Tag Archives: labour

Ode to a Jackdaw, the sequel

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

When I started this blog I innocently thought, hey, no one is discussing some things in the Canadian art world. Where are the public conversations about money? Are the arts councils working for us? Are artists treated fairly? How come rural artists are treated like crap? And why does no one know how to use Twitter in the art world?

Moving forward in time I found that there were lots of people who felt the same way I did and we were able to share some of the things I was writing about. I still naively believed that the art world needed a good dose of social justice and that artists would unite to recognize this. Has this happened? I am uncertain. I still maintain that these issues are relevant but social media has become a place for fighting and fighting is not what I signed up for.

I did not begin this blogging gig so that I could ‘change the world’ or ‘help people’ or get ‘popular’ or even just get some notice. I honestly thought that I was doing something constructive for myself and my friends. I thought I was helping change the channel on how art is discussed.

from ‘To Walk Invisible’, Sally Wainright’s astounding drama about the Brontes. Herself a former Yorkshire bus driver, Wainright knows better than anyone about being invisible.

It all began in Yorkshire and my discovery of the Jackdaw. This zine publishes a few times a year and is written by artists and art supporters in the north who see an unfair advantage to how the arts is funded and promoted by London. I’ve written about this before but the Turner Prize is but one example of this. The prize is often awarded to artists who are pet projects of curators and arts investors who need the prize to uptick the art’s value creating a situation where money flows like confetti all over the place but not in the coffers of arts organizations that need it. This is a huge paraphrasing of the corruption – you really need to read about it in the Jackdaw – but it’s a circle of life that has been normalized which in turn has essentially killed off funding and interest in any kind of art making not associated with the Westminster zone. Austerity and now Brexit in that country has ruined not one but perhaps two generations of artists not living below the midlands. When I got back to my rural log cabin in the central Ontario I looked at the world very differently. Was this kind of thing happening here?

In a very different way it was. Money was flowing then to Luminato, Nuit Blanche and all sorts of southern Ontario artistry while most of the galleries I show in had a hard time coming up with a per diem so that we could eat while visiting their community. For awhile conversation and community sprung up around these issues and I actually thought things might be getting better but… while we wait and wait and wait for the Canada Council and Canadian Heritage to dole out money to supposedly ‘a more diverse’ amount of art the talk of art making has switched to the discussion of who should be making art. This may or may not be a discussion that will have happy consequences; all I know is that it probably stems from a community’s desperation more than anything.

If you take food away from animals they starve or eat each other. It’s just what happens.

The Brontes and Elizabeth Gaskell brought international attention to the plight of northern people and the lives of those who worked and lived in the heart of the Industrial Revolution. They were northerners (Gaskell was born in London but lived for a time in the north, the sisters were Yorkshire rural), even today they are perceived as writers from a genre, or a time and a place. But they helped pave the way for Karl Marx and George Orwell. They are world famous now and beloved but their contribution is far more reaching. Books such as Jane Eyre and Mary Barton helped bring about a labour revolution – one that we are still fighting today. I mention these writers, these artists because I think it’s folly to think that art needs to have a time and place or be of somewhere or be popular. Art has no ‘dominion’ really – it just exists and sometimes in the unlikeliest places made by the unlikeliest people.  I have hope we return to these conversations at some point.

amateur hour

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

A very popular blog regarding the disadvantages to being a professional artist made the rounds on social media over the last month. The writer wrote about how being called unprofessional is an insult but the term professional and how it is used doesn’t begin to describe his own art world experience. He went on to debate with himself how the word can be both a moniker for the seemingly smooth transactions among artists and galleries, those artists who know how to act appropriately and also for institutionalized behaviour that holds creativity in it’s mediocre grasp.

It’s a really good article and I sympathize with artists who can’t muster enough of a “go to” personality to walk up to that curator and just introduce themselves. I can’t do that so I get it. I also hear loud and clear how branding/marketing oneself can seem to be cynical and perhaps kill any spontaneity one might have about how they work. He makes an excellent distinction between the rights of an artist and getting paid and how fitting one’s life and work into an economic cycle can prove disastrous to our best working practices.

But I don’t think being an amateur or dilettante is the best solution. I would agree that the years I’ve spent trying to look professional, slick and smartly alive with all the best things put forward has gotten me a modicum of respect but has done absolutely nothing for my bottom line. I see loads of other creative people making way more money than me without knowing how to spell or craft a sentence. Or brush their teeth before attending an opening or even being nice. In fact I believe, in Toronto anyway, it seems like the more disengaged you are the better your chances of success because no one seems to like enthusiasm. I’ve often quelled my reaction to art at openings for fear of being seen as an idiot – forgetting that I’m supposed to not care and then shuffle off to a bar and not talk about what you’ve just seen.

I will always remember someone telling me that they began weeping in front of a Paterson Ewan and their companions asked embarrassedly, “What’s wrong with you?” To which he replied, “What’s wrong with you?” I love that.

My niece exploring the art gallery. Kids need to know right away that someone made that painting.
My niece exploring the art gallery. Kids need to know right away that someone made that painting.

Being professional perhaps isn’t the best mode of behaviour as an artist; it’s too much to ask and way beyond the work you want to just make. But the alternative is what exactly? By acting disengaged, or being slovenly or just being without guile can’t be the answer either. How to navigate the world of art without compromise but being able to pay your bills is all of our goals. It is a balancing act that no one can understand until they actually live day to day working almost entirely on making art work. Who does it well and how?

I would say that a large portion of the really successful artists tend to have some kind of capital in their background – a financial cushion so to speak. I don’t resent these people I only wish we all had that; it would make for a level playing field. But we don’t and we can’t go on and on complaining about it since this is a fact of life that will never change unless there’s a miracle and basic income is ushered into our lives. I have spent way too much time on the issue myself and I am definitely done.

However I do think that by changing (and attitudes are definitely changing) our ideas about what we do we stand to reinvent how we see our selves as professional. We are workers really. We are part of the labour movement and the labour movement is definitely reinventing itself. Branding and marketing ourselves isn’t something we throw out of the mix but we move it to the periphery of our working lives. We should now just get engaged in the sea change that is happening all around us: people matter and what we do is how we create our world. It’s a shift really, not a total revolution. It’s just a shift in thinking and acting.

We begin by helping each other, by forgoing our need to be defined as magicians and geniuses and join the world of the worker. This idea is all around us as artists have now created collectives and partnering situations that are advantageous to everyone and fighting for fairness all the time. We could start by getting more engaged with how art work, regardless of medium or trends, is all made by people. It’s our flesh, blood and bones at work here, its all we have and the grace that can come from the simple act of work is our gift.

Artists of the world unite. Just kidding. No, actually I’m not. Think about it….

photo by Mariellen Ward