On Thursday, April 14, Open Space and Art Practical hosted the second of three conversations organized loosely around issues and themes raised by Stephanie Syjuco’s multiartist project Shadowshop, on view now. Today we present three responses to that evening. Do join us for the last evening of discussion on Thursday, May 12. Please welcome poet and critic Jasper Bernes.
The second Shoptalk seemed to run aground, rather quickly, on the question of whether Shadowshop “devalued” art and artists by asking them to submit to various mercantile (and mercenary) constraints. People in the room espoused what seemed to me a surprisingly expansive sense of the artist’s vocation, and were quick to produce hoary notions about the specialness or freedom of art. Which is fine, I guess. Except that this freedom turned out to mean not freedom from mercenary concerns but participation in a very special market — the gallery system — whose chief distinguishing feature is that it allows everyone to pretend that money isn’t going to change hands at some points. The gallery system, it turns out, provides people with a simulacrum of such autonomy from market. So, as one gentleman sitting in front of me paradoxically suggested, flirting with markets in the manner of Shadowshop actually compromises the market value of individual artworks. Steering clear of things like Shadowshop is the surest path to those five- and six-figure sales prices. I don’t know that there’s much to say about this. It seems like OK advice, I guess, if one wants pragmatic guidelines for success. I think some of the people present wanted that pragmatic conversation, and some people wanted something else.
Overall, what stuck with me was a kind of tone or mood. There was a palpable sense of scarcity and even desperation in the room, and though it was clear that Shadowshop had tapped deep-seated and long-standing resentments, I couldn’t help but feel that those resentments were left unnamed. This sense of scarcity points to the very real character of the economic world we currently live in, as all around us capitalism in general and in the U.S. exhibits its diseases of old age. This is what strikes me as profoundly different about Shadowshop in comparison to other artistic experiments with economic value and exchange, most of which seem predicated on the possibility of endless abundance, where art can create value ex nihilo merely by convening a set of bodies in a given space. Art as fictitious capital. But no more — such fantasies of abundance probably seem as naïve today as the optimism people once attached to Obama.
Such scarcity is very real — even as much as it is the effect of a crisis of overaccumulation, the effect of a society that is, paradoxically, too wealthy for its own survival. In some parts of the Bay Area unemployment is above 20%, and this doesn’t even the count the people who can’t get enough work, or who have given up looking. If artists can no longer count on institutional support, this is for the same reason that budgets for schools and public health programs are being gutted; and if they can no longer find buyers on the art market, this is for the same reason that “for sale” and “for rent” signs appear in front of every other property in some areas. Unless we insist on thinking incredibly narrowly, the real issue for artists is not the lack of a viable art market or public funding for the arts, but a precipitous rise in the cost of living in urban areas and a concurrent evaporation of decent-paying work, all the more extreme in the context of the current crisis. Cities are prohibitively expensive. Jobs these days pay next to nothing; and when they do pay a decent wage, they want a 60-hour week from you. There’s ample historical evidence that artists can continue making excellent work in the absence of public support or proceeds from sale of their works. But what they can’t do without is time. Like everyone, the more time they spend working in order to pay their bills, the less they have for other things. Cost of materials aside, what it seems that artists need — more than a better market, or more grants — is time and space for their work. And this is also what’s distinctive about our era — the obscene expensiveness of cities like San Francisco, cities that exist, increasingly it seems, as giant open-air museums and playgrounds for the rich. Gone are the days when you could scrape together money for food and rent with part-time work or odd jobs. That kind of idleness is no longer permitted.
How much does the cost of rent — for an apartment, for studio space, for a gallery — limit artists? We all know that rents are absurdly high in the Bay Area, and many of us have noted that this occurs at the same time as all kinds of domestic and commercial and warehouse space stands unused, with titles held by the various banks and property companies who are among the few entities not damaged by the current economic crisis — no doubt because they helped fuck up everything in the first place. Suffice it to say that there is little love lost between these banks and the majority of people in the U.S. If you could use these spaces for free, how much more time would you have to devote to your art? Perhaps you’d be able to quit your day job, or work part-time instead of full-time. So, I’d like to make a modest proposal: With the exception of those people limited by confusing ideas such as “property” and “ownership,” all artists interested in “survival strategies” should immediately begin occupying abandoned spaces. Fix them up, then turn them over to someone else (and so on, and so forth). The next time SFMOMA wants to help the “community,” perhaps it can give out crowbars and lockpicks and a map of available properties, and then, if necessary, hire some lawyers.
Jasper Bernes is the author of Starsdown (ingirumimusnocteetconsumimurigni, 2007). He is finishing up a PhD in the Department of English at UC Berkeley.