How Artists Can Become Recession-Proof

Remaining distanced from the profit motive should help artists make it through the recession, says the painter.
  • Transcript


Question: How can artists make it through difficult economic times?


Ross Bleckner: When I first came to New York, it was a pretty lean time. Me and my friends, everybody who had any idea that they were going to make a living. I tell you, nobody, nobody.

I went to graduate school at California Institute of the Arts. I graduated NYU. I got my M.F.A. I didn’t get an M.F.A. to network and to find a gallery. I got an M.F.A. because I thought, and I knew, eventually, I’m going to have to go and teach, maybe.

There are all kinds of things you can do. You know, throughout the later ‘80s and also in the late ‘80s, it was kind of a slump, ‘90s. It was kind of a boom time. But I’ve been through the downtimes and you get through them.

How do you live in this present moment? As a young artist, I’m not going to say; listen, I teach at NYU Graduate and I see the level of anxiety.

But I also see a kind of calm, a kind of retrenching, a kind of re-understanding of who should really become an artist and why, that they say to me that they don’t expect anything. So what gets stripped away is the sense of entitlement that a lot of artists who have been doing very well, who got literally out of the gate. And the extremely well aren’t used to it. And they are going to have to learn how to deal. Maybe, maybe not, who knows? Everybody’s situations are different.

But I think if you’re a young artist, first of all, you’re not used to the money. So don’t have expectations that you’re going to get used to it, it opens up all these worlds for you. I mean, there’s community work, there’s service work, there’s non-profit work, there’s travel, there’s opening up spaces collectively. It’s basically very at [hock].

And I think what comes out of that becomes the work that solidifies itself, [has] the year or the next year or the third year and to however long this goes on, continues.

And it’s also true, the businesses, not just in the art world, we’re all in the same world. We just went through a period where it was a winner take all mentality. That wasn’t the Bush years. Now, I think, we’re entering a period of how do you get through the next few years and who survives [IB]. And I think it just might be the people, including the artists, who somehow will be able to get in touch of the reason why they originally became artists. And it wasn’t the fun, it wasn’t the money, it wasn’t the irony, it was really the necessity to, you know, express something that they wanted to put into the world.


Card: How can we leverage uncertainty?


Ross Bleckner: What I think that is so interesting and what will change things forever is the lack of certainty. The fact that, finally, you come to a point in our cultural life where we could all look at each over and say nobody knows.

When I hear Alan Greenspan sit in front of a congregational committee and say, “Well, that’s what I thought but nobody knew,” I think that’s pretty startling.

And I’m not just talking about economic thinkers and policy makers but that goes all the way down the line, all the way down the line, you know.

How do you create the new possibilities anywhere? You create them by mistake, by embracing this sense of uncertainty that’s going on now. Because that’s what really is. That’s, in a way, what really should’ve been, what was, was the delusion. And this really is the reality. Now, how deep it goes or how real it gets, obviously, it’s full with anxiety. Everybody feels it. Every artist feels it. You have to be really not in the world to feel it.

I mean, I know people who sold corporations, who cashed out of major corporations when the money was incredible, and have lost 30%, 40% of their money. Now, for me, 40% of their money will be a phenomenal sum. But it’s not about the reality, it’s about the psychology.

To them, its anxiety producing, because that’s what the mindset is.

So, in terms of the art world, will things change permanently? I think that the uncertainty factor will change things. But that might also change things for the better when it’s all kind of smoothes out.

Will a lot of people disappear? Yeah. Will a lot of business go down? Probably. Will a lot of artists have to rethink their lives and the way they’re living? Sure. It’s an editing process, you know. Does it affect the way that I am actually working day-to-day? No, not really or not really yet. But, who can say? I think everything affects me.

I read the papers; in my spare time, I’m a political junkie. I like politics, I like science. It’s the question. Like I was saying, it’s the investigation on a day-to-day level. It’s what’s working in my work, what’s not working. But the bigger issue is what’s working in the world and what’s not working. How the world works and how it doesn’t work. We’re certainly getting a big dose right now of how it doesn’t work.

There are no new kinds of parameters yet of how it does work or how it will work. It’s like a guessing game. You have people in policy, people in politics. And, now, they’re just like thinking on their feet.

I thank God that we just have a president [Barack Obama] who actually you feel confident, has the ability to think on his feet and work things out in a thoughtful way. I mean, the thought of having the alternative, to me, would’ve been mind-boggling.


Question: What gives you happiness in your work?


Ross Bleckner: I’m most happy when I’m not distracted, when I’m working, when I could go to my studio, when I, somehow, could live in that presence/present. And I could do it repetitively so that you kind of build up a steam. It’s like an engine, it’s like a percolator. And sometimes, it really becomes a kind of a concentration that’s so pure that I think is both playful and imaginative and opens up all kinds of new possibilities for me.


Recorded on: Feb 18, 2009.