A thank-you art criticism

© schoolvoorjournalistiek

In late November 2010, Foundation Center for Contemporary Art hosted the international project “Kyiv Offline: Art criticism in the age of instant access” that focused on the need to develop among critics in Ukraine a common understanding of the role of the contemporary art critic in an age of instant access to information. One of the results of the project was the compilation of essays by project participants on the critical situation in Ukraine today.

KORYDOR is joining the discussion on the role of art criticism and will publish a selection of texts written after Kyiv Offline. The complete collection of texts will be available soon on the Foundation CCA website.

Non-profit employees, who are involved in creative and artistic activities, generally do not receive compensation for their work. This is most common in entry-level positions. As time goes by, and experience is gained, these employees are often recognized for their contributions and achievements. This is often the case with artists, musicians, poets and critical writers.

Creative work demands countless hours and an investment of intellectual effort. Prior to starting a creative project, one must prepare mentally, physically, emotionally and financially. Proper planning measures must be taken to avoid hardships and obstacles that could hinder you from achieving your goals. That’s why when you think about a non-commercial project, you think not only about its relevance and content, you also think about your own infrastructure, which gives you the freedom to complete this project.

So is it really worth beginning a project that will never become profitable? If yes, then why? I asked Marysya Nikityuk, creator and editor-in-chief of the Internet resource teatre.com.ua, why she decided to create a website, invest her time, money and energy, knowing that there is no opportunity for monetary gain. First of all, there are not many options for employment within the Ukrainian job market for Marysya. She has acquired two degrees – one in journalism and another in theatre criticism. Vacancies that can be found today in Kyiv require additional experience (in marketing, law, etc.) or Marysya has to work hard for a very small salary in bad conditions. For example, it took her half a day to get to work at the newspaper 24, and at Top 10 magazine it was really hard to explain to her editors why she wanted to write something non-commercial. As theatre critic with an adequately salary, Marysya is too expensive for today’s employers.

Marysya’s website gives her opportunities to share her ideas and develop her creative and critical writing techniques. Marysya’s website is focused primarily on theater. She is never depressed, and she never asks herself what to do. She is building her professional skills and gaining renown in artistic circles, and sometimes she receives offers to contribute to the Moscow theatre website for money. But this money, for sure, does not cover the cost of living.

“My parents help me,” says Marysya. “They believe I am a good art critic, journalist and future playwright. They support my initiatives. My friends who know my situation may invite me to a café or restaurant and pay for me. I am a professional ushu player and I give ushu lessons to children. Even so, I don’t earn enough. I also learned Japanese, and sometimes I organize tours for Japanese tourists. This work is more unpredictable and less permanent.”

Marysya doesn’t have a financially stable life, but she is happy that there are also photographers and editors who contribute for her project for free. “I am not sure about tomorrow, but I am more than sure that all that energy I put into this website will come back to me – if not in money, then something else. Like the gratitude of those who work with me, I have a lot of new feelings, I can attend interesting events, and I feel that I like what I do. My website saves me from depression.”

Such activities provide people with status, self-identification, fame, and justify their professional interests. On the one hand, non-commercial cultural blogs and websites provide some kind of alibi so you don’t feel you are doing nothing. At the same time, it’s an instrument for self-determination, for finding one’s path. This is the general state in Ukraine, where we are only starting on the path toward a culture of obtaining grants and realizing non-commercial initiatives.

Warsaw-based art critic and blogger Agata Pyzik wants to have the freedom to write articles and be together with her boyfriend who lives in London: “I try to save money on clothes and furniture and stuff like that. I don’t buy books because I get them for free. I use all the advantages of the Internet – I read googlebooks. I spend most of my money on traveling, and I always look for the best money-saving solutions. I must have money for tickets to London (where my boyfriend Owen lives) and still pay my rent in Poland. I don’t even think about consuming. I can’t imagine my life being associated with what I want to buy. The main source of my income is freelance writing. Still, this work is very difficult – it is really hard for a freelancer to have consistent income.”

Agata says that she lived with her parents until the age of 24, and she didn’t have to pay rent at that time. When she started living on her own, she had to reshape everything to provide more money for herself: “At the beginning, when I started to write I was 21, and I was just extremely happy to have anything published. I felt appreciated, and it was part of my studies. I had privileges - free education in Warsaw and time to invest only into intellectual development.” Now Agata is 27. She doesn’t have a permanent job with a medical insurance, but she has a lot of friends and ideas, good contacts at the institutional and personal levels. Most of the subjects of her articles she finds via the Internet thanks to blogs and then meets them. Her life is an unexpected one: “I am not the one who wants my life to look like this and this and this. I am completely open.”

Agata met her boyfriend also thanks to the Internet: “I started writing for an Internet publication in London, which is in English. There I met my boyfriend. But I don’t want to move to London because I feel responsible for the situation in Poland. It is very dynamic and there are so many things I want to participate in. I still see my career in a Polish atmosphere. We use the Internet as an infrastructure for ourselves. We try to support each other as best as we can. For instance, I managed to show his work (because he is a successful architecture writer) to Polish institutions, and they started to invite him and vice versa.”

When you are young, you have a lot of energy and no family life responsibilities. You attend trendy parties, have crazy endless night talks about the meaning of life, you realize your wildest ideas. But when you want to have a family, you often have to make the choice to get a stable, serious job, make your art a commercial craft, or continue your creative work without any security.

Berlin artist Martin Kaltwasser suggests an alternative solution. His life demonstrates how it’s possible to exist outside typical social structures and motivations. His wife, Folke Koeberling, is also an artist and they have two children. “We started our family life with almost no money. But we never stopped being artists, never stopped being creative. We put all our energy into our life as artists – and our children have been included completely in our artistic life. From the very beginning, we took active part in independent artists’ networks, in our studio, in the independent, interdisciplinary Berlin art scene. As artists, we are always “working”: getting the input, relaxing, leisure time, time to clean the brain, transformation of the input, getting ideas, making artworks. Life is artwork. In order to live as a family, with income only from making art, we have to focus. Especially since our art is not produced for the art market and commercial galleries. We know that we can only survive if we put 100% of our effort, power and concentration into the making of art. But this includes leisure time, family time and social time as well.”

Kaltwasser and Koeberling pragmatically minimized their expenses – no car, no new furniture, almost no holidays, no TV, no consumer electronics, no pets, no new interior designing, no dining in restaurants, no fashion, no expensive art materials; extreme control of all budgets was necessary to survive. They practice do-it-yourself on all levels. All their furniture is self-built – no design, but it fulfills all the functional needs. They buy the best tools and the best food for home-cooking. They have a rich, vivid social life. This family works in an independent art sphere: they do what they like and they like what they do, as Joseph Beuys liked to say. “Our neighborhood consists of architects, designers and computer specialists. They live more the life of car-driving, seasonal holidays, commuting-work-commuting, fashion consumption, possession. Without the car and holidays, but with open doors for everybody and our kitchen as a half-common space, we are the living embodiment of the antithesis to their way of life,” says Martin.

For Martin, his work is not a punishment, it is an occupation. His activity is an enriching and productive one; a funny thing, resembling laziness and sex, or playing music. He, together with his wife Folke, organize their time in such a way as to be close to their children all the time. They meet friends and have leisure time whenever they want and need it.

In the modern world, work is still the means of exploitation, and labor is alienated. But cultural workers are figuring out how a self-determined, self-controlled, rich work-life balance can look, and many of them are already successful. You just need to know when to say “no” and how much freedom this “no” will bring to you.