Ottawa Artists: Show Me the Money

Ottawa Artists: Show Me the Money
Posted on August 17, 2013 | Caroline Agnew | Written on August 17, 2013
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Letter type:
Rant

Hey Ottawa Artists!

Making a living as a professional visual artist is tough. That’s a very well-documented fact. I know that not only from experience, but also from the research that I’ve done. It’s a funny feeling to find out that your experiences are pretty much average. Artists in Canada make a median amount of $20 000 per year (Maranda, 2009, http://theagyuisoutthere.org/everywhere/?p=1443), and most artists have some other form of employment to support themselves and their art. In addition, most artists don’t rely on grants, but pay for their artistic practices out of pocket and hope at least to break even (Maranda, 2009, http://theagyuisoutthere.org/everywhere/?p=1443).

Now, on the flip side, there is one part of artistic professionalism that gets under my skin, and it’s not something that anyone really seems to want to talk about. I’m talking about taking responsibility for your art. Now, I know we’re living in a world where Damian Hirst is king, and where urinals are not an unusual sight in galleries. I suppose I can’t take umbrage at the fact that history happened, but I can address what’s going on in the arts right now. I can also address the ways in which contemporary art engages with art history and cultural theory, as well as give my interpretations of how artworks fit into the space that they occupy.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. On a lovely evening in July, I was walking through the Byward Market and saw that someone had mounted a series of photographs on some plywood walls that were surrounding a construction site. The photographs seemed to depict the artist’s trip to perhaps India. If I can generalize about this show and others like it, there seems to be such a temptation to use the camera as a tool to capture the essence of a moment, but without recognizing that the artist chooses which moments are worth capturing, how they are captured, and what is left out of the picture. What I object to is the temptation to show pictures of your vacation, where all too often the focus is on little brown children sitting in doorways. Not only is it pretty cliché, it ignores all the identity politics of representation as well as the exoticization (is that a word?) of the Other. I understood from the pictures that the artist had a very nice personally fulfilling holiday, and that, yes, there are indeed brown people in South Asia. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to learn from the pictures. That Ottawa is not a South Asian city? There weren’t a lot of context cues to let me in on how the artist felt about the images, besides the fact that they depicted a context that was very different than the one in which the photographs were hung.

There is a cliché out there that artists are supposed to have a unique view of the world - an ability to see beauty, or a certain special sensitivity to their surroundings. What is less well known is that these ideas were developed at a time before the arrival of cheap synthetic pigments, community centre art programs, and certainly before the invention of the digital camera. What is also often ignored is that it is not the artist who decides on their own genius, but the viewer.

I got the impression from that particular installation that the artist was attempting to liven up the space by including their art. While I understand the desire to bring some life into a space that might otherwise be a bit dull, the artist must still understand that they are not merely decorating the space, but also shaping its narrative. The old cliché goes that a picture is worth a thousand words, but what if those thousand words never reach the punch line? Then what?

Making it as an artist is hard. I know that. However, the longer I spend on the other side, as the viewer, the more I’ve come to realize that there is an important relationship between the artist and the audience. What I’m really trying to say is that I want to be acknowledged as a well-educated and informed viewer. The trend right now is to sensationalize the artist or creative person and to put too much emphasis on their creative powers. I’ve heard it said too many times that the audience just doesn’t understand, or that they just don’t have enough experience in the art world to “get it.” The truth is, though, that I’ve stopped going to gallery shows because I’m bored. I really really want to support the arts and to go and see art, but sometimes it feels like I’m at a never-ending slideshow presentation of someone’s summer holidays (and that can be pretty tedious). So artists: show me the money. What are you trying to say, and why should I take the time to listen?

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Comments

Good point Caroline. I'm not sure vacation photographs should be considered art, even if shot by an artist. As you say, art is more than this, or at least it should be.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this matter.