THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Nato Thompson
Like a cloud hovering above the for-the-most-part broke artists of the planet, money appears mysterious: a gaseous, hard-to-reach netherworld only observed at a distance: Sotheby's and Christie’s setting auction records with gavels slamming down and bidders on phones representing clients of God-knows-where, art fairs hosting exclusive parties including guests from bad sitcoms, hobnobbing one percenters in sandalwood-scented hotel lobbies, shimmering cars with doors opening counterintuitively, and other bling-like economic indicators. With all this glittering bedazzlement in the arts, a pernicious question haunts the artist’s mind as the years stagger on: if there is so much money in the art world, why am I so broke?
Like the very alienating conditions that probably drove a sad soul to select this economically unviable field in the first place, an artist finds themself yet again participating in a life under the neon lit headline: you are not invited. The art life manifests as a VIP party where you press your nose against the outside window, in the cold, slaving away while muttering some mantra that this is, in fact, a noble life calling. And while you may not be wrong, something is clearly not right. What’s all the more unbelievable is that this deplorable, oppressive art world situation has been this way for a very long time. The question you must ask yourself during this most upside-down year, when all the rules are out the window and the structures of the art world itself are trembling, is: why do I continue to play this game where I am the guaranteed loser?
It would be a mistake to call the art world capitalist, though it is understandable why that term comes so quickly to our lips. What we really want to say is that it is white, exploitative, unjust, imbalanced, male, powerful, and destructive. But rather than use the term capitalist, or even colonialist for that matter, a more appropriate term would be feudalist. For all its self-aggrandizement and claims of the avant-garde and appeals for innovation, the cultural infrastructure of the arts and its implicit luxury economy economics (they are imbricated of course) never truly entered the 18th and 19th century. In fact, the bones of the art world remain solidly Medici-period and rely heavily on a patronage model of vassals, kings, queens, and paupers.
Nato Thompson, I sure wish the art world up there, would either rain money on me or acknowledge me, cartoon. Courtesy of the artist.
The evidence is everywhere. Look around. Hopefully understanding this simple yet historically loaded analysis may provide solace and insights as one crafts their escape. In what world would a cultural event put on by poor people also be free? The answer: in the art world. Come see exhibitions gratis, don’t pay for drinks, just saunter in and enjoy.
This longstanding tradition of the free economy art world is an essential part of the cultural customs of the visual arts community. One couldn’t remotely imagine a band playing in that manner, nor could one imagine a theatrical production where you watched for free and had snacks and drinks on-the-house as well. But in the land of galleries and museums, this tradition remains as steadfast as weddings and funerals. We have long rationalized this custom as a space of freedom where the trappings of money do not soil the art experience.
But as Ian MacKaye, the founder of Fugazi and the music genre D.C. hardcore, once quipped to me: “Nothing makes me more paranoid than free. Somebody is paying for this.”
Let’s pay attention to this pat response. For the non-profits, as we know, their programmatic efforts are made possible by hefty contributions from the ruling class, whose largess finds tax write-off potential and social clique traction in that odd social milieu called boards. Meanwhile, for the galleries, the exhibition acts as a three-dimensional commercial for the backroom deals with collectors. We all know this. Nothing new here. In the realm of contemporary art, culture is either free or too expensive to afford.
I bring up Ian MacKaye because the D.C. hardcore music genre offers a lesson for the art world that we should take note of. He said to me, “When a kid buys a record, they pay $5. I know what it costs to record that album. I know what it cost to press the vinyl and make the sleeve. I know how much the record store gets. I understand how the money moves, and I like it that way.” D.C. hardcore wasn’t just a music scene. It was a cultural scene that had taken seriously its relationship to money in a manner that was not predatory and was redistributive. In short, D.C. hardcore accomplished what I propose the contemporary art world approach in earnest: an intentional economy where money circulates in a manner to generate capacity and equity among its culture makers, venues, producers, and fans.
During this destabilized year of the pandemic, the need for alternatives feels more urgent than ever. And while artists and curators have long been amazing at finding innovations in form and content, the actual infrastructure of the art world remains patently static if not stagnant. We have to reshape the fundamental structures of the arts ecology, and this means, essentially, taking seriously the role of money.
I recently started an online school named The Alternative Art School with some artists. We basically applied this D.C. hardcore approach to the school itself. Admittedly, we are using the function of tuition as a form of payment and recirculating it to working artists with a reasonable wage. We apportion our funds to build in equity through intentionally placed scholarships and, down the road, support for alternative spaces. The school is entirely online, and this article comes out of my experience in shaping what I like to call an alternative infrastructure. In fact, just to speak candidly, my new ambition is to be a cultural infrastructure builder.
I have been in the art world long enough to hear folks grousing about the problems of higher education: student debt, adjunct teachers, gentrification land grabs. We all know the list. Not surprisingly, the answer from artists reflects a certain naiveté far too familiar in the arts. As I surveyed most of the artist-initiated schools, what I found is a long list of well-intentioned, Utopian projects that refused to engage with money. The gamut of these pedagogical experiments had zero economic sense. I appreciate the sense of doing-good, but the problem with free is simply that it relies on the energy of the organizers, and these platforms dissolve as soon as the organizers inevitably burn out. Being able to pay people provides capacity and durability and thus means a solid foundation to grow and survive.
These lessons apply to more than schools. They can apply to art sales, art magazines, auction houses, art fairs, art lessons, performance art, and socially engaged art. If we take heed of the importance of capacity, scale, equity, economics, radical pedagogy, and a combination of the local and global as these all apply to the creation and maintenance of a more just cultural infrastructure, we can not only produce a new art world—we can employ each other.
Gregory Sholette once referred to the many people who participate in the arts that don’t make money and don’t benefit from it as “dark matter.” They are part of the art world that holds it together but are not represented in the galleries, museums, magazines and glamour. Sound familiar? Well, that “dark matter” is what I am calling upon to build new infrastructures. And to spell it out, in order to build a new alternative art world, we must take seriously the power, utility and benefits of taking money seriously. We can redistribute it, build equity with it, and produce power with it. The art world can be ours if we take seriously the coordination and construction of an alternative. And if we do that, we can finally kiss this patronage Medici-period 1% luxury economy model goodbye. We can finally stop staring at clouds and kings and participate in a world of our co-production. ■
Nato Thompson is an author and curator based in the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia. He writes often about contemporary art and politics. He has also been doing interviews on Instagram on IGLIVE @natothompson with a show titled "Lets Talk Alternatives."
Nato Thompson, O Glorious King, cartoon. Courtesy of the artist.
Nato Thompson, Bad Brains, cartoon. Courtesy of the artist.
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