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Art Problems

Elvis Richardson counts the ways

​​Remember those ads satarising teenagers taking up art as a problem - “1 in 5 teenagers will experiment with art” or “doodling is a gateway to illustration” -with an image of a concerned parent having a ‘talk’ with their teenager.  What harm could art possibly? Of course any parent would prefer their child to ‘do’ art rather than drugs.  But parents also have a fear of their children becoming artists, and it is mainly about the risky jackpot economy that being an artist entails.  The parents are afraid they will be supporting this kid forever. If they do art they will never get on their feet, get a job, buy a house, start a family, have holidays or ever retire.

A number of years ago I agreed to take part in a long term study of gambling practices in Victoria.  I would get a phone call every six months or so asking me the same questions.  While answering, I reflected thankfully I didn’t have a gambling problem. But, if they had been asking me about the financial risks I take being an artist, I am certain I would have been scoring off the charts.

The pervading myths and stereotypes of the artist have always been economic, whether they are starving in garrets or selling their work for outlandish prices. Art is a con, seducing artists and the public alike with its snake oil charms of access to freedom, self-expression, genius, talent, unconventional lifestyles, beauty, taste, infamy and status. 

Aspiring artists might follow the repeated mantra of the judges on Australian Idol: “never give up on your dream” and “always believe in yourself”. But when does it tip into: “you’re fooling yourself” or “enough already!”?  Not everyone can be an artist and not all art will go down in history.  And what’s this infantilising job of being an artist anyway.  Always coming back next year, trying again, dependant on others approval or fitting into prize or funding criteria, giving up more, expecting less, becoming leaner, nomadic, homeless, on the outer fringes of an everyday successful life you thought you didn’t want as a young artist...

It’s more like: “don’t give up your day job”.   Artists are very hard working and industrious, but our wage jobs often play second fiddle to our art job as we are always buying time to get busy in our studio or inside our heads.  An artist’s authenticity is weakened by competing identities, because the expectation of the artist is that we give it our all – never acknowledging the constraints that a long-term low income produce in an artist’s life.  “Opportunities” often cost artists money. The more opportunities you get only deepen this reality as the pot is rarely replenished.  It’s true that being an artist long term can actually cause financial destitution. 

For many years has provided evidence that the funded and for profit culture industries are run on elitist gate-keeper system that continues to be structurally unfair. This can be seen in the lack of diverse representation in galleries exhibition programs and public collections. While 75% of visual art graduates are women, only 34% of living contemporary artists exhibited in our national state galleries are women.  Yet artists continue to work, despite such difficulties.  Art is such a powerfully addictive vice that it really does put a spell on many who follow it.


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