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To speak of the dichotomy between professionalism and amateurism in the case of artistic practice is always complicated, because several factors emerge between the two that range from personal desire to the reality of the work itself. The dichotomy also depends on the position that the artist intends to adopt before the art institution, whether on the side of the apocalyptics or the integrated, the resistance to the instrumentalisation of artistic practice, juggling or not the experimental purpose with market demands and a long et cetera related to individual expectations and objectives.
I have recently been working in collaboration with Daniel Villegas and Alberto Chinchón preparing the collective book entitled La práctica artística contemporánea. La profesión y su ejercicio, so all the figures, percentages and other studies of artistic professionalism are fresh in my mind, especially the information that makes the impossibility of professionalism for the majority of artists statistically clear. In this sense, the study carried out by Marta Pérez Ibáñez and Isidro Lopez Aparicio on the economic activity of artists in Spain is almost a horror story we discover through Dante’s admonition ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’: nearly half those interviewed (46.9%) declared their total annual income was equal or less than the minimum wage, also counting jobs that had nothing to do with art, while only 15% declared being able to live exclusively on the income derived from their artistic activity.
Another important statistic that completes the one we have just mentioned and presents a wider view of the situation is found in the report on the Spanish art market in 2016 drawn up byClare McAndrew, director of Arts Economics, backed by the Social and Cultural Outreach Projects of the “la Caixa” Foundation, which stated that 63% of the artworks sold in galleries cost under $ 5000. If to this we add the gender gap in female artists in galleries, art collections and exhibitions, we discover that the situation is much tougher for them.
One of the premises in these texts on amateurism is that, despite all the efforts made by Spanish artists’ professional associations, the desired professionalism hasn’t yet been attained; in fact the situation today is worse than that of previous decades. Even highly acclaimed good practices seem to be reduced to procedures governing the choice of directors of institutions, with all possible reservations, and haven’t managed to properly standardise the relationship between artists, galleries and institutional art centres, which is the main objective of the various Spanish associations and of their federative structure, the Union of Visual Artists’ Associations. During the first decade of the twenty-first century I was chairman of Madrid’s Associated Visual Artists (AVAM, for its initials in Spanish), and on one occasion represented the association before a sort of council of the arts under the wing of Madrid’s regional government with a very clear mandate: to obtain specific remuneration for artists who exhibited their work in spaces run by the institution. But nothing came of the proposal; funnily enough, the fiercest resistance to the idea came from the association of art galleries, while the organisation that dealt with copyright saw only problems that could interfere with its form of management. So of course, how could we try to professionalise the sector if sponsors and artists’ representatives didn’t support the cause? It couldn’t be done.
This was also a time when new cultural infrastructure developed by Madrid City Council sought legitimation by consulting independent agents and mediators working in alternative spaces, opening a window of opportunity for a new model of management. The artists’ association organised a meeting with these agents and asked the local administration to allow artists and mediators to co-manage public resources. Nothing came of that either, because the mediators and managers of independent spaces decided that their interests didn’t coincide with those of artists. I eventually left the artists’ association because I also thought it was more concerned with its own survival than with effectively challenging the conflicts artists faced, which to a fair degree means confronting some of the institutions that financed it. Although associationism doesn’t appear to be strong enough to achieve the desired professionalism, the individualism sought by artists and put forwards as an excuse for erratic forms of behaviour is even worse: while some artists reject working on unpaid projects for reasons of dignity, others replace them, putting visibility above all else, perhaps obliged by the demands of the new economy of attention. Not to mention when they took legal action against the galleries that didn’t want to pay them and we saw our colleagues prefer not to take sides, not because their demands weren’t worthy of recognition but in order to avoid getting on the wrong side of the art world, or rather on the wrong side of management.
To contribute a personal point of view from my own experience in the art world, I must say that sometimes I’ve been sure I was working following professional parameters and at other times I felt all I could be was an amateur. Most artists don’t make much of a living out of their professional activity; we artists are precarious, and when it comes to survival but also to independence, obtaining resources for making a living outside of the art world seems to be the most reasonable and realistic option. At the end of the day, artists sponsor institutions and galleries through their work, as noted on a plaque made by Manuel Saiz and displayed in Moriarty Gallery in 2007. The fact that in 2017, ten years later, the same work should appear in an exhibition organised by the independent space Cruce is revealing of art’s endemic landscapes. The work announces that without the application (the vocation?) of artists, the scheme doesn’t work, but on the other hand, it could also be seen as an intimate conviction that art has more to do with making a gift than with trading. This conviction becomes more problematic when artistic practice concerns itself with politics, with its own transformative capacity and its relation to society. In this case contradictions are highlighted, for if the red thread that connects the most radical proposals of modern and contemporary art is the actual triumph over art, why should we continue to reproduce a model enclosed in the very logic that it intends to abolish? From this point of view, amateur practice seems to be more coherent when it comes to attaining these objectives than the search for any kind of professionalism, like when Nelo Vilar defined himself as a collidor (harvester), making his work of the years 1995 to 2005 – orange harvesting – into an artistic action, which enabled him to have eight months leave a year.
In 2016 we took part in an interesting encounter in Valencia entitled AnARCO, arte liberal vs arte libertario designed to explore the connections between art and libertarian thought and discuss the role of artists as transformative agents. In one of the debates surrounding the merging of liberal and libertarian positions in artistic practice, Nelo Vilar himself pointed out that in order for an artistic practice to be considered ‘libertarian’ it was no longer enough for it to contain grievances, as these could then be found in all fine arts schools without students having the slightest commitment to libertarian thought, simply for a question of ‘fashionable’ discourses and styles, and that an art that would call itself that would have to effectively integrate libertarian practice. So if this art derives from a rejection of hierarchies, dispensing with aesthetic concerns and stressing collective actions and interests, what is its connection with the market, galleries, museums and art collections? We could say that the first priority of artists who consider themselves radical should still be the fusion between art and life so often pursued and so often futile — in short, the abolition of art and its institutions. Amateurs can occupy that position without challenging the contradictions of professionals, for given that their practice lies outside the mechanisms of commissions and control, the pleasure of creation becomes central and preserves the idea of art as a game and as voluntary work. However, when the debate subsequently spread to the public at large it was redirected towards survival, towards ways of creating an alternative economy and even towards the scarcity of support and grants (something that could appear to be out of place considering our sphere of action). In this environment, of course, trade union struggles surfaced; if the labour conditions of artists as ‘cultural workers’ are unworthy, the creation of a trade union appears to be the perfect tool for reverting the situation. Just as one of the objectives of anarcho-communism is the abolition of salaried work and yet, before these conditions are attained, anarcho-trade unionism directs the struggle to the world of labour, artists could continue to aspire to the abolition of art as the ultimate goal while trade union action would allow them to claim and improve their workers’ rights when they come into contact with art institutions and the market. At the end of the day, the struggle for professionalisation doesn’t only seek to dignify the work of the artist but also to create resources so that those with private incomes are not the only ones who can devote themselves to art. And this is something that a key figure of Spanish anarchism like Anselmo Lorenzo was quite sure about when, discussing the relationship between intellectuals and trade unions, he wrote, ‘Nobody stops them from setting themselves up as trade unions of intellectual labour; defending their copyright against editorial exploitation for instance; because, being more or less privileged and sometimes more wretched than smock workers under their decently presentable suits, they are wage earners.’
Yet we must also consider the reality of the world of labour. Labour is being increasingly deregulated, so isn’t today the day we should be fighting for the professionalisation of artists whose field of work, in economic terms, is totally deregulated and all the more difficult? Isn’t this global situation perhaps what hinders the progress of the attempts to professionalise the sphere of art? In these circumstances, wouldn’t amateurism be a kind of displaced dandyism that a mass of precarious workers cannot afford? What if artistic associationism has failed because it has been organised as a sort of ‘inter-class trade unionism’ that makes it inoperative because it considers ’employers’ as compagnons de voyage rather than members of a different class? If we look around us we’ll see that the workers with the most precarious and most deregulated labour conditions are gradually coming together in self-organised trade unions – illegal street vendors, chambermaids, riders, riggers and even musicians, since the Union of Musicians joined the National Confederation of Labour (CNT, for its initials in Spanish) – from where they speak out against festivals that don’t pay the bands they hire, against the lack of suitable contracts for working in concert halls or municipal auditoriums. Does any of this sound familiar to the plastic artists who are reading us?
I remember a parallel project by the Preiswert collective (1990-2000) that contemplated a trade union for artists, the Sindicato de Medios [Trade Union of Media], whose acronym in Spanish is a contraction of its name: Sindios [Godless]. ‘Godless’ isn’t only a chaotic situation such as that of the arts; it is also a perfect designation for an organisation aligned with the great tradition of Spanish anarcho-trade unionism. Is anyone up for reviving it?
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)