9 February 2009

Newsflash: starving artists are starving even more

The Toronto Star has an article today about how the average income of Canada's "working artists" (what field is not elaborated) who number about 140,000 across the country decreased from $26,000 in 2001 to $22,700 in 2006, while the average income of workers in general increased by 2%. Further, artists are often not eligible for unemployment insurance, and very often make little or no contribution to pension plans. Apparently there are more "artists" (again, not defined in the article) that auto workers. If the auto workers are getting a multi-billion payout, what about the artists?

Having attended Canada's fine arts university for entirely too long a time, having some pretensions to becoming an artist in my own right, and knowing and having known many artists, I am of a few different and often contradictory opinions about this call for a bailout. On the one hand- sure, they need some help. The Arts is a hard road to tread- necessary, I believe for our culture and society, but still very hard (I ultimately abandoned my pretensions to being a writer for this reason, among others)- and while I don't think the public should be on the hook for paving it with gold, perhaps smoothing out a few of the potholes would be a good idea.

Having said that...

Many of the artists I knew in university embraced the idea of suffering for their art, felt it was a necessary precondition for the creation of art, and romanticised poverty to the extreme. In short, they wanted this. I remember seeing the movie Barfly at the university, and when Mickey Rourke cried out "Ain't nothing good ever been written in the lap of luxury!" a cheer went through the audience. Apparently, none of them remembered that many authors- Byron, Wordsworth, Dickens and even Shakespeare himself were quite well off.

Secondly, and this is an old argument but still true, most of the visual artists are artistically incompetent. They may have raw talent, they may possess vision, but there is no mechanism in place at the university to train them, to polish and hone their skills. Let me tell you of a sculptor I know who is of a different mold entirely. He is a skilled sculptor and versed in many techniques of creating and in several mediums. He believes the process is the best instructor of the arts. His favourite movement in sculpture is cubism, which is not my favourite, but he is capable of many styles. This has saved him and kept him solvent- for though he would like to continue exploring the cubism movement, he has the ability to produce any kind of art upon request. Though I disagree with him about the virtues of cubism, I respect his opinion because he is a master of his craft.

Compare this to many of the graduates I have met. I have seen many, many art displays put on by the students and the graduates. They are almost all terrible. Occasionally I see that the artist has good ideas, but they have no capacity to realize it in their work. The skills just aren't there, and when the skills aren't there there are only a few tricks to fall back upon to get one's work noticed. One of the most prominent is to use sex to shock the viewer, and with the saturation of sex oriented themes in our society, this is getting harder and harder to do.

Still, they give it the old college try, as it were. There is a painting that hung, and may still hang, in the food court of the student centre of my old university. It is a picture of a landscape with a naked woman, who judging by the position of her hand, is masturbating. When this painting was put up it caused a minor stir: what was this painting doing in the food court, near a day care centre? The artist predictably cried censorship and feminism. I remember her money quote: "I cant see how anyone could take offense at the idea of a woman giving herself pleasure." I believe she was being ingenuous. She wanted them to take offense, she invited it, and she needed people to take offense because, frankly, the painting has nothing else going for it. If one looks at it and ignores what the woman is doing, and looks at the painting as a painting, it's lousy. The drafting is poor; the use of perspective is minimal; the colouring is rudimentary and colouring bookish; the use of light and shadow is non-existent and as a result the painting is two dimensional and flat; the human figure is poorly rendered, and suffers from the problem of the rest of the painting: unshaded, monotone, flat. The painting should not be there because it is badly done. The only thing it has going for it is its subject matter and capacity to shock.

It really is an old trick, if you can call it that. Anyone who has looked over an unbowdlerized version of art history knows this. The frescoes of Pompey, or the etchings of Fuseli can show this to any viewer in a second. In all honesty, the artists today who beleive they are striking a blow for artistic freedom through the creation of pornography have nothing to teach the artists of the past. And they have learned nothing from the artists of the past as well. And then they are surprised that there is no demand for their art.

But to go back to my sculptor friend. Though surviving he is not thriving. He is unfortunately alive at the wrong time. Had he lived a hundred years ago, or ninety years, after the end of the first world war, he would have a made a good sum building monuments to the dead, or to our political heroes. Today we don't believe in heroes, so we raise no monuments. My friend could have made monuments for the government until the cows come home, but we do so no longer. When we put up art in a park it is art for art's sake and it calls nothing to mind, refers to nothing, looks like nothing, and if people are inspired to think about it at all the only question that comes to mind is "why is it there?" to which there is no good answer.

The times have changed. I know many people today who have no opinion about art, and take pride in knowing nothing about it. This is unfortunate for everyone. Rather than a government handout, followed by a repeated government handout, and so on, I would rather see a just demand for the talents of artists- all of them, in all the fields of art. But the corollary of that is that artists must also be in tune to what the people want, not just what academics think is desirable, and they must be capable of fulfilling a needs other than their own artistic visions. We should not be forced to pay people to masturbate.

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