Art, The Endless Frontier

(This is part of series looking back at posts I wrote a decade ago.)

Originally published on November 2, 2011 as Chuck Close eyes the money, Steve Jobs envisions art’s importance

Chuck Close wants his money. At least from works sold in California.

In 1977 California passed the first and only law in the United States that gives artists the right to receive a portion of the money from the re-sale of their work. Now Chuck Close and others are suing Sotheby’s, Christie’s and eBay. Chuck wants his five percent.

The New York Times has a profile of the situation here.

Is there a need for such a law? Do artists deserve a cut of the sale each time their work is sold?

My sympathies are with the artist, of course. The distribution graph of artist vs. income follows a nearly vertical “winner-take-all” curve. Chuck Close is a winner, high on the steep part of the curve. Most of us are wandering about on the long flat portion of the curve. Thus, you want to support such a law, and to support efforts to enforce such a law.

But it doesn’t really matter, at least not from an art policy sense. Chuck Close is already well compensated for his work. He produces about as much art as he possibly can. There’s no reason to think that earning more money will cause him to produce more work, or better work. In terms of his art production nothing hinges on the outcome of this case.

But what about all those struggling artists, those on the flat part of the winner-take-all curve? They’ll never see any money from the law either. It’s been on the books for over thirty years, after all.  Imagine the complexity of having to track all of your old artwork in order to know when you are owed your five percent cut. Imagine the cost of hiring lawyers to enforce your rights–with the law only allowing penalties for court  costs and lawyer fees you’re not going to get an attorney willing to do much on spec.

And then, of course, as a photographer, you’ll be horrified to learn that you aren’t covered by the law in the first place. It deals only with “fine art” work–paintings, sculpture and works on glass. If you are doing stained glass, you’re good. If you are making photographs, doing videos, printing etchings or woodblocks, drawing, dancing, making anything involving electricity, well, your position is somewhat more nebulous. Even Chuck won’t get a dime from the resale of his Daguerreotypes. [Updated image link.]

Like many laws in California this one is well-intentioned but impractical, unworkable, and ultimately a failure.

Artists now are left with only one hope, one Emerald Oz at the end of their dreams. Work hard, produce the best work that you can–and dance the artist dance for the hedge-fund managers who can pay the big bucks. Little boys don’t dream of being astronauts anymore, little girls don’t dream of being teachers. We want our stuff on the wall of houses in the Hamptons.

Once upon a time science was in the same situation. You needed a sponsor, a benefactor, or you needed to be rich yourself. This has all changed in the last century. Science and technology have raced ahead, distancing themselves from the arts with which they were once so intimately intertwined.

How did this happen?

It probably has a lot to do with the Bomb. Winning World War Two was a great victory for the United States and its Allies but it was also a great victory for organized, government-supported science. Vast sums were spent on science during the conflict and, as the war ended, visionary Vannevar Bush saw the need and the opportunity to keep it going, principles which he laid out in his 1945 report Science, The Endless Frontier. Five years later, the National Science Foundation was created. One of many science agencies in the United States, NSF’s current budget is around seven billion dollars.

That’s $7,000,000,000.00. That’s a lot of zeros even if you take out the decimal place zeros that I put in for effect.

Those are the kind of numbers that make the administrators of even the most endowed arts endowments blink. And blink twice. Did I mention that the National Institutes of Health gets over thirty billion, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration gets over five billion, and the Centers for Disease Control checks in at around six billion? The pitiful, ineffectual National Endowment for the Arts, with a budget of $154 million (with an “m”) is just 2.2% of the NSF budget. And just 1% of that 2.2%,  a paltry $1.5 million for the entire United States, was given out in grants to the visual arts last year.

That comparison tells you all you need to know about the importance that our country has placed upon visual art. And who can blame it? No one has been able to make a compelling case as to why art matters, as to why it is in the national interest to have a robust art base. The absence of such a case, such a driving rationale, is key to the lack of seriousness in the arts institutions we do have. Who can forget the National Endowment for the Arts and it suicidal support for Piss Christ and Mapplethorpe’s sadomasochistic, homosexual imagery [updated link]? That was way back in 1989 and it still the first thing people think of when you say “National Endowment for the Arts.” Was media-hound Mapplethorpe’s work really so important that it was worth creating such a debacle to defend it? Did arts administrators fail to take practical courses in college, the ones where you learn such time-honored advice such as “pick your battles”? Supporters of Mapplethorpe’s work in this controversy must surely have painful buyer’s remorse to this day.

So how do we support artists absent a compelling national interest? One answer, an intriguing one, was suggested by Steve Jobs in 2010 when he introduced the iPad 2. Steve Jobs on the stage, on the large screen behind him a street sign showing the names of two roads. One, “Technology.” The other, in what must have puzzled many observers but which no doubt thrilled college deans throughout the world, was named “Liberal Arts.” Jobs placed Apple’s goals directly at the intersection of the two.

Could companies come to realize that culture–the ability of a firm to appreciate beauty, to understand and embrace elegance, to internalize taste–is central to their competitive advantage? As rivals climb the quality curve and equalize the differential, as markets are increasingly open to all comers, might a sensitivity to art give a firm a defining edge? Could governments come to realize that U.S. firms need a supply of graduates with a knowledge of Calculus and Javascript, but that they also need those graduates to know Bernini, Dürer, and Caravaggio? Not to know about art to be “well-rounded” but to know about art in order to be competitive?

Jobs took the idea seriously, creating Pixar University to teach Pixar employees about culture, about art. To give Pixar that edge. He instilled those values at Apple as well.

This is the way forward–transforming art from a charity maintained to amuse academics and a plaything for the rich, to a central part of our nation’s drive to succeed, to lead.

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