2.16 / Attempting the possible is not terribly exciting. Attempting the impossible is exhilarating.

Portrait of an Artist, Wily and Engaged

By Christine Wong Yap May 4, 2011
Image: Torreya Cummings. BULL, 2011 (production still); a remake of Warhol's western, HORSE, 1965. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Ace Lehner.

This is an updated and relevant idea of an artist: one who is ambitious, pragmatic, generous, and optimistic—an initiator of exchanges.

When the recession hit in 2008, a few writers presented artistic creativity as silver linings in the global financial crisis. On March 4, 2009, Melanie Cox McCluskey wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer that “being inventive comes in handy in a bad economy.”1 On March 16, Marcus Westbury wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that “[h]igher levels of unemployment can mean that talent has … less temptation (or opportunity) to chase big bucks elsewhere.”2 These blithe assessments didn’t inspire me; they unnerved me. In any sector but the arts, news of diminished economic opportunity and rising unemployment would be seen for the dire facts they are.

I suspect that these notions are associated with the romantic view that suffering for art is unremarkable and perhaps even desirable. The idea is that if hardship forces artists to innovate, artists’ lives ought to be filled with difficulties. These portrayals reinforce exceptional statuses for artists—living at society’s margins, unhampered by economic realities, and disengaged from the larger world.

Contrast that image against Holland Cotter’s vision for artists, described in the New York Times on February 12, 2009.3 He said the recession could be a chance for artists to “take over the factory, make the art industry their own ... [and] customize the machinery, alter the modes of distribution.” Like Cotter, I wouldn’t encourage artists to look on the bright side of scarcity and self-sacrifice from the margins. Rather, I would like to see artists as sources of leadership and generosity at the center. So I decided to speak with artists who are wily and engaged—and who I imagine are strategically optimistic.

Strategic optimism is a selective perspective. Artists must choose to be optimistic to persevere against the harsh odds of the field. Their optimism cannot be hollow or rhetorical. The vicissitudes of a life in the arts are too overwhelming and the stakes are too high to rely on positive thinking, intuition, and improvisation. Strategic optimism allows artists to react to events advantageously and proactively make plans of their own—to be ambitious, pragmatic, and often generous. In other words, strategically optimistic artists imagine new conditions and energetically implement them.

Initial Studies: Four Subjects

I selected three artists and a collaborative who did not retreat to their studios in a recession-imposed residency; instead, they fueled the ambitiousness of their practices.4 They created new pathways of exchange—such as collaborative projects, artist’s magazines, commissions, and grants—that support new artworks, relationships, and platforms for art to come into existence. In this sense, their activities enhance and expand existing conditions for making and viewing art. 

Torreya Cummings is a California-based post-media artist who holds an MFA from the California College of the Arts (CCA) and a BA from UC Davis. Her recent work uses notions of the Wild West to investigate queer identities. She works as an art technician, a graphic designer, and a fabricator, and is launching a clothing and accessories microbusiness called Feral Goods.

Amanda Curreri is an interdisciplinary artist who holds an MFA from CCA, a BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and a BA from Tufts University. Recent exhibitions have addressed the role of desire in the performance of American democracy. Her work is represented by Romer Young Gallery. Currently residing in California, she works as an art technician, a studio coordinator, and a freelance writer. Along with Bay Area artist and teacher Erik Scollon, Curreri is the coeditor and cofounder of an irregularly published artist publication Color&Color.

Tattfoo Tan is a self-taught, New York–based artist who engages communities via intervention and participation, often involving food and gardening. This summer, he will announce the winners of his SOS Guild grant for sustainability projects.

Founded in 2009, Earthbound Moon is an arts collaborative building a noncontiguous sculpture garden—discrete parcels of land spaced across the face of the earth, each parcel the home of a different publicly accessible sculpture. Its members are Chicago-based artist and musician Libby Reed and four CCA MFAs—Lee Pembleton, Alex Clausen, Amy Sampson, and Carson Murdach—residing in California. I corresponded with Pembleton.

Amanda Curreri. Afghanistan Insert: KIA (Kills in Action), 2010; digital print mounted on foam core; 26 x 34 in.; part of a multi-platform work, Afghanistan Insert, presenting the artist's conflicted and personal experience of US military involvement in Afghanistan. Courtesy of the Artist and Romer Young Gallery, San Francisco. Photo: SFMOMA, Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover.

Advancing into the World (Not Sobbing at the Easel)

True to the maxim that artists should make art because they love it, the artists I corresponded with describe art-making as an autotelic activity, a process that is the end in itself. However, they are not troubled artists who retreat from life to the studio, where their turmoil boils over in cathartic art-making sessions. Their commitment to art-making’s intrinsic rewards—not a reaction to the recession, but a principle despite it—enables them to be optimistic, even when market rewards are elusive. As Cummings notes, “For me, art-making is the freedom and the method to follow my sense of intellectual and emotional curiosity, and to engage people in conversations about this research.”

These artists seek out audiences for the same reason they make art—because they enjoy it. For example, Cummings “get(s) a lot out of the interactions I have with people through making or showing the work,” without having the expectation that viewers will want to acquire it. The creative rewards of art-making and the social rewards of exhibiting reinforce optimistic perspectives. They help artists maintain a healthy attitude and encourage speedier recoveries following setbacks. In turn, audiences are rewarded with art projects that are less likely to be encumbered by market demands and by implication, more likely to be experimental and diverse.

Tan also considers social transactions to be the primary purpose of art. As a social practice artist, he does not produce art objects to consign to galleries. Yet he sometimes produces objects on commission, which he sees as “a better, more ecologically conscious system” that uses materials in a purpose-driven manner and minimizes or eliminates the costs of storing and shipping art. For example, Tan’s S.O.S. Pledge (2010) is a marble plaque commissioned for Brooklyn’s PS971 by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York City School Construction Authority. Before the commission, the project existed as postcards, a webpage, and modest garden signs. These objects solicit interaction in an ad-hoc way; the monumental plaque in the school lobby could inspire students at PS971 for decades. The material works in tandem with the potential audience impact.

Pembleton happily relayed to me that “the only things [he] actually make as an artist are friends.” This is not a complaint, but an affirmation of the rewards in collaborative work. He explained, “Like a startup, Earthbound Moon focuses our passion for the work and belief in the concept into obsessive hours at our work. We pour our resources in to the work. Of course, it is not a suffering work, but an ecstatic one.”

Day Jobs: Funds and Sometimes Fuel

Like the “Real Musicians Have Day Jobs” bumper sticker, I think real artists have day jobs. A realistic portrayal of a contemporary artist has no use for bohemian fantasies about instant noodles, Dumpster diving, and unheated apartments—or its counterpart, that artists get by selling astronomically priced paintings. Those are the exceptions, not the rules. A 2010 report from Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC) states, “seven in 10 artists hold at least one job in addition to making art.”5 That 70 percent figure seemed low to me, since I know only a small handful of full-time artists, compared with hundreds of artists who subsidize their practices through teaching, freelance, or day jobs, including assisting full-time artists or installing art (as is my case). Inflating the numbers of full-time artists in LINC’s survey was the inclusion of architects and designers—commonly salaried occupations.

Since the artists I spoke with don’t make art to make money, they derive their income elsewhere. Among the group, only Tan has succeeded in making his living via “teaching, consultations, commissions, and speaking engagements” for the past year. Some of the others expressed the hope to sustain their practices in the long term, but for now, day jobs function as a source of funds and sometimes, fuel, such as a hedge for creative freedom. As Cummings puts it, “Part of why I like having a day job is that then I'm free to make the work I want to make without worrying if people are going to buy it or not.” As suggested earlier, intellectual exchange characterizes her relationship with her audience. Having an income stream independent of sales frees that relationship from the centrality of sales.

Additionally, these artists value engagement with the world, so working offers another intangible benefit. “A day job would not only provide much-needed income,” Tan wrote, “but also a glimpse into how the world works.” Curreri echoed that sentiment when she told me, “I like to think that my day jobs are all adding up to lived experience that informs my artwork.”

Cummings reiterates that having a day job is a worthwhile trade-off for now. “Supporting oneself through one's practice is seen as a marker of success, and having a day job is seen as a distraction—which it can be, if you aren’t careful,” she said. “I would like for my artwork to eventually become my day job, but I want to make sure that I am able to do it in a way that doesn't compromise what the artwork needs to be... For many of us—most of us—it's a long road to art practice as reliable gainful employment.”6

Heidi Hove. Welcome, 2010; solar power, metal, Plexiglas, light; 2 x 6 x 17 ft. Courtesy of Earthbound Moon. Photo: Heidi Hove/Earthbound Moon.

Portrait in Three Dimensions: Artists Play Many Roles

Via their day jobs or side projects, artists can also be administrators, critics, curators, designers, funders, publishers, teachers, and technicians. LINC reports that 42 to 50 percent of respondents work in arts-related fields. That doesn’t count artists with informal activities—such as artists’ collaboratives like Earthbound Moon, self-published magazines like Color&Color, or Tan’s S.O.S. Guilds project grant. Hence, the number of artists occupying positions across multiple strata of the art ecology is even higher than suggested.

This is useful to remember in light of common assumptions about artists’ powerlessness. For example, New York–based painter Michael Cloud mentioned that artist and theorist Peter Halley once told him, “Artists are courtiers.” Cloud explained his interpretation as “artists are not ‘the powerful,’ but are accouterments of ‘the powerful.’”7 In one sense, it is true that artists need dealers, curators, jurors, and critics to notice them in a very competitive field. However, Cummings, Curreri, Tan, and Earthbound Moon are examples of agents who traverse art-world strata in order to offer mutual aid, create new platforms, and shape the art world in which they would like to participate.

For example, Earthbound Moon’s principles as a commissioning agency are clearly artist-centered. In addition to modest materials, travel, and accommodations stipends, Pembleton explained, “Every artist is given a $250 commission; we initially wanted to offer $1000, but that is undoable at this point. Nonetheless, philosophically we are committed to a fair commission. It is a matter of being the change you want, if I may be simplistic.”

A similar sense of initiative drove the founding of Color&Color. Curreri said that she and Scollon developed the magazine “as an excuse to not wait around for opportunities to come to us.” They achieve this with modest means: “We initially used our tax refunds to print the first issue and have depended on print-on-demand for our current zero-budget status.”

There are ups and downs to trading places in the status-conscious art world. “[Preparator] work gives the perspective of an insider without the credibility of one,” Cummings observed. “But it's work I'm good at and generally enjoy. We work with our hands and our minds, doing something very few people have any real access to.”

I can relate. Last month, at a press preview in a major museum, I was unnerved by the theatrics of being wooed as a critic, because later that day I would work as an art installer elsewhere. While the high-strata critic or low-strata installer roles can garner esteem or indifference, neither guarantees one reception over the other. In both positions I’ve experienced respect, disdain, gratitude, and profound camaraderie. In my experience, operating from multiple positions increases the chances that rewards will outnumber the risks. It also discourages me from making assumptions about the stratum—or strata—of people in the art ecology.

Wily, Ambitious Artists

I was particularly interested in the initiative and ambition of these artists’ projects. For example, Cummings self-subsidizes major travel to create her work; she sent her responses from Thailand, where she was working on a film.

Earthbound Moon’s first project brought the Danish artist Heidi Hove to Bledsoe, Texas, to create a site-specific sculpture—a fantastically surreal illuminated “Welcome” sign. Pembleton explained that Earthbound Moon “intends to terraform the entire planet” and that he fancies the collaborative becoming a “multinational nonprofit corporation…. Seeing ourselves as a startup allows us to be fully engaged with the philosophies and practices of economics and governance, if we're successful. Our goal in 2010 was to establish that what we envisioned was possible—a proof-of-concept. That done, we are attempting a larger, grander year in 2011.” Of their ambitions, Pembleton said, “Attempting the possible is not terribly exciting. Attempting the impossible is exhilarating.”

When I asked him why the collaborative selected Texas for their first site, given that its members were in California or Chicago, he answered, “Because Alex Clausen owned an acre in Texas. We're brutally pragmatic, in some things.”

In a similar vein, Cummings acknowledged: “To some degree we choose our methods of engaging with the art worlds, and to some degree we work with systems larger than us that we don't have control over…. A healthy sense of practicality is useful.”

Ambition and pragmatism may seem contradictory, but psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written that complexity is the primary trait of creative individuals: “They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated…. A complex personality… involves the ability to move from one extreme to the other as the occasion requires.”8 To illustrate this concept, he identified ten apparently antithetical pairs of personality traits present in creative individuals: energetic and quiet, traditional and iconoclastic, objective and passionate, enjoyment and suffering, masculine and feminine, naïve and smart, playful and disciplined, imaginative and realistic, introverted and extroverted, and humble and proud.9 I was especially interested in the combination of humility and pride, as Csikszentmihalyi characterized it: “Another way of expressing this duality is ambition and selflessness, or competition and cooperation.”10

Portrait in Situ: No Artist Is an Island

That duality is evident within the impressive scope of these artists’ projects and within the sense of connectedness with other artists and larger audiences they generate.

Earthbound Moon’s aims include “giving artists chances to work in environments they might not normally get,” as Pembleton explained, and more broadly, “contributing to the global network of communication, and promoting an idea of shared identity and responsibility.” Likewise, Curreri said, “Our hope is that Color&Color connects artists and ideas that then stimulate new conversations and community.”

For Cummings, a strong community of peers is vital. “There are people I work with (as an artist or technician) that I would do anything for, whose artwork and/or work ethic I admire and respect.” She hopes “to work with these people more, as artists or technicians or teachers or producers, because it's fun, because it's satisfying, because it makes me work harder and to a higher standard, because we can make magic happen.”

In turn, her strategies for producing work are also community-oriented. She elaborated, “The first principle is beg, borrow, or steal. That is, don't buy something if you need it once or twice, and you know someone who has one, or you can lightly hitch a ride on something that was going to be wasted anyway. This puts one in a complicated social network I call the ‘favor economy.’ Unlike some other barter systems, it relies not on a one-to-one exchange of goods or services, but on vague, consensus-based goodwill and mutual aid.”

This give-and-take also manifests as giving back. Using his own funds, Tan recently offered a $500 project grant for an artist to realize a project about sustainability. He said, “In this economic situation, we as artists should band up and help our fellow artists. I’m a creative farmer, sowing seeds of creativity and investing in people. I believe art is a gift that should be kept on giving.”

Portrait for Today (If You Think It’s So Romantic, You Go Back to the Garret!)

Taken to Darwinian extremes, Romantic suffering begets poor logic: the higher the attrition rate among artists, the better the art that survives. I disagree—in this view, artists who will succeed will likely be more persistent, but dogged persistence alone does not result in compelling culture. As Csikszentmihalyi wrote, if we believe that good artists will succeed in spite of their conditions, and further, that creativity benefits from hardship, then we are de-incentivized to create or maintain the real opportunities that artists need to act in the domain.

He warns that “the fact that some individuals prevail even when opportunities are few does not imply that there could not be even more creative achievers if the opportunities were greater.”11

This is where creativity-as-silver-lining falls short. It’s possible that an artist might stumble upon a new creative direction after a preeminent Dumpster-diving session, but the benefits simply do not outweigh the costs of being unemployed and uninsured. As Cummings notes, “Toughness and virtuous poverty are really appealing, at first, as long as you are doing it by choice, but the romance wears off quickly.”

She’s not alone in her objection. Pembleton unambiguously wrote, “The notion that artists must suffer for their art is one of the foulest and most insidious myths of the art world. Disgusting.”

Curreri added, “I'm not sure I want to admit an exceptional status for artists. I want to be integrated into society, to play a role, and maybe even get some healthcare!” After all, she pointed out, “Avant-garde or radical thinkers exist in all professions and walks of life.” Tan agrees that being marginalized is undesirable: “It is crucial that artists are perceived as integral parts of society and are compensated accordingly.”

Tattfoo Tan. S.O.S. Guilds. — change4change, ongoing; mixed media; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist.

You Keep the Garret, We’ll Join the Plaza

Curreri’s solo exhibition at Romer Young last year addressed these very issues of agency. “In Occupy the Empty, I tried to engage this conversation,” she elucidated. “Power is empty. Inherently. It has to be empty to function. This call to Occupy! is the seizing of blips of opportunity, shifting zones of unregulated space that can be utilized. In democracy, we perform ourselves as social beings that take up space and make up a social body. Art's got a LOT of unregulated space, so theoretically we should be able to assert ourselves as much as we choose.” This proactive, strategically optimistic perspective can be a powerful dynamic to shape how artists engage the art world and society at large.

I present these artists as case studies—they show that it is possible to expand the ambitiousness of their projects and the realm of possible exchanges. But there is no formula. These artists are subject to common economic realities—they pragmatically negotiate them, and will most likely adapt their tactics as time goes on. They do not elect a marginalized position, nor are they oblivious to the market or the larger world. They occupy multiple strata in the art ecology, motivated by intrinsic rewards and a sense of agency and generosity. In enacting their projects, they provide models for imagining and implementing advantageous conditions, demonstrating the potential of strategic optimism.




1. Melanie Cox McCluskey, “Getting creative to survive: people in the arts feel the pinch, too, but they can draw on their talent to stay afloat,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 4, 2009.
2. Marcus Westbury, “Creative buds can bloom in a recession,” The Sydney Morning Herald, March 16, 2009.
3. Holland Cotter, “The Boom Is Over. Long Live the Art!The New York Times, February 12, 2009.
4. Various email messages to author, March 30–April 12, 2011
5. Levering Investment in Creativity, Artists and the Economic Recession Survey: A Summary of Findings—May 2010.
6. Until artists reach that benchmark, residencies offer a taste of life as a full-time artist—hence their immense popularity. In an informal survey, I found that residency programs received as many as 150 applications per artist-in-residence opening.
7. Email message to the author, April 6, 2011
8. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1996), 57.
9. For an illustration of the ten traits, see http://blog.sfmoma.org/2011/03/positive-sign-2/
10. Csikszentmihalyi, 69.
11. Csikszentmihalyi, 334.

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