Bohemia of Finances (pt. 3)

In “I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac,” Kathy Acker somewhat wryly describes the art world as “the bohemia of finances.” Still, questions of money and capital in the art world do transpire. Occasionally during my tenure as blogger at OPEN SPACE, I have posted discussions with local artists and curators about the economics of their practice. Today I’d like to welcome back to the Open Space blog local artist Zachary Royer Scholz.

Brandon Brown: I think a nice place to start, actually, is to ask you to describe your practice in the broadest terms for SFMOMA blog readers. And if you would, or as much as you feel comfortable sharing, would you describe how artworks and money are functioning for you currently? Do you make a “living” from art? Is that a useful standard for you personally?

Zachary Royer Scholz: Describing my practice is always an interesting prospect. It invariably involves deciding who my audience is and determining what suite of activities they are actually interested in. In one sense, most of what I do is a part of my practice. In my own mind I don’t separate my activities in the kitchen from those in the studio, those writing on the computer, or those simply existing in the world — each informs the other and simultaneously springs from an evolving singularity that is constructed from all my previous experience. However, for the sake of sanity, I will limit myself to those activities that are intelligible within an art context.

I am primarily an artist. In addition to making artworks and enacting site-responsive interventions, I write critically about other artists’ artworks and the larger culture of objects and actions in which they participate. In addition to making and writing, I occasionally dabble curatorially — highlighting the work of artists that I think deserve greater attention. Beyond what I do materially to advance present discourse, I also try to help ensure its future by teaching. Outside these concrete activities, I amorphously foster interconnection, brokering connections (where I can), contributing to productive discourse (like this), and seeking to shift the general tone from competitive posturing to cooperative support. None of these activities pay well, if at all, or have the prospect of being more lucrative in the near future. While making a living from one’s practice certainly indicates commercial success, I can’t honestly say that I find monetary compensation a good measure of value, since it seems most of us, at least in the art world, do things that pay money so we can do things that are important.

BB: In 2009 you wrote “Alternative to the Alternative: the Changing Face of San Francisco’s Independent Art Spaces.” In that text, you suggest a tendency in the Bay Area towards independent venues for exhibiting art, including houses, public spaces, etc. Such activity, then, cultivates community, generates “social capital” (Bourdieu’s term). And yet these independent art spaces are also committed to generating literal money, for their own enterprise as well as for the artists whom they show.

In David Graeber’s essay “The Sadness of Post-Workerism,” he describes the art world’s tie to centers of financial capital. Graeber draws attention to the somewhat paradoxical condition of contemporary art, much of which presents itself as a direct challenge to the brutal conventions and sanctioned violence of finance capital itself. I’m wondering if you had any thoughts about this “tension.” In your reading, is there anything specifically Bay Arean about this condition? San Francisco is obviously a sort of commercial center, but not on the same strata as New York or Los Angeles.

ZRS: The tension is certainly not specifically “Bay Arean,” though it takes a decidedly interesting form here, in part because San Francisco’s artists have largely escaped financial exploitation, not through resistance, but through neglect. The experimental practices and alternative modes of display that flourish in this city do so in part because deep-pocketed individuals have not been interested. This is obviously grossly oversimplified, but any conversation about San Francisco’s relationship to art commerce has to acknowledge this factor.

The tension between commercial art interests and artists’ noncommercial intentions seems irresolvable. But, primary-market art dealers stand between these two oppositional sides and enable their interaction. Primary-market dealers — those who work directly with artists — participate in art commerce, but not only for commercial gain. Like curators, primary-market dealers often value the cultural significance of their artists’ work more than its current market price. They sell artworks to enrich themselves, but also to enrich their artists and thereby enable them to continue to make artwork that is culturally valuable. This sympathetic position allows artists to trust primary-market dealers. But, ironically these dealers also operate as the doorways through which artworks pass into the secondary market, where commerce, and not cultural enrichment, holds sway.

A couple of years ago I was at a collector’s party in L.A. with the gallerist David Salow and had the strange experience of talking with an older art dealer who had been on the board of MOCA during its inception. His stories about the shenanigans that conspired while building the museum’s collection were simultaneously fascinating and demoralizing, but what most resonated with me was his off-hand statement that primary-market dealers, like David, were not really in the game, and were essentially doing “community service.” I don’t know if this shocked me, but it certainly clarified what had previously been a vaguer sense of the art world’s commercial stratification.

Zachary Royer Scholz

The secondary market is something that artists don’t generally understand well. Simply put, it is a resale market, whose parasitic transactions don’t benefit the artists whose work is sold, and whose capital does not filter down to support the creation of new artworks. Though often attributed to cultural value and obfuscated by the veneer of connoisseurship, the basic point of these transactions is to capitalize on increased market value. Art dealers who participate in both the primary and secondary markets complicate this equation somewhat. Some of these dealers buy up artworks by artists they represent to control their prices, but generally, most use the profits from secondary market sales to support their less lucrative primary market programming. The secondary market composes the hefty bulk of art world transactions, both numerically and monetarily. The visage glimpsed through secondary market galleries and art fair booths is just the tip of a commercial iceberg whose size is only ever hinted at on the floors of Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and in the climbing value of the Mei Mosses Art Index. Museums, kunsthalls, and other cultural institutions are not necessarily ideological fronts for this behemoth, but they are intractably enmeshed in its influence, participating in some of its transactions, and more significantly, codifying the cultural value that the secondary market converts into wealth.

It is entirely plausible that the financial world consumes art not just to generate capital, but, as David Graeber’s essay suggests, to narcissistically justify its own disproportionately valued abstract labor. Still, what is most interesting to me is (as you mention) that artists, gallerists, and curators do not spend their lives trying to enable this self-gratification or capitalistic increase, but rather to advance a very different and largely oppositional position. This ironic fact raises the specter of another of Graeber’s suggested conclusions, which is the possibility that alternative, potentially even communist, economies currently exist that we have not recognized as such. It does not take a great leap to see the activities of artists as a communistic generation of value that is then siphoned off by greedy capitalists for their subsequent escalating enrichment. The seeing isn’t so hard, but the harder question remains: what is there to do about it?

BB: I feel like I’ve met so many artists in the Bay Area who “double” or “triple” as gallerists and/or curators. I wonder if the question of how to engage that ironic fact in its material implication might be more relevant for that work of “community service” in the primary market. But, also, this advancement of an oppositional position situated in a market economy has to affect, on some levels, the artists themselves, be that the specific attentions of their projects or their psyches as they sort-of participate and sort-of shun a business ontology.

ZRS: There are not discrete positions progressing neatly from idealistic artist to soulless secondary-market dealer. Instead there is a complex spectrum of activities and intentions combined in infinite variations. Broadly speaking, artists who dabble as curators or gallerists do so to advance artistic rather than capitalistic ends. Their activities championing overlooked artists and avant-garde practices are similar to those of many curators and primary-market dealers, though perhaps more personally motivated. Such individuals may not offer a viable alternative to the current gallery system, but they challenge stereotypical business-as-usual assumptions in ways that open space for change within the existing system. “Sort-of participating and sort-of shunning” is not unique to these actors, as it is the unstable spot that artists always operate within, not just economically, but conceptually, and materially, as well. Without some level of participation, artists’ efforts are entirely invisible. Every exhibition opportunity is flawed in some way, but they are necessary to have work seen. Similarly, artworks must participate in some aspect of our shared experience in order to be legible, and yet, they must also stray away from familiar ground if they want to contribute anything substantive to the conversation.

101009 (blue sheeting) / 1.516.520.509 (paper, colored pencil, charcoal, graphite) – correspondence; photo courtesy Zachary Royer Scholz

BB: Much of my cultural work is done in and for a broad community of experimental writing. In that community, in which literal money is extremely scarce, many practitioners turn towards jobs in the academy in order to support themselves. Some in fine arts capacities, teaching in MFA programs and the like, and some as scholars of literature, or a related field. This is a rather new phenomenon, however. Writers involved in the major avant-garde movements of the late 1970s, so-called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and New Narrative writing, were for the most part unaffiliated with the university, although many of them did eventually find jobs there. For writers of my generation, the turn towards the institution as a place to earn a living is extremely prevalent. Is this a similar frame for this generation’s visual artists?

ZRS: Many artists teach. Teaching offers some financial autonomy from the art market, but in my experience, that is rarely the only reason an artist teaches. Other motivations include financial stability, health benefits, institutional legitimacy, professional community, and the desire to foster the next generation of artists. The academy offers real opportunities, but it can also become a time and energy black hole, or worse yet a place to hide.

BB: I think it’s critical, absolutely, to attend to both kinds of effects, the opportunities and the pitfalls that come with artists finding employment in the academy. From my perspective though, and correct me if I’m wrong, the kind of institutional legitimacy that the academy doles out in the visual arts has a particular value that’s not identical to the value doled out in actual dollars.

As we’ve discussed above, the historically conditioned gaps in the art world between “critic” and “artist” are less stable and more inter-implicated than ever. Yet the secondary dealer and her buyers remain unconcerned with continental philosophy, its discontents, who is in the new October or even the new Art Practical. Or is there a connection to your mind between the institutionally legitimized and what becomes available on the secondary market?

ZRS: There is a clear connection between institutional validation and market value. That is not to say that the most intellectually valued artworks necessarily command the highest prices. The market likes artworks to be durable, and to some degree physical. Above all the market is conservative and hesitant to back an unsure thing. Today’s intellectual art discourse, when it becomes settled “art history,” will determine the next crop of blue-chip artists in the market. This, of course, is not a rote progression, and there are always previously overlooked artists that are “rescued” years later, and acclaimed artists whose work never has comparable market success. These anomalies are not failures of the system, but rather adjustments to smooth out past “mistakes.”

This is not to say that the point of current artistic discourse is to determine future winners and losers. The point, more accurately, is to determine where to go next. However, artwork and artists that inspire what is to come by definition enter the cannon, and become valuable. I would not be surprised if most art dealers and collectors do not debate art theory, or follow emerging art trends, but what they value, sell, and buy is inherently shaped by the echoes of earlier debates, whether they are aware of them or not.

The academy plays a more substantial part in all of this than one may think. Rather than actively arguing about what is currently significant, the academy tends to walk more historical ground, exposing its students to the past debates that underpin what is happening today. This more historical perspective can seem dowdy, but it contains radical potential, because the history the academy presents is a selective one. The story the academy spins produces a particular result, and the new work that its students later produce retroactively settles today’s debates about what works or artists will have lasting significance.

It can certainly be argued that the academy pays the artists who teach within it better in institutional legitimacy than in hard currency. But I think that is an oversimplification. It is much more of a two-way street. The academy codifies an artist’s significance, but rarely produces it; plenty of art professors labor away in obscurity. The academy also gains greatly from their faculties’ achievements, using them to drum up admissions and codify their own significance.

In many ways the most powerful agency the academy gives its teachers is the opportunity to influence students, because the traces of their influence in their students’ later work will retroactively validate their own.

Leave a comment