This is an excerpt from a longer article by Anton Vidokle in e-flux magazine. Read the full article here.
Early modernist poets like Baudelaire were extremely influential in shaping the attitudes of artists towards commerce and business. Implicit in the way of life of “bohemian” artists and writers in the Latin Quarter was a rejection of bourgeois professional and commercial pursuits, as was a rejection of industrialization and emergent capitalism. Baudelaire was actually rather critical of the bohemians, being very much a radical dandy, an aristocrat who despised the squalor of bohemian life. Nevertheless, he spent much of his life in this milieu and immortalized it in his work: “In murky corners of old cities where everything—horror too—is magical, I study, servile to my moods, the odd and charming refuse of humanity.” Despite the marginality and political insignificance of bohemia, its cultural impact was absolutely enormous. It remains ever-present, a specter that reappears in various times and places.
Andy Warhol’s Factory is fascinating in this respect: both a murky, magical corner for misfits and eccentrics, and simultaneously the workplace of the first self-proclaimed Business Artist. Warhol’s artistic position is very interesting insofar as it combined stances that were thought to be diametrically opposed: he was at once a dandy, a bohemian, but also someone who did not disguise his interest in business and commerce. His interest in business did not only extend to sale of his artwork; he also pursued the publication of a commercial magazine, film production, a television show—what amounted to his own media industry. To my mind, Warhol’s position was much more honest and productive than that of artists who pretend that the artist can or should stay innocent by delegating (or appearing to delegate) business-related activity to gallerists or other agents, and who maintain that this is the only condition in which critical or culturally significant art can be produced. By turning his art into a kind of a business, Warhol managed to achieve independence, though not independence from the art market.
But since his time, Warhol’s economic independence seems to have been misunderstood. The independence that came from his bridging of the bohemian sphere and the sphere of day-to-day commerce has been converted into a vast proliferation of so-called artistic practices that treat art as a profession. But art is not a profession. What does being professional actually mean under the current conditions of de-skilling in art? We should probably be less concerned with being full-time, art-school-trained, professional artists, writers, or curators—less concerned with measuring our artistic worth in these ways. Since most of us are not expected to perfect any specific techniques or master any craft—unlike athletes or classical musicians, for example—and given that we are no longer tied to working in specific mediums, perhaps it’s fine to be a part-time artist? After all, what is the expertise of a contemporary artist? Perhaps a certain type of passionate hobbyism, a committed amateurism, is okay: after all, we still live in a reality largely shaped by talented amateurs of the nineteenth century, like Thomas Edison and so many others. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to work in some other capacity in the arts, or in an entirely different field, and also to make art: sometimes this situation actually produces much more significant work than the “professional art” we see at art fairs and biennials. Ilya Kabakov supported himself for decades by being a children’s book illustrator. Marcel Duchamp worked as a librarian and later sold Brancusi’s work to make a living, while refusing to be dependent on sales of his own work.It interesting to note that this emphasis on professionalization emerged simultaneously with the disappearance of bohemia, which is usually described as a shared creative space that allowed for fluid communication between poets, artists, dancers, writers, musicians, and so forth. The notion of bohemia as something to aspire to went out the window a few decades ago; it vanished at the same time as the visual art sphere was becoming more segregated from other fields of art. “Bohemian” has become a primarily derogatory term that seems to imply a kind of uncommitted, naive dilettantism, but within the history of art it has a greater significance. According to T.J. Clark, bohemia refers to a movement by a group of artists, writers, and poets who apparently renounced the normative bourgeois society, a move that, unlike the gestures of the avant-garde, was not a calculated temporary tactic intended only so that one could return to the salon of art in a more advantageous position, but a more permanent departure. The bohemian artist would absolutely reject the notion of professionalism in the arts—this was something for lawyers, accountants, and bankers, not artists.
These days it’s becoming more and more difficult to imagine the production of significant art without a training system that educates future producers of art, its administrators and, to some extent, its consumers. However, until only a few decades ago, many if not most artists, curators, and critics, never attended masters programs or studied curatorship and critical writing in specialized training programs. The field of art is becoming professionalized in a very, very narrow way. There’s still the old problem that professionalization is really about a division of labor, and a division of labor produces alienation. It’s a contradiction that a lot of people go into the arts because they want to be a little less alienated from what they do in life, even as what is increasingly imposed on artists, curators, writers—and it comes both from the market and public sector—is the professionalization and precarization of their activity.
The problem of professionalization is connected to the proliferation of MFA programs, which have become a prerequisite for young people entering the arts. In a sense, universities and academies have created a perfect economic feedback loop that perpetuates their own existence: most artists depend on having a teaching position. This is because, as Walid Raad recently pointed out, the average life-span of financial success in the art market (in places where there is such a thing)—a period during which a successful artist’s work is in active demand by collectors—is a mere four years. How do you support yourself when your work does not sell anymore? You teach—and to qualify for a teaching position, you need an MFA degree. This means that most artists who aspire to a life-long practice have little choice but to enroll in MFA programs and often pay astronomical fees and go into debt in order to have a chance of teaching in the future or selling their work in the lucrative art market. But unlike other fields, such as law or medicine, where graduates can reasonably expect a job upon graduation, there are no guarantees that an artist with an MFA degree will find a teaching job. With recent shifts in hiring policies at most universities—towards part-time, untenured, adjunct labor—very few artists ever get a tenured, secure position. To me, this resembles a kind of pyramid scheme or institutional blackmail in which money is extracted using false promises, with the benefits going to very few—primarily the institutions themselves.
I attended graduate school in the ‘90s. I did all of the coursework and the final exhibition, wrote the dissertation and submitted it. I thought I was all done, but then suddenly I found out that in order to get the degree itself, I needed to package my dissertation and photographs in a very specific type of a black plastic folder, which could only be purchased at one stationery store located in Manhattan near Canal Street. The secretary at the art department told me that the Chairman kept the folders in a closet in his office, and that the folders had to conform exactly to the dimensions of the closet’s irregular shelves. No other folders would be accepted. I was idealistic and thought that the Master of Fine Arts degree had something to do with the acquisition of knowledge … but it came down to a surreal formalism. I never got the folder or the degree!
It seems to me that MFA programs have become a tool of indoctrination that has had an unprecedented homogenizing effect on artistic practices worldwide, an effect that is now being replicated with curatorial and critical writing programs. At the center of the problem is the black plastic folder: at the school I attended, the folder itself became the goal of the program—both the framing and the ultimate content of graduate studies in art. A folder, identical to hundreds of other folders arranged on a shelf, became a tool to valuate and legitimize artistic practice through a forced standardization. My school was not very different from how most museums, art centers, and galleries operate today, whereby systemic and logistical needs often demand legibility according to predefined terms. In the process, the folder replaces art itself.
The market of art is not merely a bunch of dealers and cigar-smoking connoisseurs trading exquisite objects for money behind closed doors. Rather, it is a vast and complex international industry of overlapping institutions which jointly produce artworks’ economic value and support a wide range of activities and occupations including training, research, development, production, display, documentation, criticism, marketing, promotion, financing, historicizing, publishing, and so forth. The standardization of art greatly simplifies all of these transactions. For a few years now I have experienced a certain sense of déjà vu while walking through art fairs or biennials, a feeling that many other people have also commented on: that we have already seen all these works that are supposedly brand new. We are experiencing the impact of contemporary art as a globally traded commodity that is produced, displayed, and circulated by an industry of specially trained professionals. The folder that replaces the art has undergone only a slight modification: into an investment portfolio.
This is not a new observation: I think Marcel Duchamp already fully understood this danger a hundred year ago. There are, of course, so many aspects of his work that could be mentioned in this essay, from his Standard Stoppages to his peculiar refusal to make a living by selling his artworks. In a way, one can understand much of Duchamp’s work as a repeated act of offering the folder back to the art establishment: whether in the shape of a valise, a box, a collection of notes and photographs, a literal folder, or even an elaborate gesamkunstwerk like his Etant donné, containing all the indexical references to his work. However, the folders he provided contained a bomb: they were capable of bringing down the shelf they were stored on.
Today it would be rather futile to try to reconstitute bohemia—the free-flowing, organic creative space—because it never really existed within the constellation of institutions of art, the art market, and the art academy. If Warhol’s Factory was an entry into art that enabled a group of people of very different backgrounds to enter a certain kind of productive modality (both within and in spite of the surrounding economy), it was a space of free play that no longer exists. Instead, what we have now are MFA programs: a standardization not even of bohemia, but only its promise. Just to be clear: I am not advocating that artists should remain innocent, childlike amateurs; a certain mobilized dissidence wielded by young people engaging in specialized study in art structures can amount to something quite powerful. What I mean is that if one is really looking to produce a different kind of art, it is necessary to step through the standardization and professionalization it promises, and discover a way to access whatever may be on the other side—even if what one finds does not resemble art as we currently understand it.
This supposes that, somewhere close to the center of what we all know art to be, there is a kind of open, undefined quality. And this is something I feel to be increasingly difficult to develop and maintain both in art and other areas of life, when there are so many pressures in the market-driven economy to divide labor, to professionalize. As artists, curators, and writers, we are increasingly forced to market ourselves by developing a consistent product, a concise presentation, a statement that can be communicated in thirty seconds or less—and oftentimes this alone passes for professionalism. For emerging artists and curators there is an ever-increasing number of well-intentioned programs that essentially indoctrinate them into becoming content providers for an art system whose values and welfare are wholly defined by its own logic of supply and demand.
Being a professional should not be the only acceptable way for us to maintain our households, particularly when most interesting artists are perfectly capable of functioning in at least two or three fields that are, unlike art, respected by society in terms of compensation and general usefulness. I feel that we have cornered ourselves by denying the full range of possibilities for developing our economies. In fact, the economic dimension of art is more often wholly suppressed under the specter of bohemia, condemning artists to a precarious and often alienating place in the day-to-day relations that hold other parts of society together. While artists like Warhol took some pleasure in operating a frontier economy that produced value and new economic protocols—much in the way a government might manage an economy—this is not the concern of most other artists, who would prefer to have a more straightforward connection to society without at the same time having their work regarded as mere craft. Unless hard-pressed by circumstances, we still think that the proper thing to do is to wait for a sponsor or a patron to solve our household problems and to legitimize our work. In fact, we don’t need their legitimacy. We are perfectly capable of being our own sponsors, which in most cases we already are when we do other kinds of work to support our art-work. This is something that should not be disavowed, but acknowledged openly. We must find the terms for articulating what kind of economy artists really want. This can be quite complicated, since not addressing this question implicitly reinforces the simplistic myth of the artist as an isolated and alienated genius. Without a captivating alternative, artists will always defer to this myth out of habit, in spite of how complex and interesting their real household economy may be. I suspect that if affirmed fully and radically, this condition could lead to a fluid, liberated state close to what Marx envisioned for humanity—the messianic promise at the heart of communism. After all, we are never one thing at all times.
×© 2013 e-flux and the author
Anton Vidokle is an editor of e-flux journal.