decisions against capitalism

Show Someone How you Feel About Something – 2007

Rachel Mason recently wrote a very compelling piece for the Huffington Post – Artist as Applicant. In it, she reviews various possible outcomes of applying for grants –  both objectively for her work, and subjectively for how she might feel about her work. It’s an interesting way of noting many of the questions and issues that come up in planning ambitious work. In my work, I’ve usually decided to plan projects in such a way that they don’t require a lot of funding.  I’ve preferred to be able to go ahead and make the work even if I don’t get selected for grant funding. Having made this decision, I generally don’t even do the step of bothering to apply for grants.

One aspect of this is that I haven’t expected to be paid for my time as an artist working on the projects. I’ve funded my work-hours as an artist through outside employment, and more recently through support from my full-time corporate-worker partner. An outcome of these decisions and circumstances is that I don’t have many grants on my artist resume. As I advance in my “art career”, this will likely be something of a liability. Perhaps I won’t look like a good funding candidate once I do decide to apply for grants for a more involved project. Thinking about this leaves me with the question – should I be planning more involved projects – or expecting to be paid for my time through funding – just for the sake of applying for grants? Or, more interestingly, am I keeping myself from going after bigger ideas and more ambitious outcomes, because of my decision to make work that is financially accessible to me?

It has often felt like a decision against capitalism to make work that doesn’t require a lot of financial backing. In particular, my public projects have been intentionally low-budget. With a few clipboards and dollar-store markers, I set out to engage the public! ( Show Someone How You Feel About Something). But then, am I neglecting the opportunity to value my own time monetarily? While I don’t believe that capitalism is the best way, it is the way we have now. My work and myself as a worker deserve to be valued according to the system we are in. This is a larger issue of course – not just about my choice of whether or not to apply for grants, but also the problem that art production is not valued as well as other types of production in our economy – or it is only valued at its market value, and not for its own sake as a human endeavor that enriches our collective society.

Of course, the answer can be both –  I can make “cheap” work on principle, and I can make “expensive” work and attempt to have it be valued for what it’s really worth. But do either of these solutions move us closer to what I really want? A world in which all creative work is supported and valued?

So what’s an artist to do? What have you done? How have you funded your work? Have you made decisions on principal, or out of necessity, about whether or not to apply for grants? How can we move forward to bring art-making out of the purely capitalist system, while we’re still living in it?


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  1. I found the Huff Post article pretty depressing – as it seemed to imply to me that there was just no way for an artist to feel completely happy or at peace. It suggests that we as artists are always looking for an outside locus of something – recognition, control, etc, over recognizing the value of living a life creatively, authentically.

    As someone who is in the “waiting period” for several applications out right now, I’m trying to remember the Zen Buddhist mantra: “Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water. After enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.”

    Can you define what you mean by making art cheaply vs. expensively?

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Michelle! I agree that Rachel Mason’s piece paints a somewhat bleak picture. I think part of the purpose of the piece is to point out the ways in which being successful as a “professional” artist in our society is to be at the mercy of outside arbiters of the value of one’s work. But I don’t think she describes all the possible outcomes of being an “artist as applicant” – maybe just the ones that help prove her point best. I personally tend to think that in some ways we can have it all – we can apply for support, and we can also continue to be self-motivated, and make work that fulfills us regardless of outside approval.
    As far as cheap vs expensive projects – I’m mainly referring to the cost of materials here, or the cost of getting the piece achieved materially. Of course regardless of what I am making or how I am making it, the real cost of my time is the same, even if I’m not always attempting to be directly compensated for that time.

  3. Your post left me a little confused, because you seem to equate “expensive (materials)”=good art. I don’t think that’s what you think, and if you did, it’s not something I’d necessarily agree with (although I’ve never needed breast milk for a project, maybe if I had to buy it I’d feel differently?). Maybe the thinking needs to phrased, “quality art” “quality production” vs. lack of quality. And then you have define what quality is.

    One thing I’d point out from your post regarding grants is that you don’t address is that applying for grants does not necessarily mean you will get them. One thing I miss about Philly is how accessible and numerous the arts funding is compared to California. I miss those little grants like the 5-County/Project Stream that artists could actually get – they don’t really exist in CA, despite that we have a larger population of artists and a higher cost of living. For almost all funding, artists must partner with nonprofits to act as their fiscal sponsor – there are only two in the region that visual artists can apply for as individuals. Not that working with a nonprofit is bad, just that you have to surrender some creative control to their agenda – there is a almost complete lack of funding for unrestricted use or fully artist-directed projects.

    Which means when I’ve been applying for funding I’ve had to apply to the big dogs – nationwide competitions. Were I to get one, sure, accolades would rain. However, the competition is fierce and rejection letters have poured in. Some of the big grants, such as the Guggenheim, have an average of 15 years of applying before an artist finally receives a grant.

    I think to break outside of a capitalist model, artist have to redefine what success is. Is it financial stability? Is it making a living from you art? Is is museum shows? All of the above – and do a breakdown of which matters most, and long and short term goals. Right now, success means to me is regularly exhibiting my work with a midrange goal of financial stability in the next year. What do others think?

  4. oops! I definitely didn’t express myself clearly enough. I certainly don’t mean to equate cost with quality! I’m referring mainly to the actual means of production. I tend to design my projects with low overhead- for example, in Show Someone How You Feel About Something, I needed only clipboards, markers, paper, envelopes, and postage. However, I could have decided that the project required a printed, hardcover, full-color book of all the drawings made by participants. That would have required much more overhead to achieve my goal. As it was, I decided to shell out the cost of mailing each drawing myself, and asked for participants to consider making a voluntary donation towards postage.
    And of course, you’re right, applying doesn’t equal receiving! The issue of adequate funding for artists at all levels is a whole other bag of worms…
    I am most interested in the questions you raise about how we define success. This is something I grapple with frequently. I’ll be writing another post soon with thoughts and questions about defining success for activist art projects. I actually think that I’d like to be able to define my artistic success outside of livelihood and “art-world” acknowledgement ( ie museum shows). I’ve been working for a while to create projects in which the definition of success might be more directly related to some real-world achievement – encouraging people to listen to each other, for example. I know you’ve done some activist art projects as well. Do you think of those differently from your gallery-based work?

  5. I think it’s hugely important for artists to understand what their time is worth, and to value it (literally and figuratively) enough to ask for adequate hourly compensation. It’s one of the things I teach in my financial literacy for artists workshops and course. Once you know what your time is worth you can write it into a grant or negotiate for fair pay from an employer, or at least make an informed decision about when to work for free because the project is so important to you. When an artist negotiates for fair pay it raises all ships. It is a political move. Otherwise, we are stuck with the status quo, which is a race to the bottom. (Who will work for $10/hr? I, choose me! OK, who will work for $5/hr? Me! choose me! etc.). Thanks for raising this important issue.

  6. Hi there- Rachel Mason here. I just wanted to say that I discovered this fascinating post and subsequent thread by accident today and I’m quite happy that it led to a discussion like this. I literally wrote my entire story for HuffPo that day while sitting on the subway on the way home and realizing that I hadn’t gotten a grant I spent months working on while a dear and VERY close friend had- and I was simply reconciling my feelings of both anger and happiness for the friend- whose work I truly love- and feeling upset indeed at the “system” that we are all reconciling ourselves to at various times if we make the decision to apply for a grant. One thing I should follow up with is that Every single grant application I have ever applied and been rejected for- I have found a way to carry out- and stuck to it- almost as a way of my own personal resolve- to allow the grant-writing process to not be a waste of my time- but instead something that I use – no matter what- whether I get the grant or not- to help me figure out the things I will need to figure out regardless ! The budget, my goals, the practical stuff ! AND I want to add- I definitely definitely think that many many many many of the works that created history are those which cost nothing. Look at Duchamp. This is why I brought him up in Artist-as-Applicant. Just remind yourself of that over and over and over again. History is made by those who are rejected!

  7. Hi Rachel,
    I’m so glad you found this thread, and thanks for your thoughtful response!
    It’s always helpful to hear the back-story from other artists about how they make their decisions on what to produce and how to produce it. It’s great to hear that you’ve been able to find alternate methods of funding for projects that have been rejected from grant applications. I agree that applying for anything is never a waste of time – even if the project doesn’t get realized – the process of writing out one’s thoughts and ideas can move us forward in directions we hadn’t yet considered.
    It’s also interesting to me that your original essay came out of the experience of facing the reality that we live in a system of seemingly limited resources for which artists feel they are required to compete. I feel that it’s important that artists keep fighting to remain allies to each other even when we’re faced with these situations in which we feel we are in direct competition with each other. I’d be curious to hear how you’ve decided to think about this sort of thing in regards to your relationship with your friend who did receive the grant.

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