The value of artists’ lives

At the ReFrame screening of Spring and Arnaud last week, Art Gallery of Peterborough Director Celeste Scopelites made what to me was a startling comment. She said that we need to do more to document artists’ lives.

Perhaps it’s not a new concept but one that needs asserting in our relatively young country: that artists bring value to the community not only in their creative output but in their way of life. This intimate film, edited by Peterborough native Jared Raab, and sponsored by the AGP and Spark Photo Festival, illustrates the focus, the research, the time and emotion artists invest in their work. The love and lives of Canadian conceptual artists Arnaud Maggs and Spring Hurlbut are works of art in themselves. Maggs embarked on an art career late in life, acquired a cluster of stone buildings in great disrepair in a small village in France, and slowly restored a charming, historic villa which otherwise might have been demolished. It was close to the flea markets which they scoured for antiquities that became part of their art works. With elegance and humour, the film documents the intertwining of their lives and art practice, and offers a deeper understanding even for those familiar with their work.

“More documentaries of Canadian artists will help build respect and the value of our artists and what they bring to our cultural community,” says Scopelites. She aptly compares artists to Olympic athletes in their commitment and “the rigor of their daily lives.” She points out that in Japan senior artists are not forced to fit a business model but are declared national treasures.

Today most visual artists in Canada must earn an MFA in order to be considered viable by a high-end dealer or publicly funded institution, spending $30K and up to lay claim to academic credibility. That’s an incredible debt for anyone to begin their professional life with, but outrageous for artists, few of whom will ever earn a basic standard of living from their work. One of the few employment options traditionally available to artists that offers a flexible time frame and a decent salary is to teach. To that end, the cost of attaining a degree may seem like a reasonable trade-off. But is it really? Universities are phasing out tenured positions in favour of short-term contracts and even a PhD does not secure a tenured or even a permanent professorship.

An arts education can be valuable, but what artists need more than anything is time. And not just the time to learn skills. Artists need ongoing time to look and listen, to think, to research, to experiment, to make. The end result is only a fraction of what they do. It may be tempting for an artist to use the time afforded by a graduate degree to further their practice, but the real work of becoming an artist starts in the studio, at the piano, or at the computer, writing and editing. It’s hard work to bring the real thing and contrary to popular opinion it doesn’t often happen in a flash of inspiration.

A life in the arts is the very definition of continuous learning, yet the talents of so many artists are lost like those of immigrants with medical or engineering degrees who end up driving a cab to make ends meet, never fully able to practice their craft.

Artists contribute in untold ways to the community. An artist recently told me that she had donated a work worth $3000 to a fundraiser. If that artist lives at the poverty line, as most artists do, that gift alone represents at least 15% of her income. How many corporations perform that well in charity to their community?

Some, like contemporary Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, American Joan Baez or those in the entertainment industry in the ’40s who refused to testify to the House Committee on Un-American Activities may even risk their lives, liberty and livelihood to shed light on political injustice, and to champion human and environmental rights.

Let’s face it – we love the lives of artists, not just the fruits of their labour. It’s not the interior of a banker’s home we crave to see; it’s not the businessman’s office that brings tourist dollars to the community – it’s the artists on the studio tour. We love their quirkiness, tenacity, courage and ingenuity. We live vicariously through Jack Kerouac as he looks for the meaning of life on Route 66. We love, envy and even profit from the lives of artists when they succeed like Warhol; but also when they crash and burn like Basquiat or Amy Winehouse. We preserve their homes as museums for tourism and posterity. A whole multi-million dollar industry has grown up around stalking the lives of artist celebrities, and another on the posthumous use of their image in advertising. We pit thousands of struggling artists against one another in reality shows as if they were gladiators, but the real winners are the producers and advertisers.

Yet we still begrudge investment in artists; the concept that the arts are frivolous persists. We take for granted the dollar value of volunteerism in the arts and the role of artists as multicultural ambassadors. We expect to download our music for free. Cultural workers are encouraged to assume the extra burden of becoming business managers and to create work with a profit motive in mind. Public galleries and museums must make do with less and are expected to derive more funding through economic activities and the private sector. We forget that the very presence of an artist in our midst is a unique and precious asset.

Whether we finance the arts directly through public engagement or through government funding, we need to believe in and support the real value of artists in our community – not just as producers of quantifiable products that we buy or enjoy, but as dedicated contributors to communities, economically and as well as creatively.

What artists need is lots and lots of time – time to reach their full potential, to discover what has real value, and to continue to remind us of it.

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