“When we ask artists about their motivations, money seems pretty low on the list,” said Artquest’s Russell Martin as he introduced For the love of it, a conference exploring the goals and motivations of artists.
Curated by Cecilia Wee, the day-long event at Cecil Sharp House, Camden, featured presentations from a range of speakers including Professor Lynda Morris, curator Sophie Hope, and artists Sonia Boyce, Ellie Harrison, David Blandy and Doug Fishbone.
The conference took an artist-led approach, ensuring that delegates had ample opportunity to share their thoughts within the well-structured programme that also contained two hour-long break out sessions.
Martin’s introductory sentiment was echoed throughout the day, particularly during the first break out session on ‘Value’. Led by theorist Neil Cummings, curator and lecturer Sophie Hope and artist Amy Feneck, participants were invited to answer the question ‘What do you value about being an artist?’ Responses included:
“The will to communicate”; “The way a work changes through public display”; “Initiating social change”; “Unlearning as a valuable role within society”; “The openness of the artists community”; “Pleasure of making things”; “Generosity”; “Freedom”; “Non-linear thinking, self-expression, ability to ask difficult questions”; “Self-actualisation”; “Positive delusions.”
Perhaps surprisingly, money was not seen as a key value. Several artists said that they would continue to make art whether it was economically viable or not. Commenting via the Twitter tag #AQlove, artist Andrew Reeve said: “I love exhibiting more than earning any money from sales.”
Also on Twitter, artist Subhadassi added: “You can not value money (ie maintaining artistic integrity) whilst also making a living through your art.”
Defining what success is
David Blandy acknowledged the very real financial pressures that artists have to cope with, even when their profile is relatively high: “Success is survival,” he said. “Have I paid the bill? Have my kids got something to eat? …You keep on maintaining practice and maintaining the integrity of what you are doing. So much is embedded in invisibility. Your practice is nailed down to one little bit of what you do.”
Doug Fishbone also explored the idea of how an artist defines success, comparing it to the experience of bankers. “You can’t get rich on Wall Street, you always reach new levels of relative poverty,” said Fishbone. “As artists we may be particularly at risk. You might be successful at one level but still feel like a basket case. The goalposts keep moving.”
He added: “If your goal as an artist is to win the Turner Prize… well, those types of goals pervert what it is to be an artist. What is success? Even after I had exhibited in Trafalgar Square, I was still broke!”
Artist Edwina Fitzpatrick posed the question: “How much should you change your practice in order to get success? I am interested in how the art school engages with ideas of success and how we are set up to fail.”
A large portion of the discussion examined how the act of making was both mentally and physically beneficial. One delegate said: “Having made a career change later in life, I am now a much more fulfilled person. I’ve grown as a person and although it’s not all happy and euphoric, I experience the value on a very personal level.” Another added: “I like to believe in the power of art. Otherwise, we wouldn’t keep battling through all the problems we face!”
Artist Kay-Oi Jay Yung, said: “I feel privileged to be in this position. Being an artist has brought me closer to my heritage and given me the freedom to explore, travel and meet lots of different people. It can be frustrating at times, but ultimately art has the power to effect change – in yourself and in others.”
Towards the end of the conference, there was a shift in examining how artists value themselves to how others value them. In her summarising polemic, Ellie Harrison said: “For artists there is very little relation between labour and wage. Our skills must not be instrumentalised. An artist giving up art is akin to killing yourself.”