A crowd made up mostly of art students and middle-aged, middle-class art aficionados trail after John Angeline, art historian and lecturer at the Met. Angeline is talking about 20th-century American painting and popular culture.
“Why did Chinese restaurants like this one figure so prominently in these artists’ works?” Angeline muses aloud; he’s standing in front of Edward Hopper’s “Tables for Ladies.” “Because they spent a lot of time in them.” And then the significant question—yes, this will be on the exam: “But why?”
Perhaps he catches the youngish fella with the interesting facial hair warming up to give a dissertation and wants to head him off; no matter, Angeline answers his own question again.
“Because these restaurants were cheap, they were the only places artists could afford to eat in.” Angeline pauses long enough to make his high school drama teacher proud, very proud before delivering the punchline, a verbal conspiratorial wink: “Remember,” he says, “These guys were very poor. Very poor.”
As heads bobbed, the collective sigh would have been enough to dry a Jackson Pollock painting, perhaps dry out Pollock himself. Of course they were poor, the silent unanimous exhalation goes; they had to be—they were artists.
Enter Fritz Von Bottlebum, psychic stage left. With his rotting teeth and swollen liver Fritz Von Bottlebum is a day sleeper, a loose-life shacked up in a low watt cold water flat; in between fists of apoplectic fury, he speaks in tongues and gets his work done. Working toward an end that’s never in sight, he serves a god that makes Moses’s Yahweh look like a kindergarten teacher: relentlessly demanding, he asks Fritz for something for nothing. And Fritz? Well, he’s not necessarily happy about it, but it goes with the territory. Fritz inhabits another world, him and his god, and it’s all about art—no, Art. Nice place to visit but we wouldn’t want to live there, would we?
So why do we expect artists to? Why is a macaroni and cheap wine, cosmically deranged existence acceptable, even necessary to our popular vision of the artist?
And whatever the instance, suspicion seems to linger around those who do “make it,” those who do have some tangible, usually commercial success—selling out, it’s called, and it’ll destroy the soul of a real artist quicker than you can say how-much-for-that-studio-on-Bedford-Avenue?! Or will it?
John Seabrook doesn’t think so; in fact he’s declared those dirty words—selling out, going commercial—irrelevant. “With waning of the distinction between elite and commercial culture,” these concepts, writes Seabrook in his recent Nobrow: the culture of marketing—the marketing of culture, have become “empty phrases.”
Seabrook may be presumptuous in claiming the choice between artistic integrity and commercial success is a phantom dilemma; commercial success isn’t the only criteria for artistic achievement. But he’s not alone in his assertion that for several years now money and art have been mixing above board and without many of the stigmas attached. A whole slew of working artists are accepting the cash it takes to do their work from wherever it’s offered.
Enter Heidi Cody, reality stage right. Cody is a working artist in Brooklyn and Seabrook gives artists like her points for being savvy about getting their work out there and earning bread and booze any way they can; rather than the mark of a fraudulent and whorish imposter, commercial success now declares the authenticity of an artist, argues Seabrook.
To backtrack, Cody poured everything she had into her most recent show, Branded—her time, energy, and yes, her money. After a couple of weeks without an echo she made a very un-Bottlebum move as she faxed, emailed, called whoever she thought might be interested. One of the first things she did when I got to her studio this summer was hand me the phone.
“Here, listen to this,” she said, beaming a mouthful of good teeth at me. The line beeped and a voice brimming with cracker-barrel congeniality introduced himself as the president of Sweet n’ Low; it assured Cody the company’s reps would be by the gallery before the show was over.
Cody uses images and text from mainstream shopping culture in an attempt to get the viewer to reconsider the high frequency din of subliminal messages that surround us. Branded featured two parts, “American Alphabet” and “Mystery Sweeteners,” the latter being a trio of over-sized, unmarked artificial sweetener packets, carved polystyrene and urethane sculptures in the white, pink, and blue brand colors of Domino Sugar, Equal, and, of course, Sweet n’ Low.
“Great, uh?” Cody said as I lowered the phone and strained to hear a hint of irony, shame even, in her voice. Nothing.
And then Fritz Von Bottlebum nudged me. I spent the next few minutes trying to get Cody to admit a conflict of interest, something to do with the artist being outside the fickle, market-driven world. Where was her cool disinterest, the nonplused detachment of the artist-exile? What about those good teeth?
Critics of Cody’s approach, and the subsequent results, can in fairness ask a couple tough questions: is Cody being naïve, a Proserpina playing in the garden moments before the hundred-handed Typhon of commercialism snatches her away? Or worse, is she a hypocrite, an imposter even, pretending to deconstruct contemporary culture on one hand while groping for saccharine engorged cheques with the other?
The question of Cody’s naivete, or possibly hypocrisy, would have been easier to answer forty years ago, when the art world was still enfranchised in the Roman myth of the artists as a free spirit, someone above gaudy juggernaut of commercialism. Real artists, whose lives were governed by the pursuit of some higher truth, weren’t supposed to be concerned with markets or popular tastes. Or money.
While the post-Warhol art world may no longer buy into the myth of real art and real artists, pretensions about what both are supposed to be like seem to linger in our imagination. There is something marginally superior about art apparently created with disregard for the market, a voice insists. And it’s around this myth that both the cold suspicion with which we approach artists like Cody, who are trying to “make it,” and the warm fuzzies we get thinking about Fritz revolve.
Making art is difficult, consuming work: making a living from making art is even tougher. And while few would envy the conditions under which artists often live, the expectations of poverty, detachment, and bad teeth seem to persist: they persist in the crowd’s great sigh, in the rueful glances of people who can afford the ten bucks it takes to be herded around places like the Met for an hour of Kulture & Edification; to some extent, they persist in the artistes, the trust-funder wannabes who live below their means for a few years in hope the bad plumbing and milk-crate coffee tables will declare their authenticity as artists.
There’s no accounting for what people think. Not really. Making art is difficult, consuming work; making a living from making art is even tougher. While few envy the conditions under which artists often live, the image of the starving artist is an enduring cultural myth that heaps cold suspicion on artists like Cody and buoys the notion that the real Von Bottlebums, the working artists in society, should be resigned to less of everything than the rest of us.
Fritzie, he’ll eat anything—he has to, he’s an artist.
David Eustace lives in Williamsburg and has a pathological fear of Chinese take-out.