This is a transcript of my speech written for a talk/panel discussion held at Kleinert/James Gallery of Byrdcliffe Artists’ Guild in Woodstock, on April 17, 2016.
When I watch this video, I’m filled with love. I love every one of these artists, and so many other artists in our community, and all over the world—their idiosyncrasies, tenacity, and passion—I love that we are all driven by this urge to make art, even if it doesn’t make any sense logically or financially.
Why do we do this? Because art gives us an experience that is more important than money or material wealth, a reward that is not tangible or quantifiable. Art is in the realm of abundance-based economy, also referred to as gift economy. Regenerative economy, knowledge and information economy are its variations. These economies are the opposite of scarcity-based economy, or market economy, where people fight for a piece of a pie. In abundance-based economy, the goods are information, knowledge, creativity, and other intangible assets. It is infinite and regenerative: the more you use, spend, or share it, the faster and larger it grows. The culture of hackers and open-source is an example of this economy. Wiki is the epitome. But this economy is also ancient, having being practiced in many small economies. In this model, the collective wealth cannot be owned and stored; it needs to be flowing, free for anyone to use and contribute to. Stagnation by hoarding diminishes the entire well-being of the economy. This is why the issues of patent and copyright must be reevaluated if we want a more robust flow in our abundance-based economy.
The scarcity-based economy is the traditional model most businesses and corporations follow. In this economy, we fight for a piece of the finite whole, whether in job application, college admission, market share, natural resources, and so on. This economy rewards private ownership and those who accumulate wealth, sometimes at the expense of everyone else.
What makes artists’ lives difficult is this: when artists are engaged in our practice, we are completely immersed in the realm of the abundance-based economy. We are a little like plants, creating new ideas, new ways of seeing things, out of our sensory interaction with the world, much as plants turn the sunlight into carbon by photosynthesis.
However, this practice often generates precious objects, perfect for commodification in the scarcity-based economy. We just saw this process exploited to an obscene level, as disclosed in Panama Papers. Art starts at the farthest edge of the spectrum in abundance-based economy, and ends at the extreme edge of scarcity-based economy. This chasm between the two positions of art has created a system that is extremely lopsided and narrow, with just a handful of people and corporations controlling the vast percentage of all money related to art.
Frankly, this fact alone doesn’t bother me that much. I don’t really care how the wealthy use art to protect their wealth. Good luck to them. The problem is, the system for us—the career paths available for artists who are not in the international market—is still built to emulate this extreme scarcity-game model, allowing only a tiny portion of all artists and handlers to reap all financial rewards and leaving the rest bone dry. It is a stagnant system that wastes enormous amount of creative talents, skills, and energy by isolating them. The system itself is neither good nor bad. It is good for the people it serves, and I admit I enjoy some of the benefits of the system, such as museums and large and expensive projects, which would not have happened if the shares were distributed more equally. I would even argue that a certain level of increase in value adds excitement to collecting and supporting art. No, the problem is not the system per se, but the fact that there are so very few alternatives—that is the problem.
We artists spend enormous amount of time applying to grants, residencies, etc. The acceptance rates at these opportunities are low, and there are too few of them. We expect a certain rejection rate in all the things we apply to, regardless of the professional level of the artist, meaning, we give up a certain number of hours and energy as a necessary loss. This is no small amount, for many of us juggling different jobs and responsibilities. But more importantly, the psychological impact this system has on us cannot be ignored. This system is built on tiers, with each upper level getting increasingly smaller. Many accomplished artists are rejected as they go up the ladder, sharpening the scarcity which drives up the value of the remaining winners. And the new tiers keep appearing, so even the most successful artists have demoralizing disappointments. This is disempowering and unproductive to us. It’s the growth-only, upward-only model of our market economy.
The loss and negative impact on artists, as severe as it may be, actually pales in comparison to the silent loss suffered by our society at large, by leaving all this creative power untapped. Think of all the artworks stored away in studios, all the creative energy spent in isolation. If such energy was aligned with the economy, it would be like tapping into a well that keeps increasing as it is harvested and distributed.
Now, then, the question: how do we build a new economy that provides financial security and creative freedom for artists, while their service is being put to the betterment for the world?
To collectively explore this answer is the reason we are here today. There are many individuals, groups, and organizations exploring this issue around the world. My hope is to add our voices to this global conversation.
To get the ball rolling, here are my thoughts.
The difficulty of dealing with money in art is the need for us to convert our energy output, which was generated in the realm of abundance-based economy, therefore it is priceless, to the currency used in the realm of scarcity-based economy, by putting on a price tag. One artist told me that he would rather give away his work as a gift than to sell it, because no price justified its value to him. The fact that the pricing of artworks in the international art market is so outrageously out of line with the rest of the world certainly doesn’t help. Many artists and dealers outside of such market feel obliged to follow this pricing practice, even as it perpetuates the segregation of fine art from the rest of the market. As a result, even when the price is affordable, as seen in recent trends, it is difficult to get people to buy art, after decades of being conditioned to think that art purchase is for elites only.
There needs to be a concerted effort to promote sales of original artwork among ordinary people, by all parties involved in the process. As daunting as it may seem, the prospect has never been better, with all the new tools we have in social media and internet. And the reward is huge. Our society’s vast middle class with at least some disposable income, is currently not spending money on original art. If we could change that, we would open the floodgate of revenue for artists, and deeply enriching experiences for the middle class. For this to happen, we would probably need a combination of web-based platforms and physical venues that are different from the current style of galleries.
More importantly, what is needed is an intangible but widely recognized value attached to the act of buying art, like, in the 19th century, buying a Hudson Valley School painting was seen as a moral act, because the wilderness was God’s scripture, therefore buying a nature-based painting was like bringing God’s words into home. This is not as far-fetched as it may seem. To me, personally, all the original works in my home, mostly bought from my friends, are definitely a source of joy that keeps increasing. They are alive and sacred. It wouldn’t be too hard to spread the joy and psychological benefit of owning art—we just have to tell it like it is.
Why do we feel alive and sacred in presence of art? I believe that our capacity to make and appreciate art has helped us survive and thrive as a species, and will now be more valuable than ever in navigating through the enormous jungle of conflicting needs and desires as we head in the post-tipping-point climate change. In the uncharted world with no precedents, we cannot rely solely on past experiences and knowledge. We need to hone our intuitive senses, the manual handed down in our DNA. This is what artists do all the time.
But selling art is only one part of the art economy, and object-based art is now a fraction of all forms of art. While the traditional venues for showing work such as galleries and non-profits are disappearing or struggling in our area (in just two years, we lost three of our best galleries, Imogen Holloway, Roos Arts, and KMOCA), many exciting efforts are broadening and changing the way artists interact with the public. All kinds of festivals and fairs, proliferating through the country and especially in our area, offer artists direct ways to bring their art to the community, with O+ leading the way.
But what I feel most hopeful and excited about is the exponential growth in the number of organizations and groups who enlist artists to make projects with social impact, whether in sending a political message, telling personal stories, making connections and bringing people together, or in addressing a wide range of issues from inequality to climate change. The depth and expanse of creativity found in these efforts are astounding, the collaborative and democratic feel so positive and promising.
The scarcity-based economy, that caused art works to become an investment vehicle for the extremely wealthy, separated art from life. It is time to put art back into life and life into art. We might even save the humanity along the way, and even if we don’t, we’ll have a wonderful time.