Art and Making in the American Capitalist Economy

Art and Making in the American Capitalist Economy

I went to an artists and makers conference here in Maine last week that had, in previous years, captured the essence of what it means to try to make your way in this country as a creative. To be fair, maybe this year's iteration did also, but there was only time for each attendee to do two presentations, so perhaps the ones I chose were not the most inspiring. In any case, I feel as though I left with more questions than the voluminous pages of notes I'd left with in earlier years of this conference, and the questions are somewhat existential.

Here are some: Is there truly room, or a significant support structure, in this late-stage capitalist economy for most creatives to make a living doing what they love? Has there ever been in the United States? With the exception of the mega-stars in music, television, and movies, what can an artist expect from this economy, from the way artists are regarded, from how they are paid, or more commonly, not paid? What is the best way for any individual artist to structure their creative and business lives?

Look, I got my Bachelors Degree in Business Administration with a concentration in marketing in 1988 at the University of Delaware. It was the 80s, a time when the TV character Alex P. Keaton, played by a then-apparently healthy Michael J. Fox, was both loved and loathed, depending on who was watching. But loved or loathed, Alex P. represented the yuppie movement, the rejection of 1960s/70s idealism in favor of the pursuit of wealth and status, seemingly at any ethical cost. The fictional Alex P. Keaton was even "born" the same year I was, 1965. 

My first job out of college was with a market research firm in Princeton, NJ, but I wasn't there even a year because the pay was eclipsed by an offer I received in the procurement department of RCA Astro Space Division which became General Electric which became Martin Marietta which became Lockheed Martin within a span of about five years. (See? I told you it was the 80s/early 90s.) We were building spacecraft/satellites for both commercial clients and government entities, including defense and surveillance satellites. This severely challenged of some of my core values, but this was the Reagan era and I'd been brought up to be "successful." Even then, my definition of success, at my core, was at odds with what the culture was peddling, but I was young and lacked confidence and I went with it.

A lot of people are surprised that this was the start of my post-college working life. They know me today as a very left-leaning fiber artist, teacher, and writer with an obsession around nature, the ocean, and the Maine schooner fleet. I'm sure it's difficult to picture me with my big 80s hair in my shoulder-padded suit, silk scarf, pantyhose (ewww), and black pumps clicking down the halls of a mega-corporate facility in New Jersey, but that was me in my twenties. Every week I'd have to meet with the engineers and program managers on a variety of projects to explain to them why their rad-hard, shake-and-baked ICs weren't coming in on time, or if they were (rare), exactly when we expected to have them through the receiving process and onto the manufacturing floor. I was on the phone with a variety of electronics manufacturers all day every day trying to ensure this process. It was a logistical nightmare that was soul sucking, especially in a hard-core good old boy environment that wasn't all that welcoming, or even safe for, young women. I have never felt more like the proverbial cog in the machine than when I was there.

All of this came rushing back to me at the artists and makers conference I attended last week. I had chosen as one of my workshops something that was supposed to be about bringing mindfulness into your business practice as an artist. I thought that sounded interesting and that perhaps there would be a new angle on the business side of making, but...there wasn't. We were presented with the same one-size-fits-all-commodity-type-product business planning worksheet, the kind you'll get at SCORE (nothing against SCORE) on your first visit. We got it in two flavors: one, the regular rectangular block chart and the other an arrangement of leaf graphics but with the same words on them. There was a singing bowl to let us know when our five minutes to work on the sheet were up. 

As artists and makers, we just don't fit. We just don't fit. Most of what we make cannot easily be "scaled." "Market share" in the traditional sense is not a thing for us. "Going viral" is as likely as winning the Powerball lottery and even if we did, we can't just bring in non-specific production help to meet some magically and serendipitously produced (and likely temporary) demand. If it's art, it may not be production type work; in fact, it's probably not production type work.

Don't get me wrong. One of the speakers at the conference was a production potter who arrived in Maine during the back to the land movement of the 1970s and set up his studio. It was a very different time but that takes nothing away from his success. I view production pottery, however, as closer to the production side of what I do under my Parris House Wool Works brand: duplicable patterns, kits, etc., albeit designed by me and each one carefully and skillfully handmade, one after the other. At one time I made over two hundred hooked production pillows for Beekman 1802 in New York. I hand hooked every one of those; it was fine craft, but it was also production work, and I would not call it art. The standard business planning model doesn't even apply to this level of making due to all of the variables that differ from straight up manufacturing, so how could it possibly apply to an artist making individual art pieces? 

We don't even fit when we're doing production fine craft to try to pay the bills or when we're writing and publishing practical how-tos vs creative fiction, poetry, memoir, or essays.

When I asked the presenter how an artist or maker could possibly even set reliable income goals based on the relatively concrete factors that exist in more traditional business settings but decidedly don't exist in our niche worlds, I didn't get much of an answer. Someone in the room, who does not do art or making at all, interestingly,, I mean, explained...that you just need to do newsletters, social media, and other general marketing activities that I already do in significant quantity, the assumption apparently being that if your revenue stream is a roller coaster vs a forty-five degree upward trending angle, you're not doing that stuff. I have a degree in that stuff. I have lots of experience doing it. I was featured on the Magnolia Network's Maine Cabin Masters and didn't get the level of sales "bump" I expected (but did make a ton of new friends and enjoyed the process thoroughly; no regrets).

The most inspiring part of the entire day for me was a poetry reading by Maine poet, Karin Spitfire. It was during this reading that I felt the humanity of the speaker, which in turn brought out the humanity in the rest of us. There are no charts or graphs or flow charts or marketing processes that apply to "selling" what Karin so generously gave that morning in sharing her deeply affecting words. I went online later to try to find her website. I did not find one. Nor did I find any social media for her nor was it even that easy to find her books. I was determined, though. I did find her email address on a writer's site that I thought to search because I also have a profile on it. I will email her at some point to ask if I might purchase her books. I regard her as highly successful in both her poetry and visual art and her lack of a pervasive online presence gave me food for thought: is this frenetic online marketing thing we all allegedly have to do really necessary for artists? I don't know the answer to that. 

This post is getting longer than I'd planned for and I have not even addressed things like artists having big corporations (and small competitors; it happens) steal their designs, or the continual struggle to price and sell art pieces at a level that will cover materials and time and accumulated expertise. I haven't spoken about why production makers get caught in the dilemma of, "Do I keep making this thing over and over again because people keep buying it or do I follow a creative yearning and make this other thing, not knowing if it will sell at all?" Related is, "What do I do about not having time to grow as an artist because I have to keep making this production thing over and over again to keep the lights on?"

There is just nothing about our economy at present that is artist-friendly, especially when you consider the lack of single payer health care and other social benefits that most of the rest of the first world enjoys. I was hoping, as I had experienced in the past, that the artists and makers conference would provide a safe haven and information wellspring for creatives, a space to get away from the standard approach to business that just isn't nimble or specific or niche-adaptable enough for our continually pivoting circumstances. That wasn't what I experienced.

Fortunately, I am involved with several online communities, not on traditional social media (contact me for more information on those), that do dive into these kinds of existential questions for artists and makers, that remind us of why we do what we do. The one piece of standard business planning advice I do think translates to our hyper-specific art and making enterprises is this: find your "why." I think for most of us, that "why" is about doing heart and soul work, even if we have to honorably support it with other income streams, even if we never achieve Alex P. Keaton, Reagan-era definitions of success. I wouldn't trade it. 



Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.