Sunday, October 15, 2017

over at LA Review of Books Alexis Clements has written about the improbable chance of "success" in the arts in the US.

For those who recall the blogging Warren Throckmorton did about Mark Driscoll's book Real Marriage you may recall, too, the coverage provided by WORLD magazine on Mars Hill Church contracting with Result Source to secure a #1 spot for Real Marriage on the New York Times best seller list in 2012. 

Well, to provide some context we could reference some writing Alexis Clements did not so long ago about a statistic that established what the odds were of actually landing such a #1 spot on the NYT list.
What Are the Chances? Success in the Arts in the 21st Century
By Alexis Clements

•The chances of your book becoming a New York Times best seller in 2012: 0.002 percent [1]
•The chances that a living artist in the United States would receive a solo exhibition at MoMA in 2015: 0.0006 percent [2]
•The median income of those with art degrees who made their living as artists in New York City in 2012: $25,000 [3]
•The median income for an artist in Canada in 2012: $21,603 [4]
•The percentage of total earnings that came from commissions and/or productions of their plays among a group of 250 working playwrights in the United States surveyed in 2005: 15 percent (or $3,750–$5,999 for the average playwright in that group) [5]
•The minimum fee set by W.A.G.E. for artists receiving solo exhibits in organizations with total annual operating expenses of $3,000,000: $6,000 [6]
•The percentage of artists surveyed by the group W.A.G.E. who received no payment at all for exhibiting or presenting their work in New York City in 2010, not even reimbursement for expenses: 58 percent [7]
•The percentage of artists across the United Kingdom surveyed by the group a-n who received no payment at all for exhibiting or presenting their work in 2010, not even reimbursement for expenses: 59 percent [8]
•Number of years the artist Walid Raad estimated that an artist showing in commercial galleries will achieve “financial success” over the course of their career: four [9]
•Chances of being awarded a Creative Capital grant in 2015 (if you applied): 1.2 percent [10]
•Number of the top 10 most expensive colleges that were arts schools in 2011: eight [11]
•Average cost for a four-year undergraduate degree at one of those eight schools in 2011: $150,312 [12]
•How much whiter the population of working artists in New York City is than the population of the city as a whole: 224 percent [13]


So with that in mind, if the chances of you getting on the NYT list is no better than 1 out of 500 even on the assumption that you're already a published author what are the odds for someone who's put out their first book?  Pretty slim ... unless a company decides to sink enough money into promoting a book that a person ends up on the list anyway or by dint of sheer ... celebrity.

But as Clements went on to note, the dream remains, the dream of:
Time and again I encounter people of all ages for whom success for artists looks like some version of the following: 1) making a living entirely from your art, and/or 2) getting to spend all of your time making it. My own version, for most of my 20s, manifested as an intensely vague idea that if I were able to get one of my plays or performances produced by a big enough theater or if I were to win a big enough award or grant, then suddenly I would level up — this new echelon of achievement would beget more achievements. I would unlock a portal to a new world where I would consistently have opportunities to produce and share my artistic work, and lucrative financial support would just materialize to go along with each opportunity. Pretty much every article or essay I have read since then, and all the artists I know or have heard from, indicate that I had entirely the wrong idea.

If Clements had the wrong idea it's only the same wrong idea any of us who ever had any education in the arts ever beyond high school, or even from within high school, got from the kind of arts education we received. 

This wouldn't even be a remotely new element of American arts educational culture.  One of my favorite composers complained about this problem as far back as 1949 and 1950, which would be the German √©migr√© composer Paul Hindemith.  In A Composer's World Hindemith opened his chapter on education with the following:

(page 175)
Let us assume that a country has, at a given time, five thousand active music teachers in colleges and music schools a number not too high compared with the number in this country. The duty of these music teachers is, of course, to instruct professional musicians and amateurs, and among the professionals  so instructed, new music teachers are produced. Now, if each music teacher produces not more than two new music teachers each year which is not an exaggerated estimate and if no interfering war, plague, or earthquake hinders this happy propagation, the result can easily be foreseen: after the first year we will have an additional ten thousand music teachers, in the fifteenth year every man, woman and child in the United States will be a music teacher, and after about twenty years the entire population of our planet will consist of nothing but music teachers.

I admit that the example slightly exaggerates the results of our teaching system, but it demonstrates clearly that we are suffering from overproduction. There is in each country a certain capacity for absorbing music teachers. Once the saturation point is reached, they will either go idle or have to look for other jobs. In this country nobody knows this fact better than the directors of music schools and the deans of music departments. Each year the problem of finding teaching jobs for their graduates becomes more and more desperate, because the saturation point is reached.
page 176

We are teaching each pianist or violinist as if he had a chance to become a Horowitz or a Heifetz, although we know that the entire concert life of the civilized world can hardly absorb more than ten or twelve great soloists in each field. Even if for regional demand in each larger country another ten are acknowledged, what in heaven happens to the remaining hundreds and thousands? [emphases added]
pages 176-177

Among those taught by our endless phalanx of pedagogues the nonprofessional, the man who wants instruction for his own amateurish fondness of playing with musical forms, hardly counts at all. He who normally ought to be the music teacher's best customer has, as a numerical factor, dwindled to almost nothing, and as a musical factor he usually wilts away after several years of a training that, instead of flattering and fostering his layman instincts, has administered an indigestible virtuoso treatment. Thus the clan of music teachers is now living in a state of ever growing artistic isolation and infertile self-sufficiency. Their teaching of teachers who in turn teach teachers, a profession based on the resentments of the frustrated concert virtuoso and not aiming at any improvement of human society's civilization, by its very activity removed from the actual demands and duties of a real musical culture, must inevitably lead to the sad goal reached by every other kind of indiscriminate and large-scale inbreeding [emphases added]: after a short period of apparent refinement a gradual degeneration and slow extinction. ...
Hindemith was not, by the way, what people would nowadays call especially progressive or "left", but his complaint, registered with too much bitterness for American scholars and formulated with the assertion that in the arts there is no possibility for genuinely democratic processes of the sort possible or desirable in civic life, can be summed up in his complaint that by the 1950s the arts had descended to the basest level of what someone like Adorno would call the culture industry.

Here in 2017 the prospect of degeneration and slow extinction of a bloated and self-insulating American academic educational culture surrounding the arts is not really up for consideration by those who write about the arts.  We're not talking about the death of any of the arts themselves, since all sorts of artistic activity is being done even now.  But the possible demise of arts education, arts funding, and arts institutions has been a steady threat in the coverage of the arts in the United States for years.  Even the Clements articles I've been quoting note with a measured outrage that the improbability with which you or I can "make a living" in the arts is predicated on the assumption that such a financial living is possible, almost as if there's no artistic life worth living that doesn't pay your bills.  Clements does get to the nature of what's now called privilege and that being of socio-economic caste soon enough:

Of course, there are those artists you meet out at events who never really say quite how they make it work, but always seem to spend as much time as they like on their work and never worry about whether or not they have the cash to spend a night out with friends. Robinson offered a clear-eyed assessment of those types: “They haven’t figured something out that you don’t know. That’s the dirty secret of the art world — the people that have the apartments bigger than you inherited them. They are not more talented than you. Nine out of 10 times they walked in with the asset and they left with the asset.”

Which is to say, all signs point to a reality in which no artist, no matter how famous or successful, spends 100 percent of their time on their art, nor do they earn 100 percent of their income from their art alone over the course of their entire career, except perhaps for those with enough support from wealthy families that worrying about the pesky reality of earning a living will never be a thing. [emphasis added]
A favorite pastime of many American artists is to wax rhapsodic about the artist’s life in Europe. They love to mention things like Denmark giving small annual stipends to artists, but they generally neglect to mention that it’s only for 275 artists out of a total population of 5.7 million people. What makes a much bigger difference to the well-being of every single artist in Denmark (and in many other European countries) is free healthcare and education, subsidized child care, a national pension system, and guaranteed unemployment benefits for two years, not a handful of stipends for the lucky few.
And if you read a book by someone like the Dutch composer John Borstlap you'll find out that complaining bitterly about the injustices of a European nation-state patronage system for the arts can still happen.

But, to once again invoke Hindemith's cranky but potentially necessary rebuke to American education and American academic theorizing about art, back in those days when young musicians apprenticed to practical musicians nobody taught music composition as we know it as a scholastic subject.  If anything composition was merely the practical outworking of educating anyone and everyone who was involve in music into a comprehensive musical life.  Composition, the products of musical life and activity, was in many respects merely the side effect of a musical culture and educational culture.  To study all of that music and teach it as though the products of the culture could be taught as a way to compose could be a fatal educational mistake.  To the extent that Clements proposes that if all the expenses of living were moot artists could make a living being artists is somewhat moot itself, if everybody got a universal basic income, for instance, the question as to why anyone would choose to work in the arts just gets back to the questions as to why. 

Why should artists be making a living being artists?  This is not to answer the question with a rhetorical "no" before the question has been asked but I've spent the last year or so reading arts journalism and arts criticism wondering why nearly everyone who writes about arts funding, arts education and arts culture reflexively assumes the only legitimate or possible answer to such a question must always be "yes". 

Clements wrote another piece related to the aforementioned article about the improbability of "success" in the arts, of the sort that would ever actually pay your rent.


Artists have always had a complex relationship with facts: challenging their meaning, dissecting their sources, refracting the information across differing viewpoints. And that’s important work, to be sure. But I was surprised when someone approached me shortly after the essay was published about a speaking gig. Even though my essay emphasizes that certain notions of success, particularly consistent monetary rewards, are almost entirely unattainable by the vast majority of artists, this person asked if I would talk about how artists who have achieved financial success managed to reach that goal. In other words, he wanted me to tell him how he and others could be the exception — how they could be the 0.002 percent.

There’s something deeply American about that response, and incredibly revealing about how much winning at the game of capital is tied up with many artists’ conscious or subconscious motivations. Certainly many readers will have at least a passing understanding that the high-end visual arts marketplace has largely become a cash-bloated status contest for the wealthy, but I’m not talking about that here. I’m focused on artists themselves, not the markets. And I’m talking about artists working across disciplines, not just in the areas that attract hedge funds willing to store paintings in offshore containers in anticipation of future profits. Artists across fields, even fields with notoriously low earnings, still believe that money equals success. We all know that very few people win that particular game, but we’re convinced there’s a way for us to beat the odds. And we cling to that belief, even when it harms us.

Here in the United States, we’re steeped in these stories from childhood: the underdog; the Horatio Alger figure; the courageous individual who surmounts challenge after challenge to win it all. [emphasis added] But you’ll notice it’s never a story about changing the odds — about making it less hard for more people to succeed. We never seem to flip the script. We prefer to believe in one of the most poisonous and persistent myths the United States has to offer — that our society is a meritocracy. And the American arts suffer enormously under this yoke. We are told over and over that if we work hard and do a good job, we will be rewarded. But “doing a good job” in the arts is not about how well you put together a machine or a spreadsheet; being judged worthy of attention or money in the arts is tied up with our very being, our beliefs and worldviews, our identities — the sources many of us tap to generate art in the first place.

Which sounds more than a little like the delusional idea Hindemith said was at the core of American educational culture surrounding the arts in general and music in particular, that would lead to the eventual atrophy and collapse of the educational culture.  Hindemith's counsel was clearly not to change the odds but to change the foundational premise of all arts education in the United States from "we school you in this so you can make money at it" to "we'll teach you this stuff because it's part of life, it's fun, and you can do it whether you make money at it or not."

Even if we flip the script there's no clear reason why an educational or economic culture should make arts a priority.  American artists and writers and musicians seem to want the arts to be front and cener but the arts are not where our production seems it should be.  We still need farmers and engineers and plumbers and architects and electricians and accountants and people who do all the unglamorous but necessary things in cultural life about which we'll not likely see movies.  I see trailers for American Assasin not American Court Stenographer.  Whether from a proverbial right or left Americans want art that is about revolution and not art about the normal, whether the normal that is or the normal we think should be.  We can never entirely extricate ourselves from art that plays some role in moral instruction and formation and if a whole lot of religious people seem like pious fuddy-duddys for it we can at least credit them for not forgetting that we do want our arts to instruct us and change us in some fashion.  Clements seems to grasp that working in the arts is some kind of priestly craft in a virtually religious mode but we live in a culture in which priests are not held in particularly high regard the way they were in earlier epochs, at least not explicitly religious priests.  Academic and artistic priests are another matter. 

Clements had more to say:

Of course, it should be pointed out that many artists of color — as well as women and trans artists, among others — have long known that the meritocracy was a lie. But that myth is internalized so deeply within many Americans and those who seek out this country, that it quietly and subconsciously drives our actions and beliefs, even when we know it’s a lie. It’s tied tightly into the knot of internalized capitalism that tugs on countless little strings within us: making us believe that our value as human beings is tied to our work (or, more precisely, our earnings), whispering to us that, without earnings, we have no value — that poverty, like wealth, is deserved. And if we just worked harder, if we just did better, we would get out of poverty, earn more money.

But that just isn’t true. If there is no significant money in the field you want to enter, or there are thousands of other people there already (which is the case in pretty much every field today), or the folks in charge don’t particularly like you or your perspective, you simply will not be able to sustain middle-class or better earnings over the course of a career from your art-making alone. Period. That has nothing whatsoever to do with your output or your value. And, as I said in the previous essay, time and again you will find that the people who appear to be making substantial incomes from their art alone for long periods of time are often deliberately or tacitly hiding inherited or married-into wealth and privilege, or are quietly running side businesses to keep their finances afloat.

That last point gets to the other deeply insidious American myth — we are all each other’s competition in a zero-sum game. The net effect of that internalized belief is that we isolate ourselves. We pull back into our shells, our studios, our small corners; we hunker down, we hide. We don’t share information with one another and we lean on rumor and suspicion because so many people, particularly those in power, are obscuring or deliberately hiding the facts. This leaves everyone ripe for exploitation.

But at this point it's hard to wonder about the fiscal disaster of not being able to sustain a middle-class or better level of earnings from the arts.  For those who lean left on economic issues it might be helpful to clarify what is meant by middle-class if the middle-class has also been a put-down for ruling class provincialism.  "Should" any artists derive a "middle-class" income from the arts of an American middle class variety in the 21st century?  What may be different now is that where in the past those who spent their days making art were more transparent about the power and privilege of being given patronage.  Hindemith's complaint about the United States educational system was that it harbored the delusion that artistic life could be democratic to the point that everyone was given a promise of being able to be involved in the arts when the history of European culture, at least, showed that it was improbable that very many could pay their bills doing the arts and that, in any case, the exceptional cases were exceptional with cause--America was not likely to embrace a paradigm in which artistic activity was presented as a kind of side-effect of cultural life rather than a goal in itself.  In the end Clements raises some good points worth considering for everyone who is interested in artistic activity but Clements may harbor an idea that is ultimately mistaken.
In other words, I would like to suggest that, more than individual professional development, what we need to think about right now are other areas of development. I would like to suggest that the secret recipe for success in the arts is comprised of the following ingredients, rather than anything mentioned in the countless get-rich/famous-quick books that make so much money for their authors:
•universal healthcare;
•universal care for children, seniors, and those with special needs;
•free education and vocational programs for all, from preschool through graduate school;
•affordable housing for all;
•redistribution of wealth through taxation, reparations, and universal basic incomes;
•redistribution of political roles to demographic groups that have been systematically excluded from those roles; and
•workers taking ownership roles in the companies and organizations they work for.

Even if all of this happened this would still do absolutely nothing to establish what success in the arts would be or why anyone "should" pursue the arts as a field of activity.  If you wouldn't pursue this program of activities even if no art were ever made in the future then don't consider it a pre-condition for "success in the arts".  If the history of those who have had money and power are any indication then whoever gets the new power and wealth of the future will not be any more likely to share it equitably than the last group to have gained it which can be summed up in a phrase of rich white males.  There's no compelling reason to believe that giving the wealth accumulated by rich white males to other groups of people will ensure that those people will be more just than rich white capitalists have been.  It's not like the Soviet system of the arts was altogether fair.  It's too easy to forget that what we regard as great and beautiful art has very often been made in spite of and not merely because of the vicissitudes and cruelties of each cultural empire of patronage. 

I guess I'd have to say my skepticism about artists advocating for universal health care so they can be artists is comparable to the skepticism I have about American Christians who are evangelical and social conservatives who want revival so that God will make America great again.  It's a different kind of "MAGA" of a progressive variety but I'm just not convinced that it is any left jingoistic, selfish and ultimately reprehensible coming from a liberal arts perspective than a Christian fundamentalist red-state one.  If the checklist is just what we wish everyone could have if that's possible then, fine, I don't argue with healthcare and affordable housing for everybody.  It's just that I don't think we can ignore that in any large technocratic system that injustice ever goes away.  Someone will get scapegoated and someone will get massacred.  Someone will be ignored and artists may want something closer to a Canadian patronage system for the arts, perhaps.

But thinking about this in Christian terms, it could seem as though making art out of love for and gratitude to the mercies of Christ is a reason people can make art.  Adorno wrote in Aesthetic Theory that ever since art became autonomous from religious expression the very question of its basic legitimacy and reason for being has been a crisis.  When I read American writers and artists and musicians talking about what the United States should do it generally reads as if they are saying the empire and its largesse should serve the artists' interests rather than conceding that the largesse of national patronage in the United States won't be any different than it's been in arts patronage regimes since the dawn of the human race, that empires fund artists provided that artists use their gifts to serve the empire. 

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