Posted November 23, 2022 by Russ White
With the holiday shopping season officially underway, one artist reflects on gratitude, commerce, and the wrestling match between the two
A version of this essay was first written and self-published by the author in November, 2021.
A couple of years ago, in mid-November, my wife explained to a co-worker who lived overseas, on the other side of the globe, that she would be taking a few days off work to celebrate a national holiday. “Oh yeah,” he replied in all sincerity, “Black Friday, right?”
It’s too perfect. An annual tradition that is nominally focused on gratitude but also known for its door-busters. What a fitting evolution for a bona fide American holiday: a murky, paper-thin history lesson, a gluttonous feast, and a midnight trampling at the Walmart.
Of course Black Friday is not alone anymore, followed shortly by Small Business Saturday, a day for us “little guys” to get a piece of the action — the artists, the artisans, the makers, and the local retailers. It's the kickoff weekend for holiday market season, a good opportunity for a lot of us to place some work and earn some money before the long winter sets in. Sometimes, though, even as I’m tagging prints and adjusting pricepoints, there’s a purist deep inside of me dying another tiny death.
“Don’t be an entrepreneur.” That was the advice the artist Dread Scott gave to Pratt Institute’s graduating class of 2021. “Let me repeat that,” he said, “because it’s the opposite of the advice many are giving artists these days. Do not be an entrepreneur.”
For a self-employed artist, this was troubling to hear. Scott is known for powerful, unflinching works, primarily about structural and historical racism. His first major installation, What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?, led directly to a 1989 Supreme Court case that overturned laws against flag desecration. He is the real deal.
And he’s right: after a decade or more of the gatecrashing effects of Etsy, social media, and Small Business Saturday, the prevailing narrative is that artists are just that: small businesses. It’s the unglamorous and wildly less lucrative version of Jay Z’s famous couplet, “I’m not a businessman / I’m a business, man.” The real term of art, though, is “brand” — and it extends beyond art to nearly every corner of our consumer culture. It’s as democratizing as it is demoralizing, putting individual makers on the same level as multinational corporations. Or perhaps more accurately, demanding the same standards — and the same goals. Grow, expand, franchise. Gain followers, create content. Vomit a little in your mouth.
“Entrepreneur,” Scott continued, broadcasting over Zoom to the students graduating remotely, “is just a fancy word for capitalist. Or wannabe capitalist. Having profound concentrations of wealth — that society as a whole has created — concentrated in individual hands is a large part of the problem humanity faces in this era. But for artists there’s another problem: capitalists view everything as commodities, and that’s not what art is.”
I’m reminded of a moment during my early days in Chicago, right after college. We’re talking circa 2006, somewhere in the middle of a string of odd jobs — a clerk at an art supply store, a painter’s studio assistant, a glorified janitor at an art gallery in a mall — and I had been invited by a family friend to visit the ad firm she worked at, to get a sense of the industry, I suppose. It was a generous invitation at a big deal firm, in a fancy office about ten floors up, overlooking Michigan Avenue. I arrived painfully overdressed in a poorly fitted sportscoat, surely reeking of Camel Lights, and bumbled my way through several hours of shadowing this woman around. The day was utterly uneventful except for one moment that has stuck with me ever since.
At some point after lunch, the whole company gathered around a big conference table to watch a presentation by an ad rep visiting from out of town. He was slick and confident and buzzing: he had cracked the code. The next big step, the key to the future, he said, was to break down the walls between content and advertising. To blur the lines using storytelling and interactive technology, until we can’t tell the difference anymore, and everything can be commodified. Until everything is an advertisement. I looked around the room at everyone nodding in eager agreement, and sitting there in my sweaty jacket like a kid on church picture day, I wanted to scream.
“Let the products sell themselves,” goes a song by the punk band Minutemen. “Fuck advertising, commercial psychology / Psychological methods to sell should be destrooooyed!”
But being a guest, plus young and outnumbered, I kept my mouth shut. The meeting adjourned, I took the train home, and somehow I never found my way back into that industry. Yet here I am now, advertising myself through content on Instagram, and I wonder sometimes if it's really any different.
Dread Scott was there to let me off the hook, at least a bit. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t sell art or profit from [your] skills,” he told the students. “I’m an artist and I make my living as an artist, including by selling my art. But my motivation for making it is always about aesthetics and ideas.
“What I am saying,” he concluded, “is that you should remember why you got into art in the first place, and find a way to do that throughout your life.”
It’s a funny business, making pictures. We generate images and objects that nobody asked for, seeking to create not just an interest in our work but a demand for it, proportional to the supply. And I’ve done it now for years, sending likely thousands of items out into the world over the course of my life. Some of you reading this may even own one yourself, whether it’s a print, a drawing, a postcard, a sticker, a sculpture, or (lord have mercy on your eyeballs) a painting I made in college. All of it is out there, rotating in and out of people’s lives, in bedrooms and kitchens and offices and, I’m sure in some cases, landfills.
One time, at a small art fair in Chicago, a woman mentioned to her husband that she might buy one of my wooden assemblages, made out of old packing pallets. The man shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, we could always use more firewood.” Her eyes bugged out in shock, but I had to laugh. “As long as the check clears,” I told him. No dice. The poor woman, mortified, dragged him on to the next booth, and that piece lived to see another day. Come to think of it, I’m not sure where it is now…
Stranger than pondering the whereabouts of these artworks is stumbling upon them in person, finding them on the wall in a loved one’s home, or on the fridge at a friend’s apartment. It’s startling, even a little embarrassing, like catching your reflection in a mirror you didn’t know was there. But it’s also lovely — a rare, privileged opportunity to see something you made existing, tangibly, inside someone else’s life.
And that is something for which I am grateful. To the “small” makers out there, there can be some genuine overlap between gratitude and commerce. A thankfulness that people would welcome our work into their lives, that we can find connection through these pictures and objects, and that we can pay our bills and buy supplies to make more of these things. Because that’s the point: to fund the practice. Somewhere in the future, there are rooms full of the stuff I haven’t made yet.
To Scott’s point, selling is not the why. The why is an endless question — both conceptually, as we examine our creative output, and sardonically, as we look at our bank accounts. Why, oh why, did I decide to be an artist?
The short answer, for me, is to process the world through my eyes and my hands, to learn and grow in the making, and then, as the math teachers always requested, to show my work. We are all living lives in progress, and for artists, the objects we make are signposts along the way. For them to find a home out there in the world, to have a whole life on their own where they can be part of someone else's growth, well that’s even better. It’s dreadfully earnest, I know, but helpful to remember when one is out here flogging one's wares on every available platform, this week in particular.
There’s no getting around it: the pricetags are the ugliest part of any installation. But if the ethics are sound and if the work is sincere, there ain’t no shame in that game. My inner purist can relax and reflect on the artwork in his own life, the objects he has bought and enjoyed and grown up with. And I hope you will do the same this week, while you’re home for the holiday. Spend a moment with your art. That painting, that print, that piece of needlepoint you got from a good friend, whatever it is. You have likely already spent more time with these items than the artists themselves ever did. It is their work of art — perhaps mine — but it is also yours. Even as the ad execs try to blur the lines and cover their tracks, we do the same, but hopefully in the service of a transformation, not a mere transaction.
“The unit bonded together,” those Minutemen lyrics conclude. “Morals, ideals, awareness, progress / Let yourself be heard!”
(Payment plans accepted.) ◼︎
To find some good places to shop for locally-made art, goods, and gifts, check out the MPLSART Holiday Shopping Guide, including some great Black Friday and Small Business Saturday events this weekend like Schmidt Holiday Market, the Holiday Glass Market at FOCI, extended hours at Northrup King Building, and more.
To see (and shop) the author's work, visit russ-white.com or follow him on Instagram @russwhiteart.
Banner image: digital collage by Russ White.
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