Jacob Feige, Contributor, Lookie-Lookie
Gold prospectors—those seeking to locate gold deposits for mining—faced long odds of financial success in 1850s California. Few became rich; many returned to the East worse off than when they set out. The more reliable financial outcomes were among those who sold goods and services to the miners: lodging, provisions, and entertainment. Whereas a typical farmer in the eastern United States made about a dollar for each day of work, a single farmer along the Yuba river in California, George C. Briggs, made a twenty-thousand dollar profit in 1852, selling melons to miners. The market catering to miners was a rush in and of itself, but it lacked the prospector’s dream: bewildering riches in gold. Given that gold prospecting was an optimistic and irrational pursuit and selling provisions was a practical income, many were first attracted by mining, eventually turning to the industries catering to the miners.
Even in the face of practical evidence to the contrary, a vocational dream remains attractive, especially in the United States. As it went with the gold prospectors, so it goes with artists. Setting aside the fact that, for many artists, making art is worthwhile for its own sake, the dream of success and recognition against improbable odds likely draws many to the field. As the numbers of people pursuing higher education in visual art has increased, so has the opportunistic commerce surrounding it. The convenience and profit of that commerce, along with digital reproducibility, have created a crisis in the perceived authenticity of the artist as individualist.
Such authenticity is a difficult and dubious concept to evaluate in the work and lives of artists, and one that is frequently avoided altogether. One measure of evaluation may be the degree to which artists follow an individual path and vision in the pursuit of their work, rather than passively following a course of existing methods, materials, and ideas. By that measure, virtually all artists working in the United States, including me, are deeply inauthentic.Because goods and services that facilitate nearly any possible artistic path exist in the marketplace and are conveniently consumed, an art practice outside of this consumption is nearly impossible, or at least stubbornly contrarian. Art production is inevitably also consumerism.Never before has such a robust commercial framework existed to cater to these common needs, aspirations, and lifestyles of artists. Art colleges market their degrees heavily to prospective students and assuage parents’ fears. Art supply companies buy one another out, offer free shipping, and cater to the ever-expanding number of visual art students.
Of the commercialized features of the artist lifestyle—materials, services, and educational products, perhaps none has transformed more, economically speaking, than the artist’s studio. In the age of the artist-consumer in which we now live, an artist’s studio is both a practical need and codified concept marketed to artist and non-artist alike, priced according to the economics of gentrification.
In 1960s and '70s New York, industrial space was abundant and inexpensive to rent south of Houston Street. Many artists lived and worked in large, unfinished spaces that were converted makeshift for art making and socializing, and—if necessary—were made passable for living. The communities that formed around downtown studio culture are well documented. For artists in the wake of these early artist-occupants of industrial space, two norms were established: the cultural capital of an industrial studio space, and the romantic priority of a studio space over a living space, and therefore one’s practice over daily comforts.
As the cultural capital associated with the artist’s studio in an industrial space became widespread and codified in the 1980s, the narrative of the artist aspiring to work in such spaces became a powerful motivating force in higher education for artists. The ambitious recent graduates of any given art program moved to cities and found those studios. The less ambitious ones quit making art or worked in a spare bedroom. This model continues through the present, albeit under vastly transformed economic circumstances.
The "Soho model," now cringe-worthy to even name for its cliché, was not the dominant studio format historically, and artists have, of course, continued working in all sorts of spaces. A more rarefied atmosphere was rewarded in the nineteenth century, for example, with some artist’s ateliers resembling the palace and townhouse interiors of their aristocratic patrons. But the cultural capital invested in the Soho model has been relatively fixed since the 1970s and '80s, with artists choosing to operate outside of it often labeled as outsiders, non-participants, or simply as clueless. Even well-known artists like Lee Bontecou and Peter Young, who chose to leave New York for rural Pennsylvania and Arizona respectively after they exhibited with Leo Castelli in the 1960s, were described by the critics and curators who championed them, including critic Jerry Saltz and curator Alanna Heiss, using condescending "outsider" or "drop-out" narratives as late as the mid-2000s. In reality, these artists made the same calculations as other artists: where do I want to live, with whom, and where does art fit with my other priorities in life? It just so happens that Bontecou and Young maintained their institutional support and continued to be recognized despite their unwillingness to conform to the urban Soho model, and without daily contact with urban artist communities.
The urban theorist Richard Florida identified the role that creative professionals play in economic development, as part of what he called the creative class, in his 2002 book on the subject. In it he points to artists and other professionals equipped with creative problem solving abilities as leading a transformation of the United States economy that draws capital investment and professional workers back into cities from the suburbs. It was Florida’s hope that the creative class would revitalize American Rust Belt cities in particular, but development that has occurred under this model has primarily been concentrated in the largest coastal cities in the United States, including New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, where artists live in higher numbers. As the ethos of creativity was embraced by corporations, a rush of urban development catered to members of the professional middle class eager to adopt the signifiers and lifestyle of the creative city dweller. With that important shift, artists became virtually indistinguishable from their urban professional middle class counterparts, despite significant economic and cultural differences. The authenticity of artist-signifiers—Soho-model studios (or “lofts,” as they charitably become when occupied as residences), irregular schedules, and mercurial bursts of activity—was subsumed entirely by the corporate creative class in a remarkably short period in the late '90s and early 2000s. Artists must now economically compete with wealthy professionals for studios in large cities. Combined with high student loans, relatively lower wages for artists, and increased competition, this corporate appropriation of the artist—and in turn the marketing of the artist lifestyle back to artists themselves—has created a deep crisis for urban artists in the United States and elsewhere. Whereas that crisis is often framed as an economic one, it is actually a much deeper one, brought on by economic circumstances, of the validity and authenticity of being an artist itself.
All this is not to say that artists no longer make clever use of industrial space in cities. But given the pressures of gentrification, and especially in the wake of the high profile Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland that killed 36, unsanctioned use of such spaces for cultural activities is increasingly threatened.
What are the more authentic paths forward for the spaces and identities that American artists inhabit in the artist-consumer era? Specifically, what sorts of studios should artists have, assuming their practices require traditional messy workspaces? Below I outline four possibilities in brief, each of which is non-mutually exclusive.
Like the former prospectors selling goods and renting rooms to current prospectors at a markup, artists can take on the role of developer, leasing or purchasing industrial space and renting partitions to artists. While this approach locks tenants into an artist-consumer role, the artist-landlord her or himself can restrict art studios for artists, rather than for other sorts of professionals adopting the artist-lifestyle. Artist-landlords may be less likely to charge exorbitant rents than real estate developers. Ultimately, this model is a simulation of the gentrification model of the artist studio, with fewer, but still notable, ethical problems. Moreover, most artists—even those with high incomes—have trouble securing mortgages or long-term leases on industrial space in major cities.
Especially if artists have children, as I do, combining a studio with a home can both be a practical choice and a minor subversion of the cultural capital in the Soho model. By running a studio from an attic, bedroom, or outbuilding,artists can reduce costs and be closer to their domestic duties. In my own case, I have been struck by the negative reaction of some artists to my suburban home studio, especially those for whom the Soho model retains its signification of authenticity. Anecdotally, curators and gallerists have responded more favorably to the studio, which is in a small Victorian-era garage. Seeing so many studios conforming to the Soho model ad nauseam perhaps leaves them remembering my little studio more keenly. But there are drawbacks to this model, as well. Many artists do not have regular employment necessary to secure a home mortgage. And many artists are reluctant to give up the community that artists clustered in cities have.
Artists can move to places where regimes of gentrification have yet to take hold. They run the risk of unwittingly triggering gentrification, but they will initially not have to compete economically with the professionalized creative class. This model allows artists to escape the inauthenticity associated with the well-trodden paths that artists’ lives often take in large cities. In areas with few artists, the artists who do work there may be able to connect their work authentically to everyday life outside of artmaking, rather than to art as it exists in closed milieus of artists and art institutions.
A culture of artists purchasing inexpensive land and building ramshackle structures by hand has existed since the 1960s. Especially if one's art practice and the architecture of the studio itself are intertwined as a Gesamptkunstwerk, this approach can be romantic and fulfilling. But land must be purchased, and in most areas of the United States, building codes preclude hand-build architecture that was legally permissible in the 1960s and '70s. Building on a rural site like Drop City, perhaps the best known American community built on the artist-homesteader model, would now be an impossible fete, given stringent code. With large areas of the country at relatively low population density levels, this model could be combined with the artist-homeowner model, mergingderelict housing stock and hand made, improvised building, if building inspectors can be evaded. Such a combination is already in use by artists in cities with significant population loss, including Detroit, Buffalo, and Cleveland.
Conclusion: unfashionable artist
Is there a need for artists to distinguish themselves culturally from other creative professionals who have co-opted the signifiers of the urban artist lifestyle? In all likelihood, lifestyles developed by artists will continue to be co-opted by the creative professional class, even if they are initially unfashionable. The artist’s studio is one aspect of the artist lifestyle that is, where fashion is concerned, very narrow: only the Soho model, and perhaps a rural version of it, have cultural capital. As this preference has persisted for decades, it is a form of aesthetic conservatism, ripe for a challenge. I suspect that if artists largely abandon the Soho model, it will be retained by the creative professional class for a time, and a marked, if superficial distinction in lifestyle between artists and their co-optersmay arise. Barring such a sweeping change, acceptance by fellow artists, curators, gallerists, and critics of a wider variety of studios, chosen for personal preference rather than signification, can take many artists towards a more authentic, less self-consciously careerist practice.