quite ironically, so-called *difficult* artists like Martin and David Hammons have turned out to be much better business models than their more celebrated counterparts could ever be. Their arcane interests, unique skills and often restrained production methods epitomize such concepts as personal branding, value adding and *just in time* production philosophies, state-of-the-art business innovations that they and other artists have never gotten credit for. Until now.
The avant garde lives! Not because it's more meaningful or radical than any other activity, but because it fills a legitimate market niche.