Credit Robin Uchida with this Yoda-like utterance of something so obvious that it’s almost invisible. In a nutshell, he pointed out the 21st century challenge of understanding the value of artists to society in terms of everything they contribute other than the objects they produce.
Because the reality is that the vast majority of artists, for the vast majority of their productive lives, aren’t producing objects that people want to buy, and never will. In all disciplines, the majority of practitioners are struggling to make a living, and only a few will ever survive solely on their art practice. Many will drop out and take on a different profession or do something complementary like teaching.
What has to change is the attitude of non-artists, who understand the value of artists in society, appraising only the objects (paintings, performances, publications, sculptures, etc.), and not the process and perspective that contributes so much to the richness of everyone’s life experience.
After all, almost everything we see, hear, and touch has been enhanced in some way in its design or production by an artist. The wallpaper, the stylish chair you sit in, the music in the café, the logo on your cup… everything, including the ubiquitous “art work” on the wall.
Yet the pervasive presence of the arts in our lives is not matched by the integration of artists into society. They remain a marginalized sect, confined to leaky garrets, working in isolation and ignominy, their greatness and glory unrealized until after death. In keeping with myth, shortcuts to greatness include cutting off an ear or pissing in a patron’s fireplace.
I’ve asked artists if they’ve ever experienced the patronizing question, “So what do you do?” at a cocktail party. When they claim to be an artist, they’re asked where their work might have been seen, and if they can’t name a prestigious venue, there is a sympathetic change of subject and a quick end to the conversation. Maybe a healthier parallel is sports where the vast majority of participants, at all levels of competitiveness, recognize the benefits to health, character, and education, whether or not they ever attain professional ranks, and where related fields such as sports medicine, teaching, and coaching are as respectable as high performance athletics.
When value is recognized and remunerated all around the central pursuit of artistic production, as in elite sports competition, artists will begin to assume their rightful role in society, and the rest of us will benefit from a more robust cultural life.