Modest Proposals


Industry, commercialism and the bourgeois are very much with us. The whole notion of trying to form a cult that transcends all this strikes me as a kind of religion-in-drag, you might say. I’m just bored with it, frankly.

—Robert Smithson1


As the Lawrence Wiener retrospective at the Whitney Museum fades to white under multiple coats of Kilz and latex paint, and as his various exuberant ephemera wend their way back to their rightful property owners; as the Tate Modern and the ICA London pass through momentary spells of whispered headlines and random queuing, streams of consciousness and face slapping; as the curators of the New Museum continue their vestigial assault on the Work of Art, not to mention the etiquette of proper spacing, and as visitors to the new building experience the worst case of buyer’s remorse since the re-opening of the Museum of Cotemporary Art, Chicago; as the bulk of the Metropolitan Museum’s Dutch paintings are returned to the staid organizing principles of artist’s name, date and genre rather than who bought the artwork from whom (on whose advice) and resold it to so and so, who then sold it to someone else who donated it to the Met; and as the scent of modesty—prosaic, charcoal-filtered, crystalline—emanates from the 2008 Whitney Biennial; now is as good a time as any to talk about money.

Not money in the massive, toxic sense that characterizes most mentions of it in the context of art, but money in the modest, expansive, nurturing sense that it allows artists to pursue their art in its variegated forms. Any discussion of the United States economy as a whole would be practically useless if it started from the assumption that General Electric and Sony and Microsoft were the only entities worth talking about, so one has to wonder how illuminating discussions of art and money can be when they are almost always limited to Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons. All three artists, like Microsoft, are what an economist would call mature companies in established markets, meaning that everything that might be dynamic about them, or about the effect that dynamism had on the market, has already happened. The bulk of their efforts now are dedicated to protecting what they’ve already established. As in art, in economics the perpetual discovery and implementation of new materials, new technologies, new business strategies and new historical circumstances—the sum effect of which Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter termed Creative Destruction2—has a ruthless, catalytic effect on all businesses regardless of their age and size. In Schumpeter’s characterization, young, nimble and eccentric enterprises present greater growth opportunities than do older, established firms because they are better positioned to adapt to the changes that their very existence brings forth. Key to Schumpeter’s annihilating progress, though, is the patient observation that the race does not always go to the biggest or most capitalized competitor; rather, exclusive businesses like corner grocers or custom snowboard manufacturers can thrive no matter their size or technical prowess, simply because their operations are too small and incremental to bear the brunt of Creative Destruction’s perennial force. Wrote Schumpeter: “A system—any system, economic or otherwise—that at every given moment is fully utilizing its possibilities to the best advantage may yet in the long run be inferior to a system that never does, because the latter’s failure to do so may be a condition of the level or speed of its long-term performance.”3 If Schumpeter’s “system, economic or otherwise” can be said to include contemporary art, then his idea of a triumphant, long-term, inefficient performance is exactly the kind of art I want to discuss.

In the process of doing so, however, I will need to dispel several anachronistic, elitist and conservative myths that are responsible for stunting the range of our appreciation for art and money: ONE, that production only happens in factories; TWO, that money is only interesting in large sums; and THREE, if production only happens in factories and money is only interesting in large sums, then any less than spectacular pursuit of art and money can only be a kind of death, or pornography, or both, clearly distasteful and beneath the nobler pursuit of beauty and thought.

Obviously we can attribute the first myth to Warhol. Now, I admire Andy Warhol, he was impressive in his day and all, but there is very little about Warhol’s oeuvre or his approach to making art that is of use to profit-minded artists now. The idea of art being made in a factory might have been a radical concept in the nineteen sixties, but we do well to remember that corporations at the time were already in the process of making Warhol-type factories obsolete. Factories mean overhead, and if the goal of art and money is to make their union as beautiful as possible, then minimizing overhead costs is essential to creating the mental space from which such delightful, unforeseen profits can spring. Take Agnes Martin. Although she died in 2004 at the age of 92, the artworks she left behind still dominate the market for imperfectly ruled pencil lines on unprimed canvas, even though her materials were inexpensive and her technique can be performed by anyone with a work surface and yardstick. No one does it. Martin so thoroughly wove her endeavor into her lifestyle and herself as to make it physically impossible to impede on the terrain of her invention. In fact, her paintings—stripes and grids of graphite on canvas whose interstices are sometimes filled in with thin washes of color—can be seen as poetic evocations of the absolute distinction that her work itself has come to represent. Despite her best efforts (or perhaps because of them), every line, space, and intersection that she delineated is different from every other, due to the weave of canvas, the pencil dragged across it, and the fact that Martin herself pulsed and breathed. The residual, sublime imperfection that resulted remains unmatched by anyone, in any field.

Agnes Martin, circa 2003


The lesson being that it’s much easier to be the best at something if there are as few other artists as possible also doing it. Where Warhol’s thousands of imitators continue to burn money and resources slavishly mocking a mainstream culture with which they can never compete, the real growth opportunities are in obscure enterprises where the hours are lax, competition is low and materials cheap. The beauty of Martin’s business model—as opposed to Warhol’s—is that it leaves so much more time in the day to read, drink coffee, go for walks or tend the blueberries with no significant loss of income.

I think all artists choose to work the way they do because they believe it presents their best chance at achieving the level of income that will allow their art to become an all-encompassing way of life. This does not mean getting rich so much as simply selling enough work so that the prospect of making new work becomes a self-fulfilling cycle of affirmation, a kind of fiduciary peace of mind, like being the only baker in Thorstein Veblen’s hometown.4 For such artists, money does not instill the want of more money but rather the desire to make new work, which, in time, generates more money. It is a simple distinction that usually bears itself out in the art it generates: artists who want to get rich want money for what its accumulation represents to others; artists who want peace of mind want money for what it makes possible for themselves. Make no mistake—all artists want money, even if they already have piles of it, because nothing is more affirming than the approval of a market, THE market, any market. An artist who claims otherwise either has not yet realized what they want to do; has not yet found the right market for their work (and university art departments, nonprofit institutions and government granting agencies are markets as well); or, most likely, has not yet convinced any market, commercial or otherwise, to expand the definition of what it buys and sells to include their work.

When you grow up working class in a remote place and have ambitions of being an artist—despite the fact that the nearest art museum is an hour away, the nearest contemporary art venue three hours, and you’ve never actually seen a work of art in person—knowing how to “be” an artist, let alone make a living as one, is a daunting enigma. As a college student, then, discovering artists like Wiener, as well as Michael Asher, Vija Celmins, Adrian Piper, Hamish Fulton and Laurie Anderson is a revelation because they demonstrate ways of being an artist other than making the sculptures that go in front of buildings, which you never could practically get your head around, could never visualize yourself doing and were never really interested in doing in the first place, but that was the job description as it presented itself in Kansas City, Missouri, so you thought about it, weighed it against farming or factory work—that is, until Big Science came out. That changed everything! Art for $7.99 plus tax. And not only that, the whole record sounded as if it had been conceived, written and produced in a single well-equipped studio apartment. That idea—of how and where and at what expense art could be produced—was just as meaningful as the record itself. Then as now, choosing six or seven exact words to be painted on the wall, or going for a walk, or playing the violin in public while standing on a block of ice until it melted, all sound like admirable occupations, lovely trades. Why not celebrate that in addition to their critical and conceptual accomplishments? In fact, why not celebrate that tradesman’s genius as a critical accomplishment in itself?

Laurie Anderson street performance, circa 1977


My guess is that because doing so would mean confronting art’s final taboo, class, a subject that no one, regardless of their background, wants to unpack, least of all artists, who never dare broach the subject out of fear that the one mortal truth to be known about their work—how much money they make from it—would annul whatever else they like to think their work is about. Likewise, art historians and curators, who as a group are generally more invested in separating art from the corruption of finance, would prefer not to discuss whether the modern progenitors of the openended, nonproductive, critical approach to art they prefer—Baudelaire, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp or Walter Benjamin—were able to do so because their industrious ancestors had already amassed enough of capital to guarantee their unencumbered ruminations. And so, unable to imagine an alternative, we acknowledge the vitality of money but only if it remains suppressed, like blood in the veins, only to be hinted at by the death of an ancestor or the occasional blush.

As with so many other things that this year’s presidential campaign is making painfully aware, the violent emergence and stealth occlusion of class in art was also nascent in 1968. Nowhere more so than in Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author,” the generation’s call to arms that, in the decades since, has become the conceptual root and complement of everything from process art and collaboration to appropriation theory and relational aesthetics. What is murky about the influence of Barthes’ essay, however—something that would require more exegesis than there is space for here—is how the cannon he rightfully aimed at the commanding officers of authority got swung around to be aimed at the infantry instead. In the course of that shift, artists—individual authors—who have worked on smaller scales, used consumable materials, attempted alternative distribution strategies or moved to marginal locales have, regardless of their success, repeatedly fallen prey to an insidious strain of art criticism that can only see their production in negative terms, that is, as a critique of the mainstream commodity makers and of money in general, the pursuit of it, and the capitulations to consumption and spectacle that invariably follow. From this point of view all portable, ephemeral or otherwise modest artworks, from Rashawn Griffin or Mitzi Pederson to Trisha Donnelly and Tino Sehgal are to be understood solely in relation to the big commodity makers and only as a reaction against them and the monied interests they represent, as de rigeur dematerialization. Only Lucy Lippard has recanted, and that thirty years ago, when she wrote that “Some of the blame for this situation must fall on those who, like myself, had exaggerated illusions about the ability of a ‘dematerialization of the art object’ to subvert the commodity status and political uses to which successful American art has been subjected since the late 1950s. It has become obvious over the past few years that temporary, cheap, invisible or reproducible art has made little difference in the way art and artists are economically and ideologically exploited, and that it can hardly be distinguished in that sense from Corten steel sculptures and twenty-foot canvases.”5

Many critical artists (myself included) would agree. They understand that their only viable option is to try to shape the kind of market they want to inhabit, and never deign to think they could exist outside it or above it. Lawrence Wiener, for one, has never critiqued the market by refusing to make commodities, he critiqued the market by making commodities in forms that the market did not yet know how to evaluate. That we now do know the value of Wiener’s work, both financially and intellectually, is testament of how much his participation in the market transformed the range of products it was willing to take seriously. Consequently, I understand artists’ motives quite differently from those usually prescribed to us, and although I do not speak for everyone I am confident I represent a large demographic when I say that two of the most specious motives ever attributed to artists are the critique of authorship and its verb, appropriation theory. Interesting concepts certainly, useful for papering over a lot of otherwise callow and mendacious art, but debilitating to any citizen of a liberal, capitalist democracy who is not a tenured professor or a member of a commune. From a non-tenured, freelance, shopkeeper’s point of view, critique of authorship and appropriation theory have always been code for “outsourcing” and “brand assimilation,” the latter being the concrete economic consequences of the former’s more lofty theoretical precepts. Unfortunately, from 1968 until your reading of this sentence it has been very, very hard to change the subject. Consider it changed.

Twenty-five years ago this winter, David Hammons appeared on St. Mark’s place with some snowballs for sale. However well-made they were, selling snowballs was not then, nor is it now, a lucrative enterprise. Nonetheless, Hammons has done just fine managing that and other sundry skills, the most profitable of which may be his ability to draw attention from gadabout curators through the refined art of ignoring them. (Another admirable trade!) As competitive as he is economical, Hammons refuses to commit to any endeavor unless he believes he can be the best at it, and, like Agnes Martin or Lawrence Wiener, his genius lies in his ability to invent desire for things no one else thought needed to exist.

For example, kicking the bucket. Hammons’ 1997 video Phat Free—a pun on both black culture’s love of largeness and white culture’s obsession with losing weight—is also a protracted play on the fact that no matter what you choose to do in life you are in some way killing yourself, so you might as well be good at it, enjoy it, and not give a damn what anyone else might think. When you first encounter the video, the visuals are blacked out and the audio plays alone. When the visuals do appear about half way through, what sounded like a clothes dryer tumbling a crescent wrench is in fact the sound of Hammons kicking a bucket down the street. It’s interesting. The sound of the metal bucket coming into contact with the uneven sidewalk is joyfully calamitous, and Hammons is quite adept at keeping the eccentrically shaped vessel on a fairly straight course. That passersby pay him no mind is only testament to his skill. After crossing the street and heading back in the other direction, the camera zooms in, and Hammons ups the ante. Having allowed the bucket to loll to a dead stop, he places his foot on the rim, presses down firmly, and then flips the vessel into the air, where it turns over once before he catches it on his toe, like a top hat of Fred Astaire’s. Then the screen go black, the audio comes back to life, and Hammons kicks the bucket all over again.

David Hammons, Phat Free (still), 2007


I like thinking that Hammons stumbled onto his bucket-kicking skill while on the way to doing something else—making art by more usual methods, perhaps—but smart people allow themselves to be inspired by those inbetween moments when they are not making art at all. In such a state of mind, the avoidance of convention and the necessity of living can become a kind of rock and a hard place, a pressure point capable of squeezing out some pretty inventive work. Recently the Sadlers Wells Theatre in London revived all of Jerome Bel’s dances including Pichet Klunchun and Myself (2005), an arch and entertaining parable in which the two choreographers act out an inquisitive kind of cultural anthropology. The space of the stage quite literally became a rock and hard place from which the two unearthed each other’s motivations.

It is a trademark of Bel’s thinking that a given thing—a pop song, the stage, an “exotic” person—can be taken so literally as to be crushed under the weight of its familiarity, and Bel makes as many diamonds as he does gravel with his exhilarating, pressure-packed approach. There is much about Pichet Klunchun and Myself that will raise your eyebrows. The entire scenario in fact: the choreography starts with the stage empty except for two ordinary metal chairs facing each other, placed about thirty feet apart. Klunchun, from Thailand, is in the left chair. He is close cropped, barefoot and dressed in loose, light clothes. His only props are two clear plastic bottles of water with the labels removed. Bel, from France, is in the right chair. He is scruffy and unkempt, dressed in shoes engineered well beyond any use he will have for them, baggy pants with many pockets of the same ilk, and a red pullover. His props are a white Macbook Pro, an iPod, a harddrive, and a power strip with all the sundry cables streaming offstage. East meets West? Bel’s character goes first, and proceeds to ask Klunchun’s character a few perfunctory, INS type questions before delving into the exactitude of classical Thai dance.

Pichet Klunchun and Jêrome Bel performing Pichet Klunchun and Myself (2005)


As the performance progresses many grand assumptions are framed but left unstated, for example that monarchy breeds virtuosity and democracy breeds amateurism. At one point, after Klunchun has demonstrated a fraction of what appears to be the infinite symbolic subtlety of Thai movement (Klunchun is absolutely mesmerizing, even in demonstration), he asks Bel to show off some of his own choreography. Bel proceeds to stand, walk to rear stage, and gape about for several minutes in silence, as if waiting for a bus. Stunned, Klunchun asks why anyone would pay to see such a thing. Bel shrugs. After making passing reference to The Society of the Spectacle and the panoply of available entertain he would like to avoid, Bel avers (and here I am paraphrasing) that “in the West, it is the job of a contemporary artist to represent their lived reality as accurately as possible. And since reality is something to which we have no direct access but in fact, at every moment, are living, spending money to see one of my productions is an investment in the future, in the perpetual substantiation of the unknown.” Soon after, at Klunchun’s wish for another example, Bel dies a slow, collapsing, very unswan-like death while lip-syncing Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.” It brings the house down.

Bel is not shy about the market he inhabits nor is he ashamed that he has to inhabit one at all, whether it be comprised of the French government, commissioning agencies, paying customers or some Venn Diagram of all three. Instead he seems content (well, as content as a French poststructuralist choreographer can be) that there are two or three hundred people on a given night who want to be part of his demographic. And if someone looking for Showgirls or even Paul Taylor wanders in off the street and accidently surrenders £12.00, then so be it. Maybe they’ll realize they got their money’s worth anyway and want to join Bel’s circle too, embodying a non-aggressive approach to market behavior that any artist could aspire to.



  1. Moira Roth, “An Interview with Robert Smithson,” Robert Smithson exh. cat., Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2004: 85.
  2. Joseph Schumpeter, “Chapter VII: The Process of Creative Destruction,” in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1947): 81–86.
  3. Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1947): 83.
  4. See “Part III: The Country Town,” in Veblen’s Absentee Ownership in Business Enterprise in Recent Times: The Case of America, first published in 1923. Reprinted in What Veblen Taught: Selections from the Writings of Thorstein Veblen, New York: The Viking Press, 1936: 394–422. In this modest book Veblen focuses on the peculiar exceptions to typically capitalist market competition that exist in the isolated conditions of a country town, the most prevalent being that monopolistic practices are tolerated by all members of the community because each of them provides a good or service that no one else does. Lack of competition causes prices to be higher, but it also forces a broader range of essential products to be made available. For example, if the town is not large enough to support two bakers, then an aspiring businessperson might decide to open a yoga studio instead.
  5. Lucy Lippard, Sol Lewitt exh. cat., New York: MoMA, 1978: 27.


For related content see these interviews with French curator François Piron and critic Elisabeth Wetterwald

Originally published in Artforum