The Artist as Professional

February 28, 2015
Bruce Nauman, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, 1967
Bruce Nauman, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, 1967

In 1903 Cézanne wrote to his dealer, Ambrose Vollard: “Must art indeed be a priesthood, demanding that the faithful be bound to it body and soul?” Today the question would be greeted with derision. Art in the 21st century is not a spiritual calling, it is a profession. The artist is not motivated by inner necessity but by the lure of success, which can be measured by the conventional yardsticks of fame and fortune just like any other business entrepreneur.

This may sound like a dismal generalisation but when one considers the booming careers of figures such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, who have teams of people making and selling the work which bears their name, it is impossible to ignore the changes that have overtaken the art scene since the end of the Modernist era.

The harbinger of doom was Andy Warhol, known for statements such as: “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”

This may sound banal, but these words are routinely quoted by every art investment seminar and every course that wants to emphasise the idea of art as a profession. Warhol’s views on ‘art business’ and ‘business art’ are touted as examples of “positive thinking” and taken as sage-like predictions of the path forward for high-end contemporary art.

Yet Warhol was only stating the obvious. By the time Bruce Nauman had created his ironic neon wall-piece: The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (1967), the idea of the artist as a Romantic hero was already old hat. In America it had died with the Abstract Expressionists who claimed they were exploring sublime and tragic emotions on canvas. Such claims demanded – and often received – a leap of faith on behalf of an audience hungry to believe that art had a higher purpose.

Scepticism awoke in the 1960s. Jasper Johns poked fun at the Abstract Expressionists with his painted targets and maps, while Robert Rauschenberg made extravagant ‘combines’, attaching old clothes, stuffed animals, and even a mattress to the painted canvas. Frank Stella said that with his Minimalist paintings: “What you see is what you see.”

It could be argued that art’s line of Romantic heroes came to an end with Joseph Beuys (1921-86), who once had himself photographed in front of the statue of Greyfriar’s Bobby in Edinburgh, with a banner headline saying: “First of the Giants”. Beuys’ pose as a latter-day shaman was also a form of slapstick comedy. He may have adopted the forms of German Romanticism, but his work acted as a social irritant rather than a vehicle for “mystic truths”. His performances and installations might be seen as exercises in consciousness-raising or shock therapy, but it was his relentless idealism that distinguishes Beuys from so many artists who claim to follow in his footsteps.

Joseph Beuys, First of the Giants, 1981

Joseph Beuys, First of the Giants, 1981

In the 21st century mentioning Beuys has become a sign of artistic integrity, even if there is no tangible relationship with his work or his social values.

With literature the institutionalisation of creativity was already underway in the 1950s, when novelists began writing satires of the university jobs that provided them with an income. Kingsley Amis started the process with Lucky Jim (1954), but the academic novel became a genre in the hands of writers such as David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury and John Barth. In Rupert Wyatt’s film, The Gambler, the lead character, Jim Bennett, is a novelist and lecturer who compensates for the emptiness of his life by making reckless, all-or-nothing bets at the casino. Bennett tells his students that one cannot teach anyone to be a writer – it requires innate genius.

The Gambler is a remake of a 1974 film, with a screenplay by the same writer, James Toback, and the scenario it describes feels incredibly dated today. What passed for an existentialist dilemma in 1974 now seems vaguely ridiculous when “genius” is a buzz word used to describe cricketers and footballers.

As William Deresiewicz notes in a recent article in The Atlantic – ‘The Death of the Artist and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur’ – the ‘professionalism’ in the arts coincides with the growth of university departments and arts funding bodies who look for tangible ways to assess an artist’s achievements. In 1994 I set out to investigate the way one artist, Jenny Watson, had made her way to the top of the hierarchies of Australian art, to the point where she was chosen as the country’s official representative at the 1993 Venice Biennale.

In all the reviews and essays written about Watson’s work there were two topics that kept recurring: narcissism and her professionalism. It’s still a mystery to me why narcissism could be the subject of so much praise. The artist’s “professionalism” seemed to consist of her ability to have several exhibitions in quick succession, her productivity boosted by the use of an assistant.

The only problem was that the Biennale show, by most assessments, was embarrassingly weak. All those professional credentials did not ensure an impressive exhibition.

Nowadays organisations such as the Australian Council are applying the same “professional” criteria for assessing who is eligible and ineligible for assistance. One experienced, well-regarded sculptor recently applied for a grant and was knocked back. When he insisted on knowing the reasons for the refusal he was finally told that he was not an “artist of the first calibre”.

This is a judgement made quantitatively, based on representation in Biennales as well as other institutional exhibitions and collections, both at home and abroad. What this means is that the same few artists, chosen by the same few curators, are judged to be “first calibre”, creating a false hierarchy open to every form of favouritism. And this, finally, is the problem with the artist-as-entrepreneur model: we are creating a class of recognised stars whose work – which may be brilliant, or repetitive, shallow and clichéd – is effectively beyond criticism.

Although this is a recipe for mediocrity only time will reveal the magnitude of the devastation. There is, however, no going back on the institutional mechanisms that dominate and control the arts, even though there are stirrings of unrest, as in the increasing interest being taken in areas such as Outsider Art, which lies beyond the mainstream. We can seek an outlet in such fields but to turn back the tide of professionalism is an impossible task. Put this alongside the so-called “democratisation of taste” that confers the highest status on the best-selling product, and it is obvious that the space for art as a ‘priesthood’ is rapidly shrinking.

The one freedom that remains is that of non-conformity. Despite the pressures generated by the institutions and the media we are perfectly capable of refusing the accepted hierarchies and pursuing our own taste and judgement. In an ideal world this, rather than the pronouncements of Andy Warhol, would be the central lesson of any course in positive thinking.

Published in the Australian Financial Review, February, 2015.