How do contemporary creators live and what do they make of it?
There are thousands of artists working in in France today.
If I had the nerve, not to speak of the time to listen to the end of the story, I’d ask each artist I meet, What do you live on? How do you live? And What’s your mood and attitude as you face the first two questions?
I’d do this because, myself a person with what they used to call a “checkered” story and, except for one small detail, an uncertain future, I’ve often supposed that someone besides my sweet boy might, after that one future certitude has kicked in, wonder how I looked at my life and managed my practical means and ends, compared, say, with the way Savage, Johnson or Boswell looked at and managed theirs?
It is impossible to know how far any individual responses of any individual artist to such questions represent some general reality usefully comparable to whatever. All the same, when a series of even partial responses to even one of the three interesting questions, it might provide a starting point for other artists to put together their own, more complete, responses. Thus, using Tracy’s Lives of the Artists, handbook for the artistically perplexed, those who have not yet kicked on through to certitude could begin putting together a pastiche of first-hand stories that could help them understand their own situations.
So, when Christine Champagne, an artist working well beyond words today, wrote me a letter that touched intelligently on What do you live on? How do you live? What’s your mood and attitude? I saved and translated her words & sense to put together the essay that follows.
“I am looking at water and the sense I have of it”, Christine began, “So as to thread some video-sculptures and photos that I now have in my head around it (water). I am learning new stuff also… and in coming months I’ll be hand-developing my photos, which requires a little bit of set up! I am also on a team project on an angel theme where I will be doing the B&W photography. O! Yes. I am also modeling for a photographer friend: a pleasant, and also, a learning, experience on and about the other side of the lens; also learning some new techniques and a new way to look at my métier.”
Christine then went on to tell me about her experience living and working as an artist today in Paris, in France, saying that, basically, now, a working creator today – one who is not already in the infinitely small rank that makes up the publicly recognized “artist” on the private market or who is supported in some other way by the public market – cannot make a living as an artist, even in a small way. She concludes “This is just what I am feeling at the moment; I’m feeling upset; I don’t say this every day…”.
Christine’s work, she acknowledges, aims not so much to pleasing the onlooker as at having a dialog with the onlooker’s heart. In that, perhaps, the creative product she wants to sell is different from others, so not really any more comparable to any other creative product on the market than she, as a person, is comparable to other creators. But, in terms of not making a living off her creativity, she asks me to keep in mind that, in addition to her personal creating, she teaches and makes original jewelry for another account.
“I don’t object to working for others or on things that aren’t of my invention”, Christine continues. “I feel I am creative in that, too. But, doing all that I do does not allow me to compensate the family for the costs I generate by my own creative work.”
Despite the tolerance and generosity of her family, she says, she winds up feeling guilty about being so little a contributor to the common enterprise… adding that, in a better world, money from her creative efforts would enable her to spoil her own people, at least a little, as well as enable more, bigger and better, more complex, productions.
“I love to experiment, break new ground,” she writes, “This takes time, it has to be taken forward carefully.” …But money takes time and time is money, even in Paris, and today’s creator, like most working people, especially, perhaps, the female ones, has no time.
The contemporary way of doing things is out of whack, Christine affirms. “It can’t be right,” she says, to not be able, even working a straight job elsewhere, to practice a vocation. A visual artist, like a barista or bank worker or assistant professor who wants to buy living space, some leisure time, or just be a bit above the bare minimum, is forced to work two or even three jobs.
Beyond the economic realities that today limit the lifestyle possibilities of most other working people, there is the way the creative market is organized that puts the brakes on hopes of an artistic career. “Unlike everybody else,” Christine points out, “And in addition to working steadily at other work, an artist who wants to even the most modest recognition has to take on several, unpaid, but highly necessary, jobs, quite distinct from her creative production: support functions such as marketing, logistics and technical work.”
Like any other merchandise, creative work doesn’t speak for itself, she says. But unlike other merchandise, nobody but the artist has to do all that support stuff before they can even get it to somebody who will put it before the public. Creative production “does not have My stuff by huge international brand stamped on it,” or even the reassuring imprimatur of some reputable gallery, she points out, which predisposes a buyer or exhibitor to believe in a creative product’s quality, taste and with-it-ness.
In our system, Christine says that, for instance, even if employers are obliged by law to pay a driver a minimal something for taking an overpriced box or a higher-paid worker from point A to point B, they are not obliged to pay any associated investment costs, such as driving license, clothes or car. So, too, for today’s visual artist.
The contemporary visual artist pays upfront, just like an Uber driver, for her tools and materials, plus for advertising, space rental – in short, 200€ here, 300€ there… The management, of course, that is, the curators, publicity agents, and so on and so forth, like the Uber management, get paid upfront and also generally work for somebody else. Of course, Christine points out, if the artist is not known or well-enough known, she has to, first, get these paid employees interested enough that they want to get the upfront money from the visual artist!
There are other particularities in the Paris market, Christine writes. Most galleries are strict rental arrangements as is a restaurant or cell phone sales point. “The owner rents the space, that’s all, allows the artist to fill up the gallery. If it sells, it sells. If not, the owner has his, even if the artist has nothing at all.” For the most part, the “self-interested friendship” of a gallery-owner à la Paul Rosenberg, who understands the work exhibited and promotes it does not exist for today’s working artists.
Christine has some trouble imagining how such a system developed, where no one takes any risk but the most vulnerable one, the producer. And it certainly is true that even the ceaselessly-wailing farmers have some protection, not to speak of notaries, lawyers, accountants, doctors, even those lowest of the low on the economy’s value-chain, have some sort of social-risk sharing arrangement, whether it is unemployment insurance or subventions or restrictive professional legislation.
Once and if the means are available to meet the public, Christine says, the nature of creative production makes an eventual meeting of minds with an interested public a costly, long-term project. “It’s interesting to demonstrate, to persuade, to force the brain to follow on an idea or a concept. All that’s good, I like it.”
But for this, the creator has to do a lot of exhibitions and be as present as possible on the scene and in the market. Understand that, in Paris, a stand at an exhibition costs between 1,000 and 10,000 euros, usually for three or four days and not including packing transport, lodging, meals or set up help.
Christine concludes her letter with a statement of her own intent in her creation, putting into question, at least obliquely, whether contemporary economics even leaves room for such intentions, even as a past-time or what one feels as an ineluctable vocation.
“I’ve said enough about money,” she writes. Money is necessary to live, but money is certainly not what motivates my creation. My work is also a spiritual path, a search for the depth of life. No, this way of putting it is not adequate: Creation is a sort of élan, a surge of presence from within me… I try to refine this feeling and to work it into sculpture, photographs, installations. I firmly believe that our lives are not limited to what we see of them in daily life”.
In the context of her personal motivations, then, for Christine, the almost impossible economic cost is worth the candle. “What is formidable in showing one’s creative production is the encounter with others,” she affirms. “It has no price, thank goodness.”
For Christine, the human exchange is in the creation of a vision shared for a moment, a unique bridge between two worlds, hers, his, theirs and mine, or maybe a bridge for all of us to the bigger, invisible part of living. “I think about things in different ways so that I can show my worlds, and make them available to everyone… “I want to bring some well-being to others, give them a spiritual break, to provide a bit of dream.”