Owning up

I had sushi for lunch today. Sushi is something that used to be eaten by the affluent few in the US. Now it’s available to the masses at your local supermarket. Yet it still retains a certain level of distinction as something more than just “common food.”

There has been a lot of backlash against the oligarchy of late. Many colleagues and friends are attacking what they see as the rich taking advantage of us; calling for the overthrow of their dominance, and suggesting some form of violent revolution… even cannibalism. Our leaders now seem focused on maintaining the systems that have been put in place to benefit the upper crust. And the rest of us don’t like this, because it deprives us of some of our necessities.

As an artist, I find myself in conflict with this situation. Several of my works have (and continue to) address issues of class, and criticisms of the ruling hegemony. However, I would be lying to myself if I didn’t acknowledge that a good part of my drive to create and communicate through art has to do with aspiration; and that the work is targeted towards those that can afford to validate it financially as well as culturally.

As much as I would like to idealize a situation where common folk would purchase 1000 prints of mine for $10 a pop; it’s more likely that I will get that one wealthy patron willing to purchase an original for $10,000. This is how the art world has worked primarily for at least the last thousand years, almost to a fault. You can read about it in this essay about how galleries manipulate the high end art market.

Makes me wonder how the old masters handled this… after all, they were all directly indebted to the rich patrons that supported their careers and purchased their works.  How do you wish for the eradication of the very people who validate your career? Was Picasso, a known Communist, some kind of hypocrite, considering how wealthy he became due to the rich patrons he had during his career?

Perhaps this has to do with the heightened inequalities that we currently face. Many of the patrons of Modern Art were successful people, but they weren’t exactly “filthy rich.” Back then, your dentist and your doctor might live down the street, and frequent the same pubs and cafés as your struggling artist just starting out and living off sardines and wine. Those patrons didn’t necessarily sit on piles of wealth that match the royalty class, gained by clever systemic exploitations of the working class.

Nowadays it seems that wealth is propped up by a system that keeps it exclusive to a select few, and while it seems to allow for some aspiration, still keeps the doors well guarded. Along with this, there seems to be less allowances for any substantial cultural contentment that would be independent of that system.

The town I live in, Williamsburg, VA, owes much of its current cultural significance to the generosity and vision of the son of an oil tycoon. The dependence on that kind of patronage has led to some desperate measures on behalf of boards of trustees at the expense of artistic and educational inroads.

One could surmise that given a reliable method for an artist to gain meaningful recognition (including the financial kind) without the direct support of the affluent, that artists would naturally veer in that direction. It wouldn’t even require any animosity towards the rich; simply an acknowledgement that they were not needed in the process.

This would be a true revolution, in my humble opinion. Like eating sushi from the local supermarket.