“The best thing an artist can do is to work out how to survive without ever making money from their art.”
According to the always excellent Melanie Gerlis of The Art Newspaper, the above quote came from artist Rainer Ganahl during this week’s freshly concluded Talking Galleries symposium in Barcelona. Based on my backtracking skills, he seems to have made the comment while holding court on a panel discussion called “What Do Artists Want From Their Galleries?” It’s an interesting and valuable topic to explore, and I wish I’d been there to hear the whole conversation–especially because, if I’d heard the idea in its full context, I’d feel better machine-gunning it the way I’m about to here.
Nevertheless, Ganahl’s free-floating quote has been, as an agrarian friend of mine used to say in college, chapping my ass since I first read it on Monday. I expressed as much on Twitter immediately, but I feel like I need to address it at slightly greater length in order to salve the irritation once and for all.
As Gerlis suggested during our brief exchange about the subject on Monday, I grant that Ganahl may very well just be polishing a persona here. If so, that makes him not fundamentally different from, say, an artist like Jeff Koons, who works overtime (sometimes nude, with a Vanity Fair photographer handy) in public appearances to cultivate a “purer than thou” aura–one in which the art market is irrelevant to his decision-making and his muse rules all.
On a personal and business level, I have no beef whatsoever with that strategy, as I’ve written at length before. At least, not as far as it concerns the artists executing it and the audience listening with skepticism.
However, I become Superfly TNT [NSFW] when I think about the prospect of desperate artists taking Ganahl’s quote at face value while searching the industry’s wilderness for guidance on how to survive and thrive. Because on its own terms, I think his concept is about as intelligent as trying to shave your pubes with a straight razor in your off-hand.
Is almost every artist in every medium going to need to rely on an alternative revenue stream to support themselves for some time? Absolutely. Endurance, or more robustly, what Nassim Nicholas Taleb would call “antifragility,” is essential to building and sustaining a career in the arts.
Whether it’s a classic soul-splitting day job or the Wild West pandemonium of freelancing, the “dues-paying” portion of building a career is as necessary as it is ugly for anyone without a trust fund or pre-existing connections in their dream industry. Take it from someone who’s currently in the midst of collecting a check for ghostwriting about an over-the-counter British cold sore medicine: To give the work that truly matters time to develop and hit, sometimes you just need to find a way to extend the game–no matter how absurd the means.
My problem with Ganahl’s “advice” is the “ever” part, i.e. the implication that it’s wiser for artists to eternally moonlight than to risk somehow debasing their meaningful work by trying to monetize it. The simple truth of the matter is that every artist I’ve ever encountered has shared the same underlying dream: to make enough money making art that they don’t have to do anything else. Obviously, there’s a lot of variance in personal definitions of what constitutes “enough money,” but that doesn’t change the central point.
There’s a name for people who spend their entire lives toiling away on creative work that never pays them a dime. It’s called “an amateur.” And anyone who faithfully buys into Ganahl’s mantra at Talking Galleries is more than likely destined for that sad fate.
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating here: At a certain level, working as an artist–by which I mean, producing creative work for a living–is no different than working in any other field. It all comes down to effectively monetizing a skill set. Conceiving and creating art is one such skill set. But unless you’re complementing it by figuring out how to interest buyers in what you want to produce, odds are you won’t be transitioning into an actual career as an artist anytime soon–or quite possibly, ever.
What separates the professionals from the amateurs is the ability to find the smiley-faced medium between what fulfills them and what convinces buyers to cut a check. Is it a delicate balance to strike? No doubt. But the surest way to spend your would-be career fumbling past it is to never try to engage with the challenge full-time.
And I sincerely believe this is a good thing for both art and the people who love it. As I’ve said before, arguing the opposite means arguing that the world would be a better place if James Turrell had spent the past 50 years working 40 hours a week in a Duane Reade instead of focusing his days and nights concocting mind-bending, sublime light and space installations.
It’s certainly possible that Ganahl is one of the rare few who lucked up–someone whose sensibility somehow happened to magically align with enough clients and supporters to keep his artistic production funded without ever having to leave the confines of his own hall of mirrors. On rare occasions, it does happen.
But it’s not a strategy. It’s basically equivalent to handing your car keys to randomness and assuming it’s going to chauffeur you to the destination of your dreams rather than Thelma & Louise-ing you into a canyon. And despite the rare successful trip, the overwhelming majority of those arrangements end in anonymous tragedy.
As Chuck Close said, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” That’s the attitude of a successful professional. And the sooner an artist starts fully dedicating herself to (thoughtfully) monetizing the work that matters, the better her odds of becoming one.