Some Thoughts on a New Group: Part Two

April 8, 2014

There can be no revolution without revolutionaries and there in is the problem with visual artists taking control of their own professional lives. We live within a romantic myth of our own making much of which can be traced back to our professional training in art schools and universities. At most of these institutions we are taught that our shit doesn’t smell. In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I do have a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and a MFA from Indiana University; taught at three different university for a total thirty-seven years, nineteen years as a department head and was president, for several years, of the University Art Association of Canada. So, I have some insight into the myth making racket.

The whole question if there are too many art schools and university art departments turning out too many artists is a different question for a different time, but in a word the answer is, yes.

I alluded to, in part one of this essay, to the fact that it might be good thing to take a look at 15th. century Flemish art guilds as a possible model for 21st century artists. Many artists agreed that it might be worth a look, but several suggested that guilds, at least, in the form that I suggested, would be elitist and exclusionary. My answer was yes they would, and should, be both. Frankly, elite is a word that gets a bad rap when its associated with the visual arts, but does fairly well when its used to describe athletes. There are some groups, like a college of surgeons, that by their very nature are exclusionary and limited to those who have passed some hurdles. Of course, I mean entry based on merit and talent and and not limits based on race, sex or religion.
Great artists, and surgeons, come in all shapes, colour, sex and beliefs. Picking a great artist, much less a good one, might be a bit harder than picking a corresponding surgeon. I don’t know about you, but I usually look for a surgeon who has lot of practice and patients who survive. As for artists, it is Hobson’s choice and I would like to think that I am Hobson.

Governors of the Wine Merchant's Guild of Amsterdam, by Ferdinand Bol (1663)

Governors of the Wine Merchant’s Guild of Amsterdam, by Ferdinand Bol (1663)

Back to the making of artists, we, the art teachers, usually cover what, in our mind, are the basics, some studio practice, a bit of history and a fair amount of bullshit. Normally anything the student comes up with is lauded as a work of creative genius. Who in their right mind would wants to end up with a bad student evaluation? Every four years a small army of newly minted BFAs march across convocation stages and into oblivion. Of course, there are great schools and strong departments; great students who turn into great artists. They are in the minority, however, and one likes to think that these were the places we attended or taught at, hopefully both. We all live in hope and fantasy.

Assuming all the ducks, or artists with some talent, are all lined up, now what? Leaving aside the lucky few with a MFA who manage to get, and keep, a tenure track appointment at an university and that would be around six in Canada, in a good year; the rest are left to their own devices. Fame and fortune may await some who move to a major art centre. In Canada, Toronto is the centre of the art universe. But it still leaves the majority of budding artistic geniuses who haven’t the wherewithal to move an art capital or actually like it where they live. One choice for these individuals is to live in obscurity, not to mention poverty, die, hopeful young, and hope to be discovered and famous after you are dead. Notice the two hopes in the last sentence and the third hope, outside of the dying part, of this scenario working out are slim and if does other people make the money.

Ah, but there are commercial art galleries and artists-run centres across this great country of ours where things do happen. In the commercial galleries there are exhibitions where over the punch bowl, higher tone galleries offer wine, art works are sold for a couple of hundred bucks or so of which the gallery takes its cut of forty or fifty percent off the top after expenses. If artists are lucky enough to make a hundred or two such sales a year they might gross about three quarters of the salary a unionized postal worker. In artist-run centre sales are viewed as déclassé. Monies are made in artist’s fees, sometimes as much as three or four hundred dollars. In these setting, artists meet with their friends at openings, many of whom will have shows in the same space at a later date, where accolades of their artistic genius are shared and the public’s indifference to said genius is evident. Here everyone is free to buy beer at the cash bar.

Is there another way that visual artists might make living that would allow such luxuries as eating and raising a family? The answer, my friend is written on the wind. Not that this line has already been chosen, but the answer does require a tremendous of rethinking on the part of artists. First artists have to value their own work and, second, they have to value the people, the public- who consume or may consume their work. What to do? Here is where the guild concept raises its ugly head. Did I say ugly? Brilliant, might be a better term, but only if visual artists of all stripes get off their asses. Ugly would apply to the art establishment who would see their serfs, the artists, disappear along with their product, namely art, from their grasp.

I would not propose a single guild. There should be many guilds; all small and all local at the onset. They require, as I wrote in part one, made up of like-minded individuals who see the benefit of marketing their work in a co-operative way. Of course, there could be a loose union of guilds both nationally and internationally. How can these guilds be established? There are likely many ways, but I’ll leave that topic until next week. I, and the others in our small group, don’t have all the answers. We are still at the questions stage and would welcome ideas.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Sunday, April 6, 2014.

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