Wednesday, February 03, 2010

How The Recession Transforms A Vocation Into An Addiction

One day without it, and you’re cranky: deprived for a week, you become unbearable. The question of sacrificing basic comforts is irrelevant: your life revolves around the ability to “get your fix”. You believe it keeps you sane, allowing you to function as a productive member of society. You go back to the familiar behavior time and time again, even though it steals time, money, and causes conflict with those around you.

These are some of the common behaviors surrounding addiction. Often, it takes a progressive set of circumstances to reveal that someone really has a problem: for serious artists, the recession is that wake-up call.

A recent study conducted by Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC), a non-profit that works to support artists, reveals that more than 50 percent of artists have reported an income drop in the past year. 18 percent claimed an income loss of over 50 percent in that period of time. Artists who were (barely) able to support their need to make art when times were good are now facing a sobering truth: while the compulsion to create remains, the resources are not there.

Yes, I said “compulsion”. If you are not personally acquainted with any artists, or if you only know “Sunday Painters”, it can be difficult to comprehend how vital the realization of their visions can be. Laypeople have romantic words to describe artistic motivation, but terms like “passion” and “inspiration” are quaint, flaccid adjectives when used to articulate a drive so strong that it drowns out rational thought. Few people are able to conceive of this impetus that stems from your core, compelling you to go several nights in a row without sleep, or go a day without remembering to eat. For serious artists, the decision to devote themselves to creating is really not a decision at all, but an urgent, fundamental, and innate need.

The Art Boom of the past few years has painted a picture for the public of a new type of artist, epitomized by the likes of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. In fact, most artists across this country do not have glamorous, prosperous lives with 20 studio assistants: they are essentially slaves to their own creative drives. The LINC statistics show that a majority of artists work a second, or even a third, job to finance their art making activities. Unlike other “professions”, artists do not necessarily see any monetary gain from the student loans they invested to get their BFAs, followed by MFAs. They can cross the hurdle of securing coveted gallery representation, get amazing reviews, and spend 20 years of 70 hour weeks building up an absurdly thick resume, and still not be able to make ends meet. But, when pressed, I think that money retains little value to most art practitioners, except when they are looking to procure the capital needed to realize the next project.

All artists go through periods when they question their life choices. Those who live alone often sacrifice food, living conditions, and credit ratings in order to feed their art making. Accountable to no one and entrenched in their work, it can take years for them to “hit bottom”, and question whether the decisions they have made are in conflict with their own best interests for survival and longevity. When the occasional sales and grants that supplement a “day job” dry up, getting the second or third gig to make meager ends meet sucks up all the time that used to be spent making art.

It is often when one begins to share life with another that a mirror is held up for individuals to see and confront themselves. When a creative person enters into a relationship with a non-artist and gets to the point where they are making joint decisions about money with their partners, they are forced to look at the income vs. expenditures with a new set of (rational) eyes. Even the most supportive significant others can be tested when weighing the benefits of cobalt blue paint at $442.00 per pound against chicken at $2.49 per pound.

Regardless of marital status, when there is enough money available, art making can still be viewed as a vocation. Like one who chooses a religious life, artists acknowledge that the money’s not great, but the higher calling, with its soul-feeding rewards, sustains them. As long as they are creating, they exist in a state of bliss, despite ascetic surroundings.

But when sales drop off, the galleries close, and institutions declare that they will be giving no grant money this year, there are those among the creative ranks who are slapped in the face by the bottom line that they have been ignoring all these years. There will be interventions and reassessments. The cold economic reality of this time is so severe that it challenges the very definition of what it means to be a practicing artist. Because in this country, where money reigns and art is considered a luxury, “passion” is just another word for financial liability.

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