Wednesday 1 November 2023

EDITORIAL | Is the visual artist a profession? Α Greek approach for a worldwide debate

David Mesguich, γλυπτική κατασκευή, Βέλγιο, 2014
By common agreement, Greece lags behind in matters of art recognition, support, and employment. Most importantly, we are lagging "behind" compared to other countries in acknowledging the assumptions that will allow us to recognize the issue, so that discussing its solutions becomes worthwhile. There's an "elephant in the room" (as the well-known American expression goes). We just choose to comment on the door, the window, the color of the light fixture. The elephant doesn't surprise us at all. We want to open more art schools, wonder why the state doesn't pay artists, and even utter the phrase "Greeks lack artistic education" as an interpretation of why they don't pay for the works of their fellow countrymen. Simultaneously, we name the commercialization of Art as the most significant problem and continue to sleep a deep sleep...

The way the State, Society, educational institutions, and, of course, the artist themselves approach the artist, is the most pressing issue. The ability of the creative individual to evolve as a socially acceptable entity, without being obligated to pursue a professional career and academic excellence, without which their practice becomes solely a means of survival, is paramount.

The visual artist is in a constant clash with themselves and society due to the agonizing contradiction between a successful "career" and an unrestrained social freedom of expression, without which art holds no value. How can a University advocate that a visual artist is anyone with a degree, rather than someone with recognized visual work, while failing to equip its graduates with a fundamental direction on what kind of support they should seek, from where, and how not to undermine their effort? How is it possible that the only clear artistic path is either getting a public position or striving for immediate professional recognition and commercial success, while any other alternative is treated as a secondary occupation that art eventually became?

"Con-tenedor" του ισπανού street artist Sath, Mallorca, Ισπανία, 2012
Academic institutions and their degrees contribute to this contradiction. Until a century ago, studies in Art were regarded as a foundation of knowledge, experiential application, the transmission of experience and knowledge from individuals with greater specialization and experience, along with practice. Along this path, this perception changed. Nowadays, studies in the "Fine Arts" have been treated as much by students in relevant academic institutions and later graduates, as well as by the educational system and society as a whole, as a cornerstone of professional entitlement, in contrast to anyone who followed a different path in developing technical skills and expanding their artistic perception. The term "self-taught artist," used with condescending contempt by Greek Art Historians to refer to those practicing art without being graduates of Fine Arts schools, is becoming tolerated and occasionally accepted based on their substantial contribution to artistic production, while according to their view, they should not have "professional rights." The way in which the State, the educational system, and society recognize visual artists as professionals based on their institutionally recognized state studies, in contrast to non-professional artists, exacerbates the assimilation of the visual artist into any other means of livelihood.

By distorting the artist through professionalization, the University provokes society to judge them by career criteria, which inherently do not apply to studies in Fine Arts. The artist is now exposed to a social environment that demands proof of their utility based on criteria entirely foreign to creativity and artistic practice, without any support and, of course, without the ability to exercise their art as a specific means of livelihood since what they do cannot be monetized as a commodity or service.

However, for the overall problem of the distorted perception of artistic practice in Greece, responsibility does not solely lie with the Schools. The micro-political and opportunistic treatment of cultural production by the state, the self-serving, hypocritical, and detached approach of Greek society towards cultural contribution, the narrow-minded treatment by private entities, the high level of nepotism coupled with individualism and low social cohesion, compounded by the pervasive xenophobia among Greeks who have uncritically absorbed the outdated capitalist "truth" that anyone who earns a lot of money is important, significant, and valuable, while anyone who doesn't prioritize their questionable wealth should be regarded with suspicion – all contribute to the overarching burden that the emerging visual artist is called to bear.

The solution other countries have found for this problem involves the gradual familiarization of societies with the meaningful utility of art, which is the contribution to thought, disposition, daily life, and dialogue on major or minor stakes, through the presence/intervention of art in public space. It's the renewal of national identity through a cultural narrative, often suitable for fueling tourism industry interests through social media landmarks or cultural diplomacy – effective in terms of actual art production, as the required funds are found through these practices, making implementation possible.

Εγκατάσταση του street artist DAKU στην αγορά της Panjim, Goa, Ινδία
In Greece, a distorted, pseudo-leftist narrative of internal consumption teaches the young artist at the university that they must walk in the forest when the wolf is not around: when they hear about capital, funding, etc., they should run far away from the evil capitalists because they will "restrict their freedom." They should only be recognized for the importance of their work as it is, which must not be easily understood, as it risks becoming "commercial" and thus deemed unworthy by professors, fellow students, and a peculiar tribe called "those who understand art." Simultaneously, they are encouraged never to explain or publicly support their work, as it is "not their job." Their work must "be about everyone," but their selected conversational partners should be "those who understand," preferably others who are also graduates, artists. If they do all of this, the narrative assures them that their artist's work will soon attract wealthy collectors, as the obscure and significantly meaningful work for humanity will shine in the darkness of ignorance, like a lamp in the dark. However, be cautious: for these patrons, the work should be sold at a high price, because it's certain they won't comprehend it and are merely trying to "steal" the brilliance of the artist's spirit.

The purpose of this article is not to analyze the irrationality, hypocritical falsehoods, and biases presented in the above narrative. Let's focus on the outcome instead. Since the 1990s, when this narrative dominated the discourse within Greek art academia, the majority of graduate artists either struggle, often abandoning art completely to pursue other professions for survival, or find various ways to "milk" the government or their family's wealth, paying everyone to exhibit their works. A minority of graduates, after realizing that if they wish to remain artists, must forget the non-technical aspects they learned at Greek universities and independently strive for success as best as they can. Many come from low-income families and have been facing reality from a young age. Only a few will succeed, as their endeavor is colossal: they must navigate through a nonexistent Greek art market, appeal to the few state and private entities that can support them without being equipped with the necessary knowledge to do so. They need to function comfortably in a globalized society, which is challenging even for artists from small, underdeveloped art scenes, where the concept of competition differs significantly from anywhere else in the world.

Indeed, as Greek visual artists often declare, artists in other countries receive ample funding from the state, private individuals, institutions, and legacies. However, often, until they attain this support, they undertake other jobs, much like Greek artists. The difference is that they do so strategically, ensuring they have time and funds for one, two, or multiple postgraduate degrees, residencies in foreign countries, participation in international competitions, and most importantly, focusing on their artwork to prove they are deserving of support. Often, they join collectives, pay for support services, curators, theoreticians; all have professional photographs, stay up late seeking venues to submit their proposals and display their work worldwide, relentlessly seek funding and support, travel frequently, engage in research that occupies them for years before they are ready to produce. This isn't, however, about professional restoration in the Greek societal context.

The difference lies in the fact that other Western countries addressed these issues several decades before Greece. This allowed them the time, through social processes, to detach artistic identity from a purely formal profession while recognizing that artistic work demands labor and that this labor should be remunerated. They've acknowledged for years that the contribution of the visual artist is gauged by its cultural content, which, once realized, can, through proper promotion, contribute to the country's economic output, while, at its genesis, aiding in shaping social identity and cohesion, simultaneously enhancing the place's reputation.

Εικαστική παρέμβαση του R1 (μία από τις 30 περίπου στην περιοχή)
 Johannesburg, Νότια Αφρική
The revelation of the creative process, public discourse and engagement of the world in it, exploration from the perspective of historical artists, the issues, and the narrative of a region, and the creation of installations or other works that directly converse with people, and many other related practices in this spirit, are what bring about the change in societal attitude, initiate thought, and constitute the quintessence of the potential of visual arts to intervene in social issues! It marks a significant step towards improving the situation, the presence/intervention of visual artists in the public space with elements of societal involvement, either in the process of art creation itself, or in ways that creatively respond to current issues. In Greece too, there are artists who act similarly, but typically they do so individually, with limited impact.

Furthermore, a crucial factor is the interaction among the artists themselves, both in terms of the conception process of the artwork and the formation of artistic perception. It responds to the side of the visual artist - a renegotiation of reality, spectator and unseen, in the alchemical realm of art, which can transform reality with the most humble materials. The process resembles models of experiential learning such as the Montessori method, involving immersive processes where the object, community, companion, or even the teacher could be the community, the neighborhood, or individual people who carry "the spirit of the place," the soul of the locale (what the Romans called animus loci), the collective unconscious of an era intertwined with the place.

At the core is the Greek visual artist themselves: they must acquire substantial social relevance. It's not a path paved with rose petals, but it's feasible and necessary for society. The artist gains admiration when they dare to expose themselves, and appreciation when the object of their practice gains a functional role in people's souls and intervenes in the social narrative. The means to accomplish all of this will be attained if they strive for them, after taking care to act accordingly themselves, with their own hard, original, engaging work, characterized by ingeniously formulated concepts!

And how will the artist make a living? Is it ultimately a profession? The peculiarity of art is this: if the artist's role is considered a profession, it resembles no other. Their employers are Sponsors, Private individuals, the state, sometimes individual people or collective entities. Often they will give away their work for free, other times they will pay for the necessary promotional services. In other words, they will invest with great risk, potentially losing their money and time. Those who pay them don't do so because the artist will produce something of marketable value – artistic production is not inherently a commercial endeavor, even though it might become one. Nor will they pay them because they need their service. They will pay them to continue creating content that makes life more beautiful, social cohesion stronger, and cultural identity tangible. In reality, what artists in other countries, as well as the entities, organizations, etc., that support them, have discovered is this. The artist's role can secure a life of enduring struggle. If the result is commendable and recognizable, it can lead, sooner or later, to the possibility of livelihood. Just as in all professions, only a few will amass wealth from their work.

Ultimately, the goal is for them to do something that satisfies them and sustain themselves from it. It's achievable, as long as it's understood that this is the culmination, the result of hard effort, and not an easy starting point given to everyone.

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