Elizabeth Bishop and Britney Harsh
Abstract: This dialogue addresses valuation and dissemination for two contemporary creative cultural groups: new writers in the sphere of academic publishing and new artists in the established “art world.” Over the course of our rhizomatic dialogue, we discuss design concepts and consider the function of authorial credibility in the creative economies of the present. We position creative production against popular market trends reified by mass audiences, and offer alternative schemas for consuming and disseminating art and writing in free digital spaces online.
EB: So let’s talk a little about observations in our fields.
BH: What do I think about the current state of the art world right now?
BH: So right now it seems like there is this huge gap in between the kind of art that is being seen and being sold. Unfortunately for artists, it’s about producing work that people are compelled to also have. So it is about selling, definitely. But it’s extremely high cost, like thousands of dollars, for either old stuff or extreme high prices for trending and popular artists. Other than that, there is a large movement toward street art and graffiti as fine art. Branding yourself is really important right now. And being prolific.
Branding / Authority
EB: It’s weird that being a street artist is about branding yourself. That seems like it is opposite of what street art was once about, you know? But it’s about making people notice you.
BH: And I think that definitely goes with Banksy and Basquiat – they had signatures. People have taken those signatures and bastardized them into brands, even Walmart is trying to capitalize on the “brand,” which is a shame… Obviously social media is really important right now in “the emerging art world.” I read an article about it today, about how you have to constantly be promoting yourself and showing others who you are. But fundamentally, for a lot of artists, that’s not their personality. So, only the strong survive, kinda, right now.
EB: Right, but what does it look like to be strong? And the question of value I think is always central to this conversation. You said thousands of dollars and it’s true, but based on what? Trends? What’s trending? #ThousandsOfDollars? What makes somebody’s work worth ten thousand dollars and a near identical one just worth cents? Or are they the same thing, but it’s just cultural capital?
Because I think that’s true in the academy to an extent. A friend said recently, “Oh you academics, you have to publish, that’s what it’s all about…” And she wasn’t slamming me personally, but the wider academy. It’s a strange notion. Being prolific and writing about your ideas is – it’s a really smart thing. But having to do it in certain ways, like really specific forms of research writing or whatever else – that sometimes completely ignores subjectivity or who you actually are as a writer acknowledging a reader. It’s like you’re not allowed to be playful unless you get known in those spaces, get established, which is the alternative of the alternative. It’s the idea of street art. Like Qualitative Inquiry, journals that post-structuralist theorists might write in, that are still educational, and that are still social scientific, they have their own bosses. Norm Denzin, Patti Lather. They’ve done stuff that is playful because they’ve become a boss of playfulness. So it’s as if they’ve had their signature in that exact paradox: being in the academy, writing against the academy – which connects to talking about markets, the art market and publishing market. And the anecdote you shared…
BH: So this woman, Doris Lessing who was a successful author with a specific publishing house, submitted a manuscript under a newcomer’s name and it was rejected. Without even a second thought. And it was something she was proud of, you know. It wasn’t just like a random thing she didn’t care about. It was good writing and she ended up revealing herself as the author to the publisher.
EB: Do you know why she tried that?
BH: I think to show how difficult it is as someone who is unknown and unpublished to even get a chance right now. JK Rowling played the same social experiment and was also rejected. And that’s – there is obviously a high volume of new authors. That is true. And I’m sure they have to weed so many people out. But at the same time, there is this repetition of mediocrity. Repeated authors. Beating them to death.
EB: Like the author signs on the subways about “the-crime-romance-sex-spy-novel that you don’t want to miss” from a fake author. It’s commodification.
BH: Yeah, like the ghost writing— there are mixed feelings. I think that is hilarious and also very devastating. The same can be said about the art world as well. A lot of companies – corporations – are giving new artists opportunities. It’s kind of terrible because that’s where it’s at right now. Artists are basically forced to have a corporate sponsor in order to survive, to be seen. This idea of being a #SELLOUT is actually being embraced my some emerging artists, because they feel it’s inevitable…The art world is not with new artists. It is with something they can trust and someone that they’ve known for a while. Art that will guarantee profit.
EB:I know there are a lot of people who write about and talk about “the art world.” When I was younger hanging out in the School of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon, people were always talking about raging against and contextualizing themselves within it – what’s the art world? Who’s not in it? Where is it located?And, it’s worrisome that the “worlds” are clearly established. There is the successful “market” world and then there is another one. But when you say “the art world,” we both know you meant the one you’re going to sell in. Whereas, there is an art world that is the world you don’t sell in. But it’s not respected or valued. Like, popular discourse doesn’t value it. Sees it as destructive because it’s creative.
BH: Yes, because it is new constantly, which is why it’s hard to get a hold of. The nature of contemporary art is that, in many ways, it’s fleeting.
EB:Which I think speaks to the need for open source, or why one would want to do pop-up art shows in Bushwick or why I want to create something like FREE WeRDS, you know.
BH: You should talk more about FREE WeRDS.
EB: Recently I was hit up by one of the Associate Editors of FREE WeRDS, and we were gauging interest. And it is going to be cool to figure out how we “tap markets,” so to speak, of really talented young people. Like what kind of interest is there? And not a whole lot yet. And I think partially it’s because smart people who are young, they don’t even – the idea of publishing has become so archaic that there is no sense of dynamism to it. There is the occasional person making a ‘zine, you know. But just think about open source. Like big institutions, like the American Educational Research Association, they have an Open Access Journal. And Wikileaks is in popular consciousness. And it makes you ask about who should be able to access information, says who, under what parameters? FREE WeRDS is about establishing a journal that is devoted to expanding young people reading each other, because that’s what is cool about journals. You can get down, if you are apprenticed into it. It’s about starting to see which types of journals might correspond to what I’m interested in, or who is making art or writing in the way that maybe I make art or want to write. Then you learn how to shape an argument or whatever your craft may be. And I think that’s a valuable resource, to see who else is talking about some shit. I know young people who are doing some really interesting work, who should speak to others, who don’t know each other that well but are both talking about the same topics and they’ve also explored their ideas in writing. And in undergrad, correct me if I’m wrong, it’s a gross generalization but nobody thinks that any of their writing is valuable to anybody except themselves, their professor, and their computer.
BH: Very true. Yeah, the computer is like, “This is mad important” (laughing).
EB: So, and then being able to disseminate those ideas. To share them. It’s like the concept of Anti-Art, which is why I asked you to do this dialogue with me.
BH: Yeah, so basically, Anti-Art was in response to the highfalutin trajectory – or current state and trajectory of the art scene – “the art world” as we have been referring to it. It’s so untouchable right now and it seems that way for a lot of people. As an up-and-coming artist, I have a very small view, but being in New York and meeting lots of other artists I see that they just need a fucking chance for anyone to say “I’m going to put that kid’s random print on my fridge” rather than another Warhol, you know? Just moving forward. It’s not happening enough. People are getting mad. So I wanted to do Anti-Art as this open gallery that didn’t have any requirements other than you want to put your misfit art there. Art that maybe didn’t get into something or was rejected from something or that you thought was a fucking weirdo painting that you made, an expression that you don’t think anyone else will respond to. I really wanted that kind of community to embrace itself.
EB: I like the idea of an online gallery too. A lot. It’s the same concept as a free online journal in a lot of ways. You can show up, you can walk in, at any time, and no one is going to be highfalutin with you. And it’s very different than, say the Deviant Art website, which is fundamentally about your profile. Right? Like, you’ve been on there, right?
EB: And I’ve been on there, back in the day. It and other such spaces are about you making a profile and maybe some people see some of your work listed under your online identity. But it’s not about – let me show up here to look at an artist’s work solo for a minute and experience it. Online art spaces are frequently like cable news, with information all over and you don’t just get to sit with the work. That is something I like about Anti-Art, too. It is about people making art. They can’t sell it, they don’t sell it, people don’t see it or get it or respect it. It’s in an art world where – how do you define value in that space?
BH: Right now, digitally, value equates quantity of “likes” or “views” and contacts made. There is a new generation of Instagram galleries: daxgallery, ohwowgallery, art21org, yaylamag, knowngallery that support artists being viewed digitally (and some also provide a physical space for their audience.) Value— it’s so subjective, which is why just being “viewed” is the most important goal of a visual artist. To someone who wants to write, being read is the most important thing. To an academic, being re-taught…
EB: Being referenced. It’s so much ego.
BH: Yeah, that’s totally true. To be referenced (laughing)…
EB: I was thinking that on the train home tonight. There are places in the articles and proposals that I write where I should cite someone making this argument. And I thought, have I published anything I can reference? (laughs) Because then I’ll just cite myself. That’s what people do. Even awesome people reference themselves and their own writing. But it’s strange to be so self-referential. I mean, you have already made an argument so instead of having to make that argument many times over, you cite the places you have made it before. It kind of makes sense, but it’s worrisome that if your CV is not long you are not valued. It is worrisome. Maybe some people are wonderful teachers and need more time to write. You shouldn’t have to be a machine to be a writer, you know. And you shouldn’t have to be a businessperson to be an artist. But automated industry is where we are at.
BH: It’s so crazy because that is exactly what is happening right now. it’s not a craft anymore, it’s like a brand –
EB: Like a machine.
BH: Like you have to say, “I’m a creative person and I also have a business side.” And can have two kids at home. And I walk my own dog on the weekend (laughs).
EB: The “well-adjusted entrepreneur.” You have to be, or else you’re not making it in the future. It doesn’t make sense. Or, it makes sense – it has it’s own logic. But it’s too competitive and rat-racy, which is not a space where individuals tend to appreciate someone else’s artwork or writing. Instead, they are asking, “How many views did you get?” And quantifying their self-worth compared to those in the creative worlds around them. But meanwhile, it’s like – Hey! I made art. Did you look at it at all? Or was it all about the count? And what you said before, that for an artist it’s about being viewed, and for a writer it’s about being read, but then I was thinking about counting and value. Who is the reader? Who is the viewer? For example, we go to MoMA on Sundays sometimes. Think of all the viewers. Are all of their aesthetic perspectives the same that if you get a thousand views it’s the shit, and someone who gets one view – that it makes their work less valuable? I just think it’s interesting that value is being traced to how much you are read and do you get read or do you get seen? But the other end of the question is who is doing the viewing and the reading? Audience.
Value / Audience
BH: I definitely think it’s a process with the audience. Obviously, you are going to have the experience of gaining an audience first – the more that you are viewed or read is good.
EB: It’s the artistic Google analytics.
BH: And a bunch of people seeing you, and a percentage who are going to love you.
EB: And are going to proliferate. They’re going to share your work.
BH: Like how I am of the Pablo Neruda cult. And I tell people about him. I think I would be someone he would want to be a reader. So as an artist, you hope that it will strike someone else.
EB: Totally. So it’s interesting that deferral – judgment is not passed on the audience, but judgment is harshly passed on the creator by consumerism.
BH: Definitely true. It’s always the artist or author’s fault that the work isn’t selling.
EB: Because the thing about being an audience, there is no pressure to know about art really, unless you are part of that world. And there is definitely no pressure to read. Or to think deeply about anything. So it’s problematic that consumerism weighs so heavily in the art world. I know with books – I’m trying to publish some books. And you have to talk about competition. Where is your book situated amongst other books in the market? And I could pontificate all day but really – maybe you should just write the book. And of course you should anyway.
EB: And that is the point here with the choice to talk around open source.
BH: It’s really important. And I hope that is where we are going with this creative boom. Our generation is composed of entrepreneurs of arts and crafts trying to “get theirs.”
EB: So it’s a question of how selfish are you?
BH: Yeah, I guess so (laughs). But it would be great if we could all try to work in this open-source type of world. It seems that, at least digitally, multiple platforms, Instagram and Twitter, are helping to share new artists.
EB: To be able to share though, that’s the key. That’s the difference right there. If you judge, if you are supposed to be of that creative entrepreneurial class and you are saying “Better luck next time” in competition with someone else who is a creative entrepreneur, then you are doing so much damage. The creativity of what you are doing is outweighed by that sense of mania about your own value, of being read more and being viewed more. So what I hope happens is more community. You know, to almost offer an alternative economic of art or of writing. To say, you can go in this direction if you want. We can barter. Read my work. Here’s a print.
You know? Dissemination for the sake of itself.
About the Authors
Elizabeth Bishop holds a Ph.D. in Language, Literacy and Culture from the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research explores the intersections of adolescent literacy, civic engagement, urban education, cultural theory, and youth organizing. She runs the Drop Knowledge Project, an online platform for research on literacy and organizing. Bishop works on staff at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Britney Harsh is a Brooklyn-based artist focused on experimental design through mixed media. She has shown work at galleries in New York City and Los Angeles. She is a founding member of Anti-Art Digital Galleries, DART Collective, and Phantom Parent Press. She has a background in fine arts, literature, library science, and education.
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About the Authors
Elizabeth Bishop holds a Ph.D. in Language, Literacy and Culture from the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research explores the intersections of adolescent literacy, civic engagement, urban education, cultural theory and youth organizing. She runs the <a href=”www.dropknowledgeproject.org”>Drop Knowledge Project</a>, an online platform for research on literacy and organizing. Bishop works on staff at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Britney Harsh is a Brooklyn-based artist focused on experimental design through mixed media. She has shown work at galleries in New York City and Los Angeles. She is a founding member of Anti-Art Digital Galleries, DART Collective, and Phantom Parent Press. She has a background in fine arts, literature, library science and education.