Save that artist: the issue of solidarity

Save that artist: the issue of solidarity

Professional or vocational groups in organised form tend to get an allure of a heavy body, often distant if not alienated from their basis. Recently I heard of grass-root teams that in the current health crisis and the attached socioeconomical one, have set up self help mechanisms for either finding funds to finance artists in direct need or have created a movement from all artistic disciplines with the goal to push governments for financial support. In both those cases it was pointed out that these teams did not want to have direct contact with the politicians; it was on the unions and the associations to do that after all.

In 2020 an extreme amount of hours was spent in virtual meetings and in writing (yet not for this blog). Right after the first lockdown went into force, it was obvious that artists, among many other professionals, would go through hard times; even harder times than normal. As member of the board of the visual artists’ association in NL (BBK), I got involved in the efforts of directing letters to the political scene, explaining what visual arts are as a profession and what artists actually do. The aim was to save the visual artists, and in particular those in just not the correct position for receiving the state support.

A percentage of visual artists was covered by the temporary financial support called TOZO, that has been given to all freelancers from day one of the lockdown and is still running till 1st July 2021. A number of actions, including more official letters, online films and stunts, a demonstration and lobbying, were organised by the gathering of all the associations of artistic disciplines of the country working under the name Creative Coalition (Creatieve Coalitie). The BBK and the visual artists (some are member of other similar associations, a fragmentation making the biggest flaw of our field in this country) occupy anyway a marginal positon in what is called ‘the arts’ and the bigger frame of ‘the creative industries’. Stage artists, actors, dancers, musicians, etc. have a strong presence in the coalition and out there. They talk about labour agreements and paid rehearsals with the assertiveness of the performer. The area of entertainment includes this dealing with money always and for all its parties; it comes more naturally to claim money for concerts and shows. Moreover, entertainment is something understandable by everyone and liked and missed in any time. In that sense, the situation of stage artists is totally different than that of visual artists; and it is not a happy one.

Painters and sculptors, we found to some extent peace and time for reflection during the first total lockdown; that is, we, the ones that do not depend on scrappy jobs to make a living, and/or that at least have the freelance status. In the first letter, an Open Letter to the Parliament sent on 30 March, we set the tone for our views on the situation. It was a brief letter (no time for extensive thinking) but tried to include everyone we could cover as association. Since then, and through the repetition of basic points by the BBK and by others, basic goals have been achieved. Yet, the request for including everyone remains unresolved.

Basic goals achieved:

Starting from the latest positive outcome, the studio rent of the municipal studios in The Hague (one city as a start, hopefully) has been returned to the artists for the months May to December 2020. This, as a response of the municipality of The Hague to a well reasoned letter and further action by the artist Jan Naezer, BBK member, who in April sent the request/suggestion to the Hague Council. The BBK had published the letter in one of its newsletters of the period March to May (first lockdown) fully supporting the action. Recently a draft letter in open format was sent to all BBK members through a newsletter, to use in individual requests to the municipalities.

The immediate previous positive result was the acknowldgement of the TVL (initially called TOGS) also for visual artists. This means that the Chamber of Commerce registration code SBI-9003 has been included, or better said, is not more excluded from this regulation. This is needed for special cases of artists that have a kind of business practice with high monthly costs. The BBK had explicitly insisted on this also through a letter sent to the minister of culture which even got an answer from her. At that point, somewhere in the summer, the minister claimed that she had done what was possible to save the cultural field, visual artists included. Later there seemed to be more saving means available and so the TVL was granted to all professionals for the 4th quarter of 2020.

Round about the summer, the state support for flex-workers, people working via a work agency, and those working on a 0-hour contract was formulated; the employers got support through a regulation called NOW which covers the biggest part of the personel payments including those with precarious contracts. Next to that, the TOZO (for freelancers) was extended, first with added restrictions which were later dropped.

The first BBK letter of March 2020 in its translation from the Dutch original:

BBK, the Beroepsvereniging van Beeldende Kunstenaars, represents visual artists; many of our members fall under the Tozo – Extra support for Self-employed persons (zzp’ ers). Yet not all our members can apply for this support: artists who do not have a regular income from their artistic practice, or have a side job in the catering/ hospitality industry, or others who work on 0-hour-contracts in various sectors. That 80% of the visual artists anyway – even in normal situation – earn less than 20.000 euros gross income per year is already a problem. (see: Overhead costs like the studio rent and energy keep running. For artists from countries outside the EU the situation is that they cannot even apply for financial support because that would jeopardise their residence status in the Netherlands. Even after a normal rhythm has been established, the quarantine consequences will affect visual artists for a long time.
We request an emergency basic income for all the visual artists living in the Netherlands, from March till the end of 2020 and with re-evaluation of the situation in December 2020. This can be distributed via the visual artists’ organisations, like BBK, to the subscribed members.
Visual art raises critical thinking and at the same time offers balance to the individual and the society. Visual art contributes to the fulfilment of life, complete and good. The outcome of visual art is the background of your life.

P.S. My extended for emergency reasons term in the BBK board is ending on 12 February 2021, when the General Assembly will take place (online) and new members will be chosen. There is a vacancy advert for new members published and the hope to go further with new people and new ideas. Being a member of the board gives a chance to be actively involved in the art field on many levels; in decision making as well for that matter. Being a member of the BBK as visual artist gives you a chance to be part of a community that shares the same problems and privileges (intellectual mainly) as you do. It is also a community that challenges your sense of solidarity. The BBK was created and is governed by visual artists.

When avant-garde is not (necessarily) art

I always enjoy reading art reviews of British newspapers because they do not feel obliged to hold their words. The recent polemic against a new statue to be placed in Devon, conceived by Damien Hirst, a “hot subject” on the guardian’s website

made me think again on the long lost avant-garde that is however desperately claimed by many, curators mostly nowadays; for the artists work for them, let’s not forget.

I have seen only photographs of the statue in question and comments like being a monstrosity of fascistic taste, an appallingly allegoric figure, an object of bad aesthetics, etc. What I see in it is a 3d figure of a potential computer game, having roots in science fiction literature and a hint of ridicule for statuary of this kind. It can be that it is bad aesthetics but since when are we so concerned about aesthetics? I thought that this word was banned from the profession’s terminology, especially in high level art and in art schools even more.

The term “avant-garde” also popped up as a was but now is not. Avant-garde is dragging each time the limits of art to further directions; it is meant to stretch boundaries, to open horizons; freedom accompanied by a shock is part of its definition. Why then do we expect it to be within the rules of arts, even more of visual arts, if that is what we are talking about (though this as well is in question). Now, 20 years later, we question whether Hirst was avant-garde when he presented the shark in formaldehyde. Yes he was, it was a break with the expected. No he wasn’t, as this new “form”  complied with the cleanliness that  lifestyle demanded, therefore there was nothing freeing about it. Yes he was, as his work was describing the 90’s without saying anything. No he wasn’t…so, a biology project was presented as art in the beginning of the 90’s and was mostly praised by the critics; plus, it attracted an un-proportional (always is) financial interest. For that, we cannnot blame Hirst. It rather worked against him if he ever wanted to live and develop himself as an artist; never had the chance to even think about it. So, now that the society context has changed and we are bored of him, finally he is allowed to fail. Maybe his rotting fish is now again aligned to the environment, that of Europe. Just as it was then when people chose for glamour, whatever would not remind them of their rotting self if only on the surface. Maybe that avant-garde work of his was a truth by itself, in its sterility and in its decay.

I am not a Hirst fan. But hearing criticism about “form” from people who wiped out the “visual” from visual arts annoys me.To the accusations that this is not art I would say so what? Is the 8 (or 9 or 10) o’clock  news really news? How many things claim to be something that they are not? How many definitions have slided the last 20 years (at least) without us worrying a bit? Hirst is simply doing the job that someone gave him.

project Alien, 1999, “The end of the alien”

The road through

No, no, I am not going to allow myself to write a word about politics again in this blog, unless it concerns the arts and their servants.

Visual arts have taken anyhow the role of the public demonstrator of flaws –  much more than wonders – of humanity, very often leaving aside the object itself of the profession; the creation of visual artworks, I thought. I don’t know if it is a matter of absolute hospitality or a sign of weakness that the field of visual arts has embraced journalism (documentary, interview, etc.), scientific research, commentary of other art forms or other artworks, agriculture, biology, social sciences, information sciences (recently), plus the since long circulating and thus assimilated bits of theatre, dance and text.

The trend is still engaged art, at least for the A productions. Naturally, the fresh generation of artists went through its studies under this rule, so this is what it learned to understand and admire at least content wise. This is what will give them a place in the curators’ dreams.

A typical project of a serious Art Biennale would be:

The new road that the national or local authorities plan to open through a nature area: the background of the plan (reasons, technical details, past and present state of the area), the people involved (politicians, engineers, local people), the timeline (calendars, steps to follow), obstacles natural or artificial (legal measures for preventing the plan, side problems arising), the result till present. Since living in a globalised environment, we present three parallel cases: Bolivia, the Netherlands and Greece. We are working on real situations pointing out the different approaches to the problem, which is however one: the objection of the people living in the area (including those who represent the animals of the area). In one case the president is himself busy with the problem and conversating with his folk; in another there is a long discussion between parties that takes years just as a legal case does; in another case the politician orders a fire starter to do his job so then the road is open all by natural means and since there is no State-protector of the area there is no further problem. If we focus on the politicians we already have the evil mass to mould our structure. All the rest is the yeast to make the dough rise.

This project in numerous thematic variations can be seen at all major art showcases, including the Venice Art Biennale. More about the VAB to come soon.

The pictures are from three exhibits of the VAB.
relevant websites:

exhibit at the Central Asia pavilion (kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan). Title of the show: Lingua Franca. Experiences of Universal

Exhibit at the Cyprus pavilion. Title of the show: Temporal Taxonomy

Koen Vanmechelen: Born in Venice-Open University of Diversity. A contemporary manifestation on the borderline of art and science. A virtual research laboratory at the Palazzo Loredan Library