New status for today's artist: up -- by a little
''Protect An Endangered Species! Hire An Artist Today!''
That was the boldly lettered message confronting me on the local supermarket bulletin board. It went on to proclaim the virtues of a group of young artists who had banded together to do odd jobs in the neighborhood, such as cleaning and painting apartments, moving furniture, walking dogs, shopping for shut-ins, and baby-sitting.
It ended with the declaration that anyone hiring these young artists would not only get good service for their money, but would also know that they had made a small but significant contribution to the future of American art.
Two things in particular struck me about that notice: It stressed that these were artists who were offering their services for hire, and there was the assumption that the public would hire them because they were artists, and thus worthy of preferential treatment.
This assumption is increasingly being proved correct. For the first time in as long as I can remember, the young artist (or even the older one struggling for creative or professional identity) is beginning to be seen as a potentially valuable cultural commodity by the public at large -- and not merely as a nuisance, an alien creature, or a failure at occupations that really matter.
Not that this perception of the artist is universal by any means. Nor that every community is as aware as others of the artists in their midst or of their contributions. (The bulletin board mentioned above happens to be in the very art-conscious Upper West Side of Manhattan -- hardly a typical American community!) Even so, it does represent a general improvement in how the as-yet-not-successful artist is perceived in this country today.
At the same time, I wonder if the artist is any better understood today than he was 25 or 50 years ago. Or if this greater acceptance hasn't resulted from much greater media coverage (leading to greater curiosity about art) - and from the stories circulating about the money a successful or even nearly successful artist can make. It is fairly common knowledge, after all, that there are a dozen or so recent American painters and sculptors who became millionaires through their art, and that there are at least a dozen more whose annual income runs into the mid-to-high six figures.
When we consider that, even taking inflation into account, no American painter or sculptor before 1960 came anywhere near making that much money from art (the possible exceptions being Sargent and Chase at the turn of the century) , we must come to the conclusion that a significant change has recently taken place in the American art world.
To a considerable extent, this is due to this country's remarkable dominance in world art from roughly 1950 to the present. Although there is evidence that this dominance has peaked and is now on the decline, some elements of American art during that period proved totally irresistible to a succession of foreign museums, collectors, and investors. They bought consistently, and they bought a great deal.
American collectors and investors followed suit, and by the late-1960s a painting by Arshile Gorky, Clyfford Still, Willem de Kooning, or Hans Hofmann was seen, in some quarters, much less as art than as a blue-chip investment.
What followed would be ludicrous if it weren't so sad. The prices for works of the fashionably famous contemporary painters and sculptors skyrocketed, to the point where even some mediocre examples now equal -- and in some instances exceed -- the prices for acknowledged masterpieces of the distant and recent past. And if that weren't insane enough, attempts are now being made to grade, in print, contemporary artists according to their investment potential, by how likely one or another is to jump dramatically in ''value'' from one year to the next.
I cannot think of anything more ridiculous and beside the point of art. If this goes on, we'll soon be visiting galleries with a handicap sheet in one hand and the latest ''art market'' quotations in the other -- and will buy art over the phone from an ''art broker'' much as we now buy stocks and bonds.
I can see it now: Art students will study Market Research as they learn how to draw and paint. Endless hours will be spent analyzing and charting particularly successful art sales. Degrees will be awarded for predictability studies, and for research into what colors and shapes are the most commercially successful.
Far-fetched? Not at all. In fact, in some ways we aren't so far away from that already. At least that's the impression I get from a goodly number of recent art school and university art department graduates who have made it to New York. No theological student ever pored over his Bible more devotedly than did these youngsters over all issues of all art magazines during their student days. And no rock-music or film fan ever tried to get closer to his hero than do these young artists once they hit New York.
As a result, their knowledge of who and what is ''in'' in the art world is frighteningly accurate - as is their assessment of their elders' careers; the advisability of joining a particular gallery, movement, or ''ism''; which influential artist, curator, or critic to try to befriend in order to further their careers; and, most important, how to put their own art more in line with what is considered most up-and-coming or most likely-to-succeed among the current styles.
This kind of calculation is not new. Something like it has taken place every time bright young talent has had to compete for limited position or prestige. What is new, however, is the way this private ambition is beginning to fuse with a public conception of art which sees it, at least partly, as an investment commodity.
I'm particularly concerned about the effect all this will have upon the thousands of art students throughout the country. Will they fall victim to the increasing cynicism of certain facets of the art world they read about in the art magazines. Or will they find the means and the support to survive and strike off on their own?
An informal poll I've taken among various galleries - and my own observation - suggest that youngsters coming to New York to show their work to dealers, or to start a career in art, are as uncritically in awe of the art world as it is as ever before. And they are just as willing to do whatever is deemed necessary to win the approval of those in positions of influence. (This, of course, does not apply to those artists for whom art is a strictly private and profoundly significant commitment.
But then, it's so much easier, after all, to give over uncritically to a powerful and popular force -- or to accept the status quo -- than to remain independent, to find and bring out what is unique and valuable within oneself. And it is particularly difficult for a young artist to discover his creative identity in a place where glamour, peer approval, success, and sensationalism all compete for his attention.
Even so, things have improved somewhat over the past few years. Whatever their public image may be - and whatever they have to do in the way of menial or non-art work to survive - our younger artists have a sense of purpose I didn't sense to that degree in those who came to New York at roughly the same age 20 and 25 years ago.
That might not seem like much, but considering all they will have to put up with, both creatively and competitively, over the next few years, it's quite a lot. It might also make a long-range difference in the shaping of future American art by helping it pull itself out of the swamp of opportunism and self-serving sensationalism it has stumbled into of late. But whatever happens, and whatever form the art of the near and distant future takes, the emerging American artist will have earned position of greater respect in his community than has been the case up to now.
That is, he will if he doesn't blow his chances by falling victim to the notion that art can be created strictly for commercial or ''investment'' purposes, or for reasons that are culturally and personally trivial. Or if he fails to understand that a culture and a society have the right to demand art from its artists, regardless of what the artists might prefer.