Can one imagine a world without art: cave paintings, Mona Lisa, the great gothic cathedrals, all gone? Can one imagine the modern world without its ridiculous supplement of postmodern art, a once serious method of institutional and societal critique turned ironic meme-making? This is the world that is continually being imagined and what is increasingly demanded of artists during the Corona pandemic.
Designated as basically expendable and non-essential prior to the crisis, the arts and artists have been sidelined in a way that is horrifying to some and generally acceptable to most. Taking universities as an example, here the arts have never had the same privileges as the other more ‘important’ subjects like physics, engineering, and everything else grouped under the acronym STEM. The arts have been always thought of as the weird uncle at the family gathering and, as a result, they are always first on the chopping block for proposed budget cuts. Today as universities rethink the approach to virtual classrooms and knowledge delivery methods, the challenges they face are exacerbating the already precarious position the arts have within the system.
But the universities themselves have to be mindful of their own position within the greater economy and the public eye. According to Thomas Frank in his book Listen, Liberal!, the university system that was for thirty years touted as the panacea for the problems of working class people, whose jobs started to disappear and whose wages started to shrink in the 1990s due to the signing of NAFTA by Bill Clinton, is now as much a problem for the countless aspirational students whose futures are increasingly uncertain and precarious. The thought process went something like this: in a professionalized and specialized world one must get an education to join the ranks of the professionals if one is hoping to make a living. Now, however, the working class is being left behind to the dustbin of history; change is the only constant, and technology is driving the change. But as Frank points out, nothing fundamentally changes. The university has simply become an obverse of society at large. In the hopes of becoming professionals and part of the managerial class, students have spent years learning conformity while being told they are the future leaders of the world and forced to pay with their financial freedoms by going billions of dollars into debt. Each generation going through college is, in effect, worse off than each previous generation before it.
My old graduate school program has been for years embroiled in its own, somewhat different power struggle between tradition, the teaching of old-school methods like painting and drawing, and its modern equivalent, the new media. Given technology’s ascendancy and position, it is apparent which way the wind is blowing, but while painting and drawing classes have been slashed and (in some cases) eliminated, they continue to draw massive amounts of students.
Margaret Grebowitz decries the situation at the university in what she sees as “the weakening of morale and job satisfaction” and, more importantly, its “less-than-brilliant teaching.” The universities have retreated online, fundamentally changing nothing within their business model in an effort to make students “graduate on time,” while the administration and faculty dig in to “protect one’s increasingly precarious job.” The question raised is: what is the point of teaching students old techniques in a world that is interested in newness and technology? What is the point of teaching art at the university, when one can watch countless YouTube tutorials for free?
To a utilitarian, this thought might ring true. We must always move along the path of least resistance and for the greater good of society. When we are reluctant to make changes, change will happen without us. But this reductionist view completely ignores what artists really do. Artists do not choose to make art because it is easy or even satisfying. What is behind the compulsion to create art can be best compared to a moment of transcendence. Happiness, satisfaction, knowledge, wisdom, utility—all these are supplemental conditions to an inherent drive that only a few choose to heed and some make a career of.
The utilitarian point of view also ignores the long-established tradition of artist-driven revitalizations of inner cities and towns. It sidelines artists en masse by calling what they do ‘creative work,’ meaning work that is deemed non-essential and, therefore, without an imperative to be fairly compensated. The argument is that, since artists have always figured out a way to survive, they will also figure out a way to survive now. Many artists are already fleeing New York City because they cannot afford the ridiculously high rents. With galleries, museums, theaters, music venues and performing halls closed indefinitely, what is there left for them to do?
How we treat art and artists is indicative of a widening abyss between the professional and the working classes, the elite and the poor. To call something the ‘creative class’ does nothing to mitigate the inequality inherent in the system. Universities and museums were built and tasked with the mission to close this gap by turning artists into professionals. Some did, but a crushing number were left behind. There simply wasn’t enough space inside the institutions, and there will be even less space going forward. An article written in The Chicago Maroon summarized this blasé attitude unintentionally by saying that “for those who come from a working-class background, graduate school can offer security, but you need to understand that rejection rates – despite your qualifications – are increasing, so get comfortable with rejection and brace yourself for an academic job market where tenure-track jobs will be hard to come by for at least two to three years.”
As of the beginning of the crisis, grants for artists have further dwindled. The data are dismal and the artists to be funded are those who are in total dire straits. The $10 million available in the Artist Relief Fund, set to be distributed in $5,000 chunks means that only 2,000 very lucky artists will be chosen. This number could not cover even the number of artists living in Brooklyn alone, which currently stands at 17,605, let alone cover the hundreds of thousands of artists living across the US.
These numbers are dire, but is it the institutions’ fault? They are themselves dealing with financial issues beyond our comprehension, filing for dozens of grants, most of which will be rejected. There is, seemingly, a genuine drive within the art world to do right by the artists, but it is difficult to distinguish what is or isn’t true or possible given the lack of financial resources. Since the start of the pandemic, arts organizations started compiling and putting out lists of organizations that offered resources of funding for artists. It became clear right away that these lists were often directories that pointed the way to other lists, where one organization that compiled a list of artist resources would point to another organization with a similar list, and so on. There were exceptions, of course, and one is able to find by navigating some of these links an actual funding website. Yet, in as many cases, these links lead one not to a resources page, but rather to a donation page.
As we digest the news that the Fed continues to feed the business and financial sectors with trillions no-strings-attached dollars to businesses like private jet airlines, the artists who constitute one of America’s most underfunded and at-risk communities, are faced with a sobering reality. The art world woke up on March 15 to a highly leveraged financial situation, rendered unsustainable with over a decade of accruing a massive debt that operated as a kind of floating device, on which culture was able to satisfy its taste for urbane postmodernism. Just as in the financial sector, the money seemed to disappear overnight. Mass layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts followed. The burgeoning unionization of art workers was indefinitely suspended as many of the affected were those who were lowest on the totem pole: the art handlers, guards, gift shop workers, the maintenance staff.
Once again, should the institutions be blamed? Why did they not tap the massive endowments, some of which reach millions, if not billions, of dollars? Maybe they’ll reopen after the crisis is all over and rehire everybody. A few articles surfaced about the struggle of art workers and a PR campaign followed, part of damage control by the institutions where executives gave expert opinions about why they couldn’t use these endowments to save jobs. There was a certain lack of counterargument. Was nobody asking the accountants where the money went?
Artists are living in a world that has not only deemed their participation in society non-essential, but has also rendered them almost entirely invisible. The climate of extreme helplessness, experienced by those who are stuck at home as well as by those who are now overworked (both groups of people experiencing extreme weariness due to the circumstances), produces a strange psychological barrier between what exists and what is possible. Artists are now increasingly compelled to keep the system running, rather than to change it, even at the risk of self-destruction. And it seems as though the art world has given itself a pass ‘out’ of the responsibility to help its weakest members at a time of need in the form of competitive funding.
The question, to my mind, is: what is the alternative when there are no alternatives? Should artists continue to be debt slaves to some ambiguous notion of ‘the market’ or persist on the ‘aspirational’ path to the top 1%? Artists are good at doing what they do, namely problem solving, thinking and acting through issues and problems nobody thought of before, documenting and providing a critique of the human condition. Perhaps, the idea is to rethink the questions that have been so definitely posed throughout the pandemic. It is not about what art in a pandemic looks like, but, rather, about who this art is for and whom it is trying to reach.