Ask an artist what they would do if they had the freedom to do anything, and the chances are that high on their list – after sorting out the planet – would simply be to get on with their work. Dig a bit deeper, and you’ll probably discover that all sorts of worries arise, demanding to be resolved. Worries, for instance, about making something new that is satisfying to them (never mind to anyone else), and worries about whether it’s a valid thing to be worried about; but also worries about exhibitions, or the inexplicable lack of them, and about whether any of this even matters; money worries, which persist irrespective of the sums involved; and, perhaps worst of all, worries about the personal cost of their way of working, in terms of its impact on their private and social lives.
Such a state of anxiety is, of course, by no means exclusive to artists, nor is it likely to go away in our current uncertain times. Worrying about boom-or-bust (or about floating along somewhere in between) is an inescapable part of everyday life. The fact that contemporary art offers more opportunities – albeit unfairly distributed – to work than ever before, and more spaces in which to make that work public, seems only to have resulted in giving everyone even more individual things to worry about. On a day-to-day level this manifests itself, for the artist, as the need to check email obsessively or to post stuff on social networking sites – or, in a not dissimilar manner, to take part in too many exhibitions or to produce work for back-to-back art fairs. What is behind this, other than the need to be constantly reminded that you and your work exist, and to find out whether anyone gives a damn?
Organizing your life in such a way that you are not crushed by all this worry (and can somehow make worthwhile art) is one of the biggest challenges for an artist. Every step forward in life brings new problems, and very few ever ‘make it’ for long, let alone for ever. Much more than just being a lifestyle choice or a question of acquiring and exhibiting basic life skills, leading a brave, independent, even exceptional, life is still something we expect from artists – regardless of their background or the kind of work they make. The right to devote time and energy exclusively to making art is still widely considered the epitome of freedom, a great privilege that does, however, bring more responsibilities than tangible rewards. Thus the question of how to live – in the broadest ethical and political sense – is deeply embedded in art and in the way it is received. (Modern art history arguably began, after all, with Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists in 1550.) This is true whether or not an artist’s work includes an obviously personal, social or political element. Have the models for living as an artist changed in the early 21st century? Should it matter to the rest of us whether artists live exemplary lives, good or bad?
Seen as social models rather than purely subjective struggles, the lives of artists today are caught between various synthetic rocks and some really hard places. Arguably, there are three types: the neo-bohemian; the self-institutionalizer, dependent on public funding; and the system-compatible, neo-liberal self-exploiter. Let’s examine each of these in turn.
In his novel Bohemians of the Latin Quarter (1851), the inspiration for Puccini’s opera La Bohème (1896), Henry Murger wrote: ‘The greater number of our contemporaries who display the noblest blazonry of art have been bohemians, and amidst their calm and prosperous glory they often recall, perhaps with regret, the time when, climbing the verdant slope of youth, they had no other fortune in the sunshine of their 20 years than courage, which is the virtue of the young, and hope, which is the wealth of the poor.’ But bohemia’s garrets and wine bars never actually existed in most parts of the world, and where they once did – in Paris, New York or Berlin (the last of which hot-housed this writer in the 1990s) – sceptics argue they have long been gentrified and replaced by franchized boutiques and cafés. Structurally speaking, it’s hard to consider today’s neo-bohemians as truly free radicals when the vast majority of them arguably started life among the western middle classes.
Which brings us to the second type. Public funding constantly saves creative lives and provides safe havens for thought and for the passing on of knowledge. The problem with the idea of the artist as socially useful and fairly paid, but at the service of the state or the powers that be, is that the 20th century proved these taskmasters to be far from reliable or benevolent. In its most banal, contemporary, post-ideological version this problem is well known to any artist who has filled out a funding application – and has experienced the sinking feeling of ‘the form’ not fitting their work, let alone their life.
Third, the art market in a global culture industry – which at present still provides the dominant economic model – expects artists to sink or swim, to be easy to work with, to be consummate and jolly self-exploiters, cultural entrepreneurs with no safety net and with no health insurance, pension, sick leave or paternity leave. But the art market also deserves its dues – it is, after all, an unparalleled generator and sustainer of all manner of lives within its orbit.
Artists find themselves choosing from these three models while simultaneously feeling responsible for living a life of radical artistic creativity amidst the contradictions all of this entails. At best, it means less a perpetual streamlining and perfecting of a lifestyle than a sense of contrariness and a willingness not to lie to yourself. The bottom line is: if you put a painting on show in the desert, will anyone get to see it?