By IRIS JAFFE, FEB 2016
Opinion: Hope for the Future
In Fifth Grade, under the direction of our elementary school music teacher (who would later be arrested for sexually soliciting children on the Internet) we performed an emphatic rendition of “Hope for the Future” for our final chorus concert. Not the Paul McCartney version with the oddly futurist music video that shows up in Internet searches, but another more obscure version, which unlike most things - does not appear to be on the Internet at all. It was full of exuberantly played piano chords, to which we clapped and stomped on stage along with the chorus refrain: “Hope for the future [stomp, stomp], Hope for the future [clap, clap], Hope for us all…For all”
For the most part, my childhood was also full of hope for the future. I believed that hard work and ethical behavior would pay off, I believed in the inherent goodness of people, the potential of mankind and the value of friendship, and I believed in science, technology and art. Although my experiences as an adult have made me significantly more jaded, I still more or less believe in all of these things. I also believe that most Americans have ceased to believe in them; or rather that public awareness has become so fragmented and compartmentalized that most Americans fail to recognize just how unequal our economy has become, and more importantly why this is actually bad for ALL Americans - including Donald Trump and the contemporary art world.
In the past two years, I became particularly sensitive to greater economics after becoming disabled due to a delayed diagnosis of Lyme Disease and a hernia-type moving injury, which significantly worsened after moving several times due to rent inflation in New York City. As a mid-level professional in the arts, I had also been overworked and underpaid for several years, and prior to becoming fully disabled, strenuous conditions - including 14 hour work days, poor sleep and nutrition, industrial toxicity and chronic anxiety - had run down my immune system, thus making me more vulnerable to chronic injury, illness and environmental toxicity. Without effective medical care or outside assistance, a small moving injury thus evolved into a full body injury and my subsequent impoverishment. I have not been able to work for over two years and I can no longer afford the specialized medical treatment that I require, which is not available through Medicaid. Despite having paid employment taxes for years, I was likewise denied disability assistance upon discriminatory terms and I would be homeless if I did not have living family members to temporarily host me.
I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do and I often wonder if the economy will kill me.
While I don’t believe that Americans are selfish or malicious people, I do think that we are largely unaware and misguided as a democratic whole. Regardless of mainstream politics, democracy is a shared responsibility and an economy that fails to provide sustainable living and working conditions or effective healthcare to all of its workers will become weak and disabled itself. I find my current disability and resulting impoverishment to be largely unwarranted; and expecting victims of economic exploitation to solve their own problems, or to subsist entirely on donations from friends and family, who may or may not have resources to spare, is a misguided sentiment at best. More importantly, if we fail to instate the necessary changes to rebalance wealth, improve healthcare, strengthen domestic productivity and repair our national infrastructure, the U.S. (and other high-income democracies with similar levels of wealth inequality and underperforming educational systems) will soon require the type of economic assistance that we now provide to developing countries.
Extreme wealth inequality has not only destabilized the foundation of the U.S. economy, but it is also causing more Americans - both rich and poor - to suffer more greatly than we have in previous decades starting with the 1980’s. According to national studies, growing wealth inequality is predominantly responsible for the increasing level of chronic stress, injury, disease and morbidity in all demographics of Americans (except for those over the age of 75), which is greater for younger generations, women, and certain professional demographics like low-income artists. Statistics additionally indicate that this negative health trend could soon kill off a large percentage of the national population, to the point of endangering the national economy; and moreover, that it is actually more cost-effective and plausible to improve American health and the U.S. economy by reducing wealth inequality, than by attempting to medically treat the total sum of negative health ailments produced by wealth inequality itself. In the context of shifting global politics and economic change, creative minds and younger generations of Americans are two of America's strongest economic assets; and safeguarding the health and wellbeing of these demographics is likewise critical to our shared economic future and mutual wellbeing.
Younger (or Not that Much Older) than Jesus:
Over the past thirty years, younger generations of Americans have been increasingly subject to higher tuition rates with greater amounts of educational debt, lower salaries with diminished employment benefits, increased workloads with lower working standards, real estate inflation, substandard living conditions, insufficient healthcare, and an increased intake of processed foods and psycho-pharmaceuticals. These conditions are bearing a considerable toll on our physical and mental health; and in conjunction with other adverse socio-economic conditions brought about by wealth inequality, this could soon reap considerable economic losses for the American people.
As a result of recent economic trends, the National Institute of Medicine estimates that the life expectancy for younger Americans has been reduced to a mere 50 years old, which does not surprise me as a low-income female millennial working in the arts. Within the past two years, more than fifteen peers connected to my personal network of friends and colleagues have died from cancer, kidney disease, and other undefined illnesses that might best be categorized as exhaustion. They were all under 35 and had mostly worked in the arts, or as independent professionals in a creative field. An increasing number of friends in the arts have also battled cancer and other serious diseases; and several have been involved in serious accidents, injuries, or near death experiences.
Since numbers are impersonal, an abbreviated list of professionals in their 20’s and 30’s whom the art world lost between 2013 and 2015 includes the painter, Heidi Jahnke, the artist and curator, Susan O’Malley, the former Chrysler Museum curator, Amy Brandt, the artist and entrepreneur, Julia Bean, the artist and Underground Museum founder, Noah Davis, the former Living Walls program director, Laura Patricia Calle, the former Turner Prize judge and Modern Art Oxford director, Michael Stanley, the muralist, Antonio Ramos (who was shot and killed while painting a community mural about love and hope in Oakland last year), and the art teacher Dahlia Yehia (who was beaten to death by her Nepalese host, during her trip to Nepal to help earthquake victims last summer). During my Google search for the correct spellings of the above names, I realized that a significant number of art professionals in their 50’s and 60’s have also died in the past three years, including the photographer, Sarah Charlesworth, the painter, Jennifer Wynne Reeves, the artist, curator and humanitarian, Brookie Maxwell, the artist, Chris Burden, the artist, Mike Kelley, the independent gallerist, Hudson, the former SFMFA Director, John Buchanan and the former Whitney Museum and Lever House Art Collection curator, Richard Marshall.
As a young adult, I would never have imagined that my adult future would be spent in economic discrimination or a resulting medical disability, and I am still in partial disbelief over the highly compromised position that I find myself in today. Likewise, I had little idea that pursuing a career in the fine arts would necessitate a lifetime of being poor, or that it was possible to work hard, save responsibly and still loose everything to a discriminatory economy and dysfunctional healthcare system. While I recognize that many Americans are distanced from the extreme hardships that others face, there is something undeniably wrong with the current system. Not only has equal opportunity ceased to exist in a greater economic context, but more and more Americans are also unjustifiably struggling just to meet their basic needs and suffering from dangerously high levels of chronic disease, injury and mental illness as a result.
Handling Art in the 21st Century:
While economics may be of little concern to other artists and art professionals, in a consumer culture the visual arts are inherently connected to the greater economy. Furthermore, in a specialized exchange economy, where we each perform a highly specialized task and exchange money for the goods and services that we need, we are significantly more dependent on the combined contributions of other people than we are on our own skills, accomplishments or resources, which is clearly reflected by the diverse number of people whom we rely on to fulfill our daily needs, inside and outside of the art world. This includes, but is not limited to, delivery persons, art handlers, food preparers, administrators, police officers, etc. All demographics and socio-economic classes of people are likewise vital to economic health; and diversity and equal opportunity are critical factors in determining an economy’s innovative potential, productivity and resilience in times of change.
Similar to the mainstream economy, the art world is highly dependent on a large number of unnamed workers, who fulfill the numerous behind-the-scenes tasks that are required to produce, exhibit, and sell artwork. Although digital and manufacturing technologies have changed the way that art is made, viewed and sold, the economic mechanisms that drive the art world remain sufficiently rooted in human labor, creative ingenuity and interpersonal relationships. Thus, without the labor of workers like art handlers and art administrators, who perform many of the critical tasks that enable galleries and other art professionals to generate income, the art industry would undoubtedly suffer (or cease to function entirely) – just as the greater economy would suffer (or more likely collapse) without the labor of the lower and middle classes. Likewise, creativity in the arts would stagnate without emerging artists to challenge the status quo; and any industry that needlessly under-compensates its lower level professionals, or fails to offer sufficient opportunities for growth, will eventually loose these employees to other industries offering better wages and career opportunities.
Although cultural workers tend to be associated with privilege, the greater reality is that artists and art professionals make up one of the most disadvantaged segments of the national economy. The art industry has likewise evolved into a microcosmic mirror of the highly unequal economic macrocosm– albeit with greater income disparity, less market regulation, and a lot more Prosecco. While art galleries, museums, art schools, and related institutions have accomplished a great deal in the name of contemporary art, creative expression and cultural development, the extremely polarized art market and the limited number of art institutions simultaneously alienate a large majority of the trained and experienced art professionals, who are unable to build a career in the arts or to sustain a living wage through art-related work at all. These individuals often juggle multiple underpaid jobs, or work 14-hour days just so they can pay their living expenses, while maintaining an art-related practice at their own expense. Analogous to other industries, the rising cost of business overhead, mostly due to rent inflation, has also forced the majority of small and mid-sized art organizations to downsize, merge, or close altogether – while mega-galleries and blue chip artists continue to expand and produce more extravagant artworks and exhibitions. In spite of their growing economic disadvantage, small galleries and independent art professionals are also expected to perform on a similar level to larger businesses with significantly more resources, which is generally to the detriment of independent professionals and smaller galleries.
Similar to the commercial market, grants, awards, subsidies and fellowships are generally awarded to already successful artists; and in the context of rising costs for basic living expenses, including rent, healthcare, education, and debt-based financing to pay for the former, award money is often insufficient in covering the full production budget and time that artists require to make their work, which inevitably includes the artist's cost of living as an independent professional. Creative labor, such as artists’ assistant work, is typically compensated at the same rate as other types of blue-collar or manual labor, despite requiring a high-level of training and technical skill; and art handling or installation work, which can be as hazardous as working in hardhat construction, is often paid on a freelance basis and without employment benefits like workers’ compensation or overtime pay. In addition to long hours, strenuous conditions, and insufficient benefits, artists are also exposed to a greater amount of chemical toxicity, through the use of certain art supplies and from working in poorly ventilated industrial workspaces. I have personally developed such a strong sensitivity to resin that I can hardly breathe when it is being used in the same room as me, or in the same shared airspace.
This is particularly unfortunate in respect to the high cost of a fine arts degree, which is limiting for employment opportunities outside of the arts, yet practically a pre-requisite for showing with an established gallery, or acquiring paid employment within a credible art institution. Rent inflation and inflated tax rates for freelancers and small businesses additionally inflate the overhead of small businesses in the arts and the cost of maintaining an art studio, which artists often require to produce their artwork. For example, I was only able to afford a dedicated studio space for two out of the ten years that I have spent working in the arts in New York City, and both years were significantly compromised by outside events, personal hardship and medical issues. Fine artwork that is sold outside of the gallery system also tends to be priced in tandem with mass-produced objects, however this is generally at the artist’s expense, due to the extensive time, money, and labor that is involved in making fine artwork. Likewise, employers and consumers often feel justified paying artists machine-worker wages for their creative and technical skills, however this similarly overlooks the value of original artwork and creative thought, which are critical to aesthetic innovation and without which mass-manufacturers and designers would have little culturally relevant content to copy or emulate. Relevance and timeliness are also an essential aspect of art and design, and merely recirculating existing designs or artworks would be a stale practice at best. Beyond fine art, artists and other art professionals are some of most industrious workers, skilled critical thinkers, and compassionate human beings whom I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, either personally or via art history, and the way that contemporary society tends to write us off as lazy or inept is wildly inaccurate.
Ultimately, the economic exploitation of art professionals hurts the greater economy, because art, culture and aesthetics are essential to commerce and to the wellbeing of society at large. Likewise, the art industry would cease to function without its lower and mid-tier professionals, who are not easily replaced with temporary or untrained day laborers. The artists’ economic position of eternal “giving” and little “receiving” is additionally a liability to the health of cultural production and to the health of artists themselves. This is especially problematic for artists and art professionals with families and young children to support, as they are often tasked with the super human responsibility of working a full time job, maintaining a studio or curatorial practice and raising a family. Several of the recently deceased individuals, whom I had mentioned above were young parents, and I personally suspect that their untimely passing was at least partly due to the exhausting conditions, which they likely faced as young parents working in the arts.
While I recognize that most Americans do not feel personally responsible for other professionals in or outside of their respective industries, the greater economy is ultimately dependent upon a vast ecosystem of mutually interdependent industries, which are each comprised of their own internal ecosystems of interdependent individuals and organizations. In spite of technological progress, our lives are sufficiently more dependent on other people than on digital or machine technologies; and in a shared democracy, it is thus in our mutual best interest – and also our collective responsibility - to ensure that all Americans have affordable access to the economic resources they need to be healthy and well, including adequate living and working conditions. Regardless of global economics, a nation of healthy workers ensures a healthy national economy; and equal access to education and merit-based opportunity increases our overall economic potential. Furthermore, while many of the economic and political reforms necessary to ensure the health of American workers exist outside of the arts – (most important of which are policy and tax changes to redistribute wealth and reduce government corruption) - there are a number of internal measures that the art world can institute from within to safeguard its own economic wellbeing and additionally plan for future growth and prosperity.
“Things are gonna change I can feel it” - Beck
In the immortal words of Beck, who proved that homeless losers can become Grammy winners - “things are gonna change I can feel it.” The art world is inextricably tied to the mainstream economy, and while the current market for contemporary art might be an appropriate mirror to a highly unequal and discriminatory economy, the art market and the specialized industry that revolves around it are also nearing a point of necessary change. Signs of this are increasingly evident in factors like the declining health of fine art professionals, exhibition titles like “Exchange Rates,” and works of art that investigate the paradox of 21st century capitalism and contemporary issues like climate change. If art represents the subconscious of a nation, the vast number of contemporary artworks explicitly focused on money and exchange value all reflect a universally felt need to reexamine existing value systems as we enter this next phase of 21st century global capitalism.
Despite being somewhat fragmented and pluralistic, the art world is fundamentally its own community of familiar faces, names and shared beliefs; and as a form of human expression and visual communication, art is historically rooted in cultural dialogue and community. Because wealth inequality forms an underlying basis of discrimination, competition and fear, it is not just unpleasant for everyone, but also antithetical to the creative process itself. Similarly, the hypercompetitive and aesthetically stifled practices that have developed under the highly commercial and polarized art market (ie. amusement park-like installations and “zombie formalism”), are often stressful or boring for professionals at the top of the art economy, and exhausting or potentially life threatening for those at the bottom. Furthermore, because smaller, more independent communities are generally more capable of implementing economic change at a faster, more effective rate, it is not only plausible but also highly appropriate for established art organizations and art professionals to take a leadership role in embracing cultural diversity, restoring equal opportunity in the arts, and advocating for equal rights and equal opportunity in the greater political economy.
Furthermore, by replacing destructively high levels of inequality with more sustainable practices in the arts, we can not only improve everyday working conditions for all arts professionals, but also endow the existing system with greater durability and credibility - by refortifying its internal structure and extending its legacy with future generations to come. Such internal expansion could be readily engineered through efforts to diversify the existing art market and provide greater economic support to emerging and low-income art professionals and organizations. Specifically, this could be accomplished through the institution of innovative business and funding models, by forming new professional networks and collaborative ventures, through collaborations with other industries, by improving professional development programs in art education, by supporting the exhibition of diverse artworks by artists of varying cultural backgrounds and demographics, by establishing fair working standards (such as those modestly suggested by W.A.G.E) and by instituting an industry-wide paradigm shift in support of collaboration, diversity and increased institutional support for emerging art professionals.
Not only would diversification of the existing art market facilitate new demographics of art collectors and increased enthusiasm for the arts, but it would also strengthen the existing market in the context of imminent economic change, which will invariably involve the restoration of the middle class, in the United States and across national economies worldwide. Furthermore, beyond these predominantly market-based measures, other actions that would further safeguard the future of America’s creative talent and rich cultural history include the advocacy and implementation of more federal and state programming to improve the living and working conditions of low-income art professionals, without whom cultural landmarks like New York City would be quickly deplete of the living artistry and cultural energy that attracts millions of tourists each year – generating around $41 billion annually for New York City alone.
Such programming might include tax subsidy programs that allow art professionals to take greater tax deductions to offset the high overhead of art-related practices, basic income programs for independent art professionals, high-quality healthcare barter or exchange programs, transportation discount programs and the addition of Art History to basic public school programming (to foster critical thinking skills and art appreciation in future Americans). Low-income and subsidized housing and workspace programs for art professionals would dually serve to reduce the high cost of renting both a residence and an art studio or gallery space, while also recognizing the cultural and commercial value that creative professionals and art organizations undeniably contribute to the neighborhoods and spaces they occupy. Likewise, increased public funding for the arts and widening the distribution of public funding to include a greater number of artists and arts professionals (as opposed to awarding lump sums to already successful artists) would additionally help to sustain creative communities as a whole, which are just as essential to creative culture as individual artists are themselves.
In addition to public programming, legislative measures to support the creative and commercial rights of art professionals, and discourage polarizing practices in the art market, would also help to diversify and promote stability in the commercial market. Specific examples of this include the institution of new laws like the Artist Resale Rights proposal, updated copyright laws to better suit contemporary creative processes and revised tax laws to promote stable activity in the primary and secondary art markets.
Although it has yet to be recognized by the greater economy, Fine Art is additionally one of the most promising sectors for prospective growth in the U.S. economy today. Over the past fifty years, the industry of higher arts education has effectively transformed contemporary art into one of the most unique areas of domestic manufacturing; and as an inherently social media and visual art form, which transcends the barriers of spoken and written language, Fine Art is also one of our most globally viable cultural products. Furthermore, as an industry filled with creative energy, visual excitement, charismatic personalities and a vibrant social scene, the contemporary art world embodies much of the celebrity aura that made the Hollywood film industry a global phenomenon at the turn of the 20th century. Likewise, contemporary art and technology are mutually informative industries and the Internet offers immense untapped potential for the non-localized sale and exhibition of artwork. The expansion and diversification of the art market through the Internet could thus well initiate a revolutionary shift in visual culture and establish new grounds for abundant creative dialogue and economic exchange at the global scale. In a digital age, where the power of the image is ubiquitous and constant, the industry of art is far from over.
In fact, something new and exciting might just be about to begin. WM
view all articles from this author
Iris is a writer in New York City.