Book Review: The Work of Art: Value in Creative Careers

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Winter 2018. Vol. 30 Issue 1.

Review of The Work of Art: Value in Creative Careers (Stanford, 2017) by Alison Gerber

Whitney Johnson,
University of Chicago

Midway through The Work of Art: Value in Creative Careers, Alison Gerber (Uppsala University) delivers a clever metaphor for the looming threat that some artists might be forced to quit making art altogether. Like the people of the Netherlands who constantly fight the sea with expensive, inconvenient, and sometimes failing systems of dikes, sluices, and spillways, many artists engage in lifelong battles to maintain their lives and practices. Alongside detailed depictions of artists’ aesthetic and everyday activities, Gerber pulls apart four dominant accounts of value in artists’ talk about maintaining their careers. Some demonstrate instrumental rationality in a pecuniary account. Work must be made to sell and turn a profit. Yet, these accounts tended to be less a precise ledger of costs and returns and more a fungible negotiation within themselves regarding the appropriate balance between time, expenses, personal relationships, and the value of their works. Though one might assume that artists are reticent to talk about money, Gerber did not find that to be so. On the other hand, they were often hesitant to describe their art practices in terms of credentialing, a second account of value in which artists exhibit their own art as a means to paid work as teachers or in commercial production. The often-cited l’art pour l’art ethic was incompatible with art making as a means to other ends, yet respondents hesitantly admitted that they had to develop exhibition histories on their vitae in order to continue in other paying roles.

Beside these instrumental accounts, artists also thought of their lives in vocational terms: an unavoidable calling, irresistible muse, or ingrained penchant for risk-taking endeavors. Considering themselves unable to do anything else, artists reframed their skills in expanded terms, recontextualizing them as valuable MacGyvers in other professional fields. Although they couldn’t resist making art, they evaluated the artistic personality as part of a vital cultural tradition. Finally, some artists valued their practices in terms of the relational benefits they gained. Whether collaborating, encouraging, or engaging in activism, relationships with other artists were intrinsically valuable, and these orders of worth in artistic practice were found to be on the rise. Alongside a decline in object-oriented art careers, value in praxis was achieved with relation to other artists in local fields.

Were it not that these reports were recognizable in other careers, industries, and economic forms, one might wonder about the categorization of these four types of accounts. Indeed, Gerber admits that interviews were at times self-contradictory and inconsistent. Yet, she does not allow these faulty internal logics to suggest that the accounts were fragile, temporary, or ambiguous, as claimed by Boltanski and Thévenot’s 2006 On Justification: Economies of Worth (Princeton). Instead Gerber finds that these accounts were remarkably stable aspects of a multidimensional field of practice.

I was curious to read more about the features and ontology of this field. Though an endnote pointed the sociological reader in the direction of field theory, those informative details left me wanting more. For instance, despite their seeming logical compatibility, pecuniary and credentialing explanations almost never coexisted in a single interview, while others that seemed logically incompatible, such as the pecuniary and vocational accounts, came up in different moments of the same conversation. Confounding the logical expectations of a sociological reader, these artists demonstrated tension, contradiction, and complexity in these multiple dimensions of a single understanding of value.

Perhaps the most provocative chapter, “This Way Be Monsters,” took form as a methodological rumination on the nature of face-to-face interviewing and its explicative power in qualitative social science. Though artists might account for their lives more coherently in print documents and public address, these accounts were also reductive, adjusted to compose a legible narrative that other stakeholders might appreciate and value. Yet, Gerber’s long and loosely structured conversations in artists’ studios and homes opened up the semantic range of “value” to artists’ streams of consciousness, and their propensity to choose contextually appropriate accounts for action felt familiar to my own mind. At once explaining, legitimating, and questioning our own acts, such unscripted accounts of behavior reveal multivalent and sometimes contradictory logics. Why would an accountant invest her own money to choreograph a movement piece at a loss? Why would a sculptor downplay her more lucrative work as a screen printer? Why would a multidisciplinary artist be so worried about the fragmented identity that might come across in his career narrative?

The answers to many of these questions arrive in the final chapter, a case study of performance artist and musician Venus Demars. Despite her prolific and successful career, an IRS audit deemed her a “hobbyist,” demanding impossible back taxes and even more insulting re-identification. Though the entire debacle may have been due to transphobia on the part of the auditor, Demars struggled to live as an artist despite massive legal fees and out-of-pocket medical expenses that were barely offset by the pecuniary rewards for her work. Though this bureaucrat delegitimated her credentials and ultimately denied her vocation, it was the relational value of her art practice that found fans and supporters carrying her through her battle against the state. As I closed the book, I recalled Gerber’s metaphor of Dutch maritime infrastructure fighting the encroaching sea. Though American artists often described their hustling careers as atomized struggles for survival, the state intervenes to help or hinder in patterned ways. When Gerber points to a field model of the art world, I have to imagine it embedded in the broader constellation of political economy, where not only do constraints silence the voices of so many artists but scant support also constructs our understandings of valuable cultural practice.

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