In Tough Times, Artists Find Inspiration, Invention

Michelle Blade

hide captionMichelle Blade stands in front of her work, "Painting as Vehicle: Sunset Reflection." The San Francisco-based artist says that the tighter art market allows her to focus on the meaning of her work.

Michelle Blade
Walker Evans photograph

hide captionArt and the Depression: In the 1930s, tough economic times inspired the social-realist photography of Walker Evans.

Walker Evans
Skull with Diamonds i i

hide captionArt from a bygone era? Damien Hirst's piece, "For the Love of God," represents the artistic excess of boom times.

Getty Images
Skull with Diamonds

Art from a bygone era? Damien Hirst's piece, "For the Love of God," represents the artistic excess of boom times.

Getty Images
Chuck Close i i

hide captionAmerican artist Chuck Close is happy that the days of diamond-encrusted art may be over.

Henning Kaiser/Getty Images
Chuck Close

American artist Chuck Close is happy that the days of diamond-encrusted art may be over.

Henning Kaiser/Getty Images

Over the past decade, the notion of the "starving" young artist became a bit of a misnomer, as artists right out of school were snapped up by galleries, sometimes selling their work for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But times are changing; after a decade of record-setting prices, the price of art at auction was down 35 percent in the first quarter of 2009, and art galleries are cutting back and shutting their doors.

Last year, 27-year-old painter Michelle Blade finished her MFA at California College of the Arts. She was looking forward to cashing in on the hot art market — until she discovered that the market wasn't as good as she expected.

"People are just not buying work anymore," Blade says.

But, Blade adds, being an artist is about more than just money. She says the realization that it was going to be harder to sell her paintings freed her up to think more about meaning. Her latest art project is a series of one-on-one sunset conversations documented with photographs.

"This isn't sellable," she admits. But, she says, "this project is opening up a huge community to me, and this is a new way of having an art practice."

Triple Base, Blade's gallery in San Francisco's Mission District, is a for-profit gallery that has a not-for-profit arm meant to support experimental work. For the past few years, gallery co-director Dina Pugh says, it was hard to get artists to use the nonprofit.

"There was a sense that art was becoming a little bit staid, a little bit safe," Pugh says. "I think we're all involved in art because we want to see it challenge the status quo. ... But I think it's hard when people are making a lot of money, [because] they just want to keep doing what works."

Pugh is now seeing a change. Artists in San Francisco have been experimenting with social practice art — a movement that questions virtually all of the conventional notions about art, from the need for galleries to the very definition of an artist. Pugh had one artist weave ponchos in the street in front of her gallery and gave them away to people in need. Another gathered unsold vegetables from farmers and cooked dinners for, well, starving artists.

"I feel a sense of optimism," Pugh says. "People are kind of excited that the options are more open to them now to experiment in a way that they didn't before. ... Maybe they would have been considered kind of hippie-dippy or Utopian."

This wouldn't be the first time that a major crisis has sparked a new art movement. The Dada movement was born out of the tragedy of World War I, says art historian Mary Anne Staniszewski, as a reaction to the ugliness of the war.

"They started to make works in a radically different way, and it is really the most influential break in terms of the 20th-century art movements," Staniszewski says. "They really started making performances, collages, happenings."

Staniszewski notes that the Depression sparked a social-realist movement that gave us photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, and that the upheaval of the 1960s brought more attention to the work of women and minorities. She adds that in times of crisis, institutions are sometimes more open to different kinds of art.

"Another really key point is that artists have been taking on all of the great and important questions of our time this whole period," Staniszewski says. "It's just that the very, very mainstream art world has not paid attention to it."

Instead, the focus has been on extravagance — as with Damien Hirst's piece, "For the Love of God," which featured a human skull made of platinum and decorated with more than 8,000 diamonds.

Painter Chuck Close hopes that era has come to an end: "It'll be a time of major purging of a certain kind of wretched excess, I think."

Close, who is in his 70s, has had a long and successful career painting photorealistic portraits. He says he worries about the struggles ahead for many of his less financially successful colleagues. But, he says, artists are a different breed from investment bankers.

"An artist will lose everything and still go right back into the studio and get to work," Close says. "I didn't notice anybody at Bear Stearns offering to go in and work for a year for free to try and keep their company going."

Even if artists are now going into the studio with less certainty, Blade says, maybe that's not such a bad thing for art.

"With the economy going in this huge downward spiral, we need a moment of reflection," she says. "I want to take the idea of the sun setting and kind of just look inward, because there is no West; we can't go to a new frontier. There is nowhere else for us to go. Everything has been established."

As for anyone who might be discouraged rather than inspired by these tough times, Close likes to remember the words of his mentor, painter Philip Guston, who advised that someone who could be talked out of being an artist shouldn't be one in the first place.

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