I espouse fair labor initiatives like W.A.G.E. to pay artists. However, my own projects are often un- or under-funded; if a stipend covers a significant portion of my expenses, that seems like a success, even if I take a loss on my own time and labor. As a consequence, I’m unable to pay myself, much less collaborators, contributors, or volunteers. In return, I try to offer sincere thanks and credit lines, as well as social media links. First, how do I navigate this paradox? Am I being a hypocrite? What more could I do to support fellow artists? How will I know if I am taking artists’ energy in exchange for an exploitative promise of “exposure”?
Last week I learned I was a jury pick for ArtPrize in Grand Rapids. Shortly after I found out I was on the short list for the public vote as well. At that point I had a shot at the $200,000 public vote prize, the $200,000 juried prize, and a 1 in 4 chance of winning a $20,000 jury prize for my category.
It’s a lot of money.
I didn’t enter ArtPrize with the hope of winning. I was curated into a show during ArtPrize. I had heard a bit about the contest and decided to give it a chance and have the piece reach an audience it may not otherwise. I was certain I had no shot at winning. I liked that my piece was understood and appreciated by critics and the public alike.
ArtPrize is hard to explain. It’s a project of Rick DeVos, who comes from a very wealthy family. How did they make that money? Founding Amway – Multi-Level Marketing, which is a polite term for a pyramid scheme. They’re married into the family behind Blackwater, the private military outfit. They’re against unions and advocate for school voucher programs. They’ve been major donors to Focus on the Family, Acton Institute, Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich’s campaigns. You may have read that article I sent last week, or about their unionbusting and plan to defund the Left in Mother Jones. (I encourage you to read them. It made my choice much easier.)
What bothers me the most is the DeVos family has, for generations, been on the wrong side of the fight for civil rights for LGBT people. And they back their opinions with millions in political money against civil rights. It’s a long story, but the end is: they haven’t changed.
Tomorrow night, I may win tens of thousands of dollars of their money.
Now, I could do a lot with that money. I’m trying to build up Public Forum. I’m trying to raise money for the Center for Artistic Activism so we can continue doing our work. I mean, I don’t have to tell you I could use the money.
But I had to ask myself, how bad does it have to be for me to say no to the money? In this situation, where is my line? And I realized, “oh, it’s behind me.”
So today I pledged, if I win I will not keep any of the money. I will hand over all my award money to the LGBT Fund of Grand Rapids. I will also volunteer to come back to Grand Rapids with the Center for Artistic Activism to work with LGBT to fight for equality.
The Center for Artistic Activism has worked for equal rights for LGBT people in Russia and the former Yugoslavia, in the most homophobic countries in the world. We’re prepared for Western Michigan.
The reason I became an artist is because I believe it helps create free human beings. It can show us other ways of looking at the world, other ways the world can be. It makes us more empathetic, more understanding, and more open. It helps us grow. I think the money behind ArtPrize is working against, what I see as, the spirit of art itself.
A standard way of relating politics to art assumes that art represents political issues in one way or another. But there is a much more interesting perspective: the politics of the field of art as a place of work. Simply look at what it does—not what it shows.
Amongst all other forms of art, fine art has been most closely linked to post-Fordist speculation, with bling, boom, and bust. Contemporary art is no unworldly discipline nestled away in some remote ivory tower. On the contrary, it is squarely placed in the neoliberal thick of things. We cannot dissociate the hype around contemporary art from the shock policies used to defibrillate slowing economies. Such hype embodies the affective dimension of global economies tied to ponzi schemes, credit addiction, and bygone bull markets. Contemporary art is a brand name without a brand, ready to be slapped onto almost anything, a quick face-lift touting the new creative imperative for places in need of an extreme makeover, the suspense of gambling combined with the stern pleasures of upper-class boarding school education, a licensed playground for a world confused and collapsed by dizzying deregulation. If contemporary art is the answer, the question is: How can capitalism be made more beautiful?