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In Tough Times, Artists Find Inspiration, Invention

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In Tough Times, Artists Find Inspiration, Invention

Economy

In Tough Times, Artists Find Inspiration, Invention

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

By now you may have heard so many stories about how the lousy economy is hurting just about everyone, that you want to stick your fingers in your ears. Well, this story is about some benefits, thanks to economic slow times, for the art world.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL: It used to be, the phrase young artist often had the word starving attached. But over the last decade, artists right out of school were being snapped up by galleries and selling works, sometimes for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Last year, painter Michelle Blade finished her MFA at California College of the Arts, and she was looking forward to cashing in.

NORRIS: Now, people are just not buying work anymore. And I was like, oh, gosh, are these my real reasons for being an artist?

SYDELL: Blade decided they were not. And that's why she is sitting with me on a hillside in San Francisco. Blade's latest art project is a series of one-on-one sunset conversations documented with photographs.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLICK)

SYDELL: Later, we'll each write our impressions of the moment.

NORRIS: This isn't sellable. It's just an interaction with somebody, where you can gain knowledge from people and you are sharing in a community. And this project is opening up a huge community to me. And this is a new way of having an art practice.

SYDELL: Blade says she might eventually make a book of the photos and written impressions. She says the realization that it was going to be harder to sell her paintings freed her up to think more about meaning.

SYDELL: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF GALLERY)

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

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

SYDELL: Pugh is now seeing a change. Artists in San Francisco have been experimenting with social practice art. That's 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 give them away to people in need. Another gathered unsold vegetables from farmers and cooked dinners for, well, starving artists.

NORRIS: I feel a sense of optimism, and 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've been considered kind of hippie-dippy or utopian. And now it feels really important to explore those other options.

SYDELL: 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 Mary Anne Staniszewski, an art historian at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. Staniszewski says faced with the ugliness of the war, artists could no longer see the point in making beautiful paintings.

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

SYDELL: Staniszewski says later, the Depression sparked a social-realist movement that gave us such photographers as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. The upheaval of the 1960s brought more attention to the work of women and minorities. Staniszewski says in times of crisis, it isn't always that new work is made. Sometimes, institutions themselves open their eyes.

P: Artists have been taking on all of the great and important questions of our time this whole period. It's just that the very, very mainstream art world has not paid attention to it.

SYDELL: Instead, the focus has been on extravagance. Think Damien Hirst. His sculpture "For the Love of God" was a human skull made of platinum and decorated with over 8,000 diamonds. Painter Chuck Close hopes that now, that era has come to an end.

NORRIS: It'll be a time of major purging of a certain kind of wretched excess, I think.

SYDELL: Close is in his 70s, and has had a long and successful career painting photo-realistic portraits. He does worry about the struggles ahead for many of his less financially successful colleagues. And he, himself, has had his ups and downs. But he says artists are a different breed from investment bankers.

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

SYDELL: More artists will now be going into the studio with less certainty. But standing on a hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean, 27-year-old painter Michelle Blade says maybe that's not such a bad thing for art.

NORRIS: With the economy going in this huge downward spiral, we need a moment of reflection. Now, 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.

SYDELL: As for anyone who might be discouraged at this time rather than inspired, artist Chuck Close likes to remember the words of his mentor, painter Philip Guston. He used to offer very hard critiques to his students. Guston said, if you could talk someone out of being an artist, they shouldn't be one in the first place.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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