People, Not Products

Jasper Johns "0 - 9"

Jasper Johns “0 – 9”


My father was part of a movement which began in the early sixties to support performing artists. This movement also included luminaries like John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. It led to the formation of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, which was called originally The Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts. What Johns, Rauschenberg and Cage recognized was that in a capitalist economy, visual artists who make things or objects can function more effectively than performance artists, who do not make things, but rather make events. The reason is that a painting or a sculpture can be seen, purchased and then possessed, like any other commercial investment, whereas a play or a dance cannot. Through an enormous act of vision and generosity, the founders of FCA and their friends donated their objects d’art to be sold at a gallery exhibition meant to raise money so that Merce’s company could perform on Broadway  (and there’s an interesting story about that – more later). What they were doing was using products to support people.

In a capitalist system, anything made becomes a product for consumption. So while you may be insulted or offended that I have called the work of Jasper Johns “products”, in the commercial transaction of a sale at a gallery, that is exactly what they are.  We ask the same question about value when we buy a car or a piece of furniture, as we do when we buy a piece of art. What it boils down to is: will this product improve my life? How we measure that value, by what metrics, standards or equations we come to the conclusion that, yes, this product will improve my life, these are where the flaws of capitalist valuation for art come into focus.

If I buy a used Toyota Prius, I can use a small book full of data and rationality to convince me that this particular car will make my particular life improve. The way it fits into my budget, the gas milage, it’s maintenance record, and extra features like a roof rack or a nice sound system are all valid ways we might ascribe value to a car we buy.

Johns’ “0 through 9”

Now let us consider what valuation we make of Jasper Johns’ painting “0 through 9”. With the used Prius, we have other cars of a similar type we can compare it to. We have a history of data of its utilitarian performance. We can calculate how much money we will spend on gas for it. What other painting will we compare “0 though 9” to? How will we measure it’s utilitarian value? By what standard will this painting improve our lives, and then how will we ascribe a dollar amount to that improvement? Clearly the answer it is – we can’t. And so the simple truth of artistic value in a capitalist economy comes lumbering to the foreground. We use subjective tastes and fashion to ascribe value to art, spiced by the opinions of people we have given the power to pass judgments: critics, academics and dilettantes.

It’s was a stroke of good fortune for Merce that his painter friends happened to be the fashionable painters of the time, and that critics and the like were making a good deal of noise about their work. Because that’s the only reason they were sold for the amounts they commanded. People with money, who liked these painters’ artwork and wanted to be seen as the kind of person who buys it, showed up and paid substantial amounts of money for it. In doing so, they were treating the paintings like products, ascribing a value to them, and then possessing them.

I love Jasper Johns’ paintings. I would love to possess one, but I can’t afford it (not even close). So don’t misunderstand what I am saying. It’s not that I think his paintings aren’t worth what people pay for them, it’s that I believe the value system people are using is arbitrary, whereas the value system used to buy the Prius is not. It’s not that I believe people paid too much for them, it’s that I believe there is no price which can adequately describe their value. I believe they – and all works of art – are price-less. It’s not that I believe they are good, nor do I believe they are bad. It’s that I believe good and bad do not exist: they are linguistic constructs based on subjective human experience, and pretend to describe objective value, when in fact they merely describe the aesthetic tastes of the person who uses them.

What Johns. Cage and Rauschenberg did was take the capitalist system they knew benefitted them, and knew was arbitrary, and put it to use for their friends, who could not be bought and possessed, at least not by such a naked commercial transaction: dancers and actors. Here, they were only interested in the commercial transaction because it benefitted people they knew and admired. My mom was a dancer in that company, so I feel a personal sense of gratitude for their demonstrated love and support.

"Coca Cola Plan" Robert Rauschenberg

“Coca Cola Plan” Robert Rauschenberg

How tragic to report then, that the entire system of philanthropic support of artists over the fifty years since that act of love took place is not based on supporting people, but rather on evaluating products, and ascribing “good vs. bad” judgments to them, before providing financial support, or more frequently, not. Rather than fight against the capitalist urge turn art into products for consumption, as Johns, Cage and Rauschenberg were doing, philanthropy has generally opted for the more economically expedient and more dishonest means of valuation, asking artists to defend their work as “good” products worthy of a foundation’s investment, as if a painter is a start-up software engineer with a cool app. Worse, most foundations use a panel of “experts” to pass these judgments, using a variety of jargon-laden bullshit to describe why or why not an artist’s work has value, when the truth is simply this: I liked it, or I didn’t like it. End of story. In doing so, many philanthropies mask the dilettantes’ fashion-based, subjective judgments with a faux mantle of authority, and the rest of us poor bastards buy into it. Well gosh, my art must be bad, because all the experts from [ Foundation XYZ ] said so.

There is an cute reason many foundations behave this way. They want to make the choices they make seem “fair”. Let’s toss that one into the ash-bin of nonsense alongside good and bad, shall we? There is nothing fair about patronage, philanthropy, and who gets the money and who doesn’t. Since the days of court favoritism, it has never been fair and was never designed to be. It’s not fair now, and we’d all be a lot better off, both on the giving and receiving end if we just admitted this and got over it. But at least in the court, it was honest. A person with money would say, I like you and I like your art, here’s some money, make some more of it and thank me publicly when you do. And the artists were grateful and did exactly that. Why do you think Shakespeare cared so much about the printing of his epic poems, the ones nobody reads, and not a bit about the printing of his plays, which have changed the face of language and creativity forever? It’s because the poems were a way he was saying thank you to a patron, and the plays (for the most part) were not. The plays, interestingly, were frank commercial enterprises. So let me clarify again: I am not an enemy of capitalism. We have a lot to learn from entrepreneurs, and Shakespeare and his Kings Men were just that: a 17th century limited liability corporation with shareholders, interns, marketing and the rest of it. What I am against is dishonesty. It is dishonest to pretend your award system is fair in any way, and it is dishonest to claim that you only support artists who make “good” art, by whatever jargony definition you choose. You support the art you like – for whatever reason – and there is nothing fair about it.

Here are some questions we are going to explore in my seminar:

  • What happens when we admit there is no such thing as good or bad art?
  • By what measure do we claim our work of art, or our project, has value?
  • How can we work towards financial prosperity as artists, when we know there is nothing fair about philanthropy?

I’ll give you a hint about where I’m going with this. I believe philanthropies should change the basis of their funding paradigms and support people not products. This means identifying the people who are supporting people, and supporting them.  Get out of the business of picking good and bad art entirely, let the artists and the marketplace deal with that. Promote the creation of new art by committing resources to people, preferably people who are working hard to support artists, through general operating support and salaries, benefits, etc. By supporting the people supporting artists, you will allow the next wave of artistic entrepreneurship to grow, in which artists are proving their value not to you – the foundations – but to the people in their own communities.

And artists, you too need to get out of this product-based mind-set. No one really cares enough about your gorgeous little dance, or beautiful new play, to sustain you reliably. So the question you need to ask is: what is my value proposition? What value am I bringing to my community? If your answer to that question is a variation of “my gorgeous little dance”, go back to the beginning of this paragraph.

Because, beautiful artists, we have been caught in a trap we didn’t even know is a trap. Capitalist valuation systems are so dominant in our thinking we haven’t accurately identified the ways they skew our thinking. We are not and never have been makers of products. We have always been the people who love and honor the most awesome power on earth: human creativity. The possibilities have nothing to do with products, they have to do with people, and they are endless.

Print, Robert Rauschenberg

Print, Robert Rauschenberg