I'm not talking about bulk-mail requests for cash from Amnesty International, Planned Parenthood, and those starving-children causes. I'm not talking about the homeless single mother who stands at the corner of Denny and Aurora asking for cigarettes. What I'm talking about is my ungenerous and slightly queasy reaction to Pigs on Parade, the current fundraising effort by the Pike Place Market Foundation.
For those of you who have somehow missed the banners, the billboards, the commercials, the inserts in the Sunday New York Times, Pigs on Parade is a herd of 150 or so fiberglass pigs decorated by artists and currently on display throughout the city. The official event kicked off with a parade through the streets last Saturday (perhaps you missed that, too) and culminates in a pig auction on October 13. The Pike Place Market Foundation, which is organizing and promoting the event, expects to raise between $800,000 and $1 million from the auction, with all the proceeds benefiting the human services that the foundation supports: a clinic, a senior center, a child-care center, and a food bank. The pigs honor the Market's bronze pig, Rachel, who is mostly known for being a tourist photo op, but is actually a giant piggy bank collecting coins for the foundation.
Livestock on parade is not a new idea: Fiberglass menageries have stampeded through the streets of about 50 cities in the United States and Europe. It began in 1998 in Zurich, Switzerland, with a parade of cows, and was co-opted (cow-opted?) by Chicago in 1999 and--to the surprise of many urban sophisticates--New York City in 2000. (The avalanche of terrible puns spawned by this process is not the least of its annoyances; the official Pigs on Parade website, www.pigsonparade.org, includes howlers like the "Seattle Pork-Intelligencer" and "Pork Place.") We're not the first city to "do" pigs; Cincinnati "did" them last summer. Other cities opted for other creatures. There were geckos somewhere in Florida, horses in Lexington, Kentucky, and buffaloes in Buffalo. Even Lynnwood has jumped into the ring--with chickens. Some places have bypassed animals in favor of a local icon. In St. Paul, birthplace of Charles "Peanuts" Schultz, giant Snoopies are paid homage; in Providence, Rhode Island, the cute, friendly creature of choice was Mr. Potatohead, which was invented a few miles away in Pawtucket. In most every case, the fiberglass forms were decorated by local artists and sold to benefit charities.
The logistics of Pigs on Parade are quite simple. A group of artists was invited to submit proposals for pig design, and an artists' committee winnowed the list to roughly 200. The Market Foundation then set out to find sponsors for the pigs (at giving levels from $2,500 to $20,000) from among the city's corporations and foundations; once a specific pig found an approving sponsor, the artist was given the go-ahead. The Market Foundation paid an honorarium of $1,000 to the artist (plus up to $500 for materials), and from there the festivities began.
So here you have an event that benefits a number of excellent causes, gives artists a rare opportunity to work for guaranteed money, and puts art before the public where it badly needs to be, narrowing the perceived gap between the fine arts and most people's everyday lives. The city stands to benefit as well; Chicago made an estimated $200 million in tourist dollars during their summer of cows. It's philanthropic, artistic, and, goddammit, it's fun.
When news of Pigs on Parade began to rumble through the city, there was a lot of groaning and eye-rolling, both in and outside of the art community. I tried to put my cynicism aside but was tugged at by an icky feeling I could not identify. The tug became a persistent nag, a low-grade headache, so I gave in and began to investigate this icky feeling, trying to hunt down the source of the ickiness and determine if it had real form or was just a latent snobbishness that should not be indulged.
I began with the most obvious problem, a target that moves so slowly it's almost a shame to waste ammunition on it: The pigs are silly, and they're not really art. But this bears repeating because it leads to the project's more insidious aspects. It's not simply that the public needs its art infantilized in order to enjoy it, but that somehow art qua art, in its 20th-century conception, is not suitable for the Market Foundation's purposes. Why, I wondered, can't the foundation simply give the artists $1,000 to make the work that they make? How can a fiberglass pig ask the questions that art is meant to ask?
But avoiding those questions appears to be part of Pigs on Parade's mission. Artists were directed not to ask questions: The guidelines for Pigs on Parade stipulate no political, religious, or sexual content in the designs. Social critique is not mentioned on this list, but one imagines that a "Homeless Pig" would not be the kind of feel-good idea that would attract sponsors or donors, to say nothing of the truly subversive pigs some artists talk about making. One suggested a pig that would reference a blow-up sex toy, with a big, red, glossy anus. Another wanted to put a pig downtown in a clear, shatterproof cage, and explode the animal at some unannounced time for maximum shock and confusion. Nothing like these pigs, needless to say, will be seen on Seattle's streets this summer.
The idea of fundraising, after all, is to make people feel good (not guilty) about spending money on human services for the less fortunate (a euphemism I've always enjoyed). Sometimes these strictures create situations that would be funny if they weren't so horrible, such as the Mr. Potatohead in Providence that had to be removed because some people found it racist: It was... dark brown. But the list of don'ts in itself didn't bother most of the artists I talked to, who largely and philosophically perceive the work they create for such a project to be not art exactly, but a kind of accessible variation on their usual work. For $1,000, there are acceptable limitations, and those who found them unacceptable ("Where's the art in it?" one artist asked) simply chose not to participate.
Many artists, however, were unhappily surprised to learn that companies could decorate their own pigs, bypassing the artists altogether. This level of sponsorship, according to Rukshana Edwards, who is responsible for the lion's share of coordinating artists and sponsors for the Market Foundation, was intended for companies such as architecture and design firms, who already have in-house talent. Somehow the Gene Juarez Salons qualified for this kind of sponsorship, as did an insurance agency that had its employees' children draw all over its pig. Artist Meghan Trainor (whose pig design, at press time, had still not found a sponsor) was visibly distressed by this news. "It's not about artists, then," she said dispiritedly. "It's about art on pigs. About getting pigs onto the streets. It devalues the skill level of the artists involved."
I was unable to find out exactly how much input a sponsor was granted in the actual pig-making process, or how many decisions had to be made mutually. The Agreement for the Design, Commission, and Implementation of Art Pigs rather vaguely says, "The Sponsor and the Creative Agent [the artist] have the freedom to design the pig according to their own ideas," without specifying whose freedom is ceded to whose in case of disagreement. In the end, the artist essentially sells the copyright for the work to the Market Foundation for the price of the honorarium. The participating artists--those whose designs found sponsors--were oddly tight-lipped; everyone I spoke with refused to comment on the record.
It was also difficult to gauge exactly what kinds of ideas were quickly snatched up by sponsors, and which were repeatedly turned down. My sense was that those pigs that were brightly or whimsically decorated with patterns or images were popular, as were those that involved puns ("Porca," "Wherefore Art Sow"). Frank Video--a former Seattle arts commissioner and an artist who works almost exclusively in the public sphere--proposed a "Free Speech Pig," with children's letter blocks randomly strung around the pig's body, loose enough to be spun around by viewers to spell different words. "Ideally it would have been placed near that terrible bear statue outside FAO Schwarz," he said. "I was interested in the possibility for commentary, for critique." Given the other possibility--that the letters wouldn't spell out anything--and the fact that no one stepped forward to sponsor the "Free Speech Pig," it seems that the opportunity for commentary might not exist at all.
Christian French is an artist and the former executive director of the now-defunct ArtSpace, which, during its heyday in the spring and summer of 1999, offered some smart and inventive artist-fundraising projects such as Box Populi. He addressed the disconnect between the pig process and actual art with his usual eloquence and gravitas: "There's a difference between an artist pig and a kid pig," he said. "But the public doesn't know what it is. Most people only get the aesthetic part of art, not the critique, the intellectual pursuit. Here, both the aesthetic and critical choices are being made by people who don't know the difference."
Talking to French, I realized that Pigs on Parade is nowhere near as innocent as it seems. Far from being simply silly, it is ultimately bad for artists, and for art. It hadn't seemed so very important before--the point was the good cause, the short-term benefit of a thousand bucks in your pocket. My icky feeling grew amorphous and dark and looming. "It's recognition for artists in the wrong context," French continued. "It gives people one non-nuanced experience of what you do. Art isn't meant to be accessible: It's an inquiry, a laboratory for social, political, critical ideas."
Of course, many people have other ideas about what art is for. But recognition is the big carrot offered to artists, the solace for when the thousand dollars is gone: It's exposure! It's great exposure! But if French is right (and I think he is), it's not the kind of exposure that's going to get people into galleries, into artists' studios, and buying the artists' work. I'll go further and suggest that it does serious damage to the public conception of what artists do. It moves artists away from being agents of inquiry and sensors of cultural shifts toward decorators. Good eyes for hire. What it amounts to is a retrograde shift in the artist's position in society.
Thousands and thousands of years ago, art was a ritualistic practice, thought to change the luck and destiny of the parti-cipant and his tribe. In ancient Egypt, on through the early Christian period and the Middle Ages, the artist was an anonymous craftsman, the range of his expression determined by the demands of the pharaoh or the church. In the Renaissance, we learned who these craftsmen were--Giotto, Masaccio, Michelangelo--but they still labored with patrons looking over their shoulders, telling them to use more ultramarine blue so the praying public would know exactly how rich the patrons were. Art for art's sake is for the most part a 20th-century conception (reaching its logical peak when the critic Clement Greenberg declared that art was the paint on the canvas, nothing more) with artists as the sole agents of their ideas, the expanses of their minds providing the only limits on their work. One can hardly imagine Picasso being asked to paint a cow (although the number of "Picowso" cows in New York might suggest otherwise), or Jackson Pollock, or Willem de Kooning. In the glory days of American art, art was not an advertisement for anything but itself.
What was it that turned artists back into workers for hire? Was it the service economy? Was it the disappearance of art programs in schools? Was it the ranting of Jesse Helms? You could argue that pure art was a cultural aberration that began (roughly) with Marcel Duchamp and ended when Andy Warhol blew apart commonly held notions of value and ownership. You could also argue that art, save for those 60 or so years of postwar boom, has always been market-driven. Or that the contemporary artist has delusions of entitlement in a world where there's no room for frivolity, or for coddling the temperamental creative ego. And certainly you could argue that art is elitist, indigestible, and irrelevant, and that what we'll remember as art thousands of years from now will be advertising: the only form of art whose language is universally understood.
But artists, like most people, must negotiate a private truce with themselves about what is done for love and what is done for money, what is necessary to keep body and soul together in equal fairness to both. Each person in the amorphous and diverse group known as the public--for better or for worse--decides what he likes. The critic Arthur Danto has said that art's logical narrative ended with Warhol, and then became something else altogether, something to be approached with the mind as well as the eye (for more on this see his brilliant book After the End of Art); it remains for us to be sophisticated enough to know the difference between what is and isn't art.
This is where the Market Foundation and Seattle, and all the other cities that have birthed animal parades, have stumbled. This fundraiser is being touted as an art event, which it isn't. Marlys Erickson, the executive director of the Market Foundation, referred in an interview to Pigs on Parade as a "branding opportunity," that is, a chance to capitalize on the Market's association with Rachel the Pig. Erickson's choice of language is revealing. Branding is a specific and expensive process carried out by professional designers and brand strategists who charge by the hour for their creative thinking. It's aimed at creating equity through visibility in the push toward maximum profits. Pigs on Parade exploits the popular Seattle conception of the artist--"funky," "eclectic," "Fremont"--but it's definitely not an event for the artist.
When Heather Dwyer, program director at Artist Trust (which provides a large part of the total individual grants available for local artists), was asked if Artist Trust would lend its name and support to Pigs on Parade, she declined. "I was told, 'But you'd be helping artists!' And I said, 'No, you're not. You're using them as a promotional tool.'" Dwyer, who knows quite well the difficulties artists face, since she is one herself, continued, "The foundation gets the pig for very cheap, and turns around and sells it. The pig is not in line with the artist's work. It's not who they are. How does this teach us more about what's in an artist's head?" Dwyer believes the marketing of Pigs on Parade is disingenuous. "It might have been better if they'd told me it was a community event. But as it is, artists are building props for corporations." Artist Joel Lee was less measured. "If art reflects society," he said, "how appropriate that we're painting pigs."
Perhaps there is some school of economics that says, simply, that art is a commodity and when the market no longer supports the idea of art, then the idea of art must change and adapt. But what we would lose in this case is immeasurable. "The game of marginalizing art is a form of social control," French said. "[In Pigs on Parade] there's an ambiguity of control. Artists spend years honing their ability to control their expression, and here the market is controlling it. And the market isn't interested in funding the revolution." And what is lost, then, are the voices that talk back to us and tell us that this process isn't right at all.
That artists are being used to raise money is nothing new. Nonprofit entities frequently auction artists' work; some artists I know are asked up to 10 times a year to donate to various causes. Each cause, again, may be a very good one. Very few artists mind donating work to Artist Trust, since Artist Trust turns the money right around into grants for artists. Few have the heart to turn down soil (an excellent alternative space, underwritten completely by artists), the Lifelong AIDS Alliance (for obvious reasons), or the Henry's annual bash (because someday you might get to see your work there). PONCHO, Pratt--the gauntlet of outstretched hands goes on. But there seems to be something very wrong, another obvious disconnect, with making money off the backs of the very people who can least afford it.
I find a sort of irony in the case of the Market Foundation, since it supports the kinds of social services that some artists are poor enough to need, such as a food bank. When you consider that artists are paid $1,000 for a work that is expected to bring in at least $8,000 to $10,000 (and I've heard figures up to $25,000), it begins to seem a bit like minimum wage. To be fair, many of the artists who participated in--or tried to participate in--Pigs on Parade cited an abiding love of the Market as their reason. Not just the food and the street musicians, but also the fact that many of the people who live there are low income, and the Market Foundation's support keeps gentrification at bay. Participating in Pigs on Parade--and this is important--allows artists to be part of the giving community when many of them don't have money to spare for charitable causes.
This is entirely noble and worthy, but I worry about the psychological burden imposed by continually giving away work. What does this tell artists about the value, both monetary and the less calculable kind, we place on art? Even those who manage to sell their work, except for the mega-famous few, don't really make back what they've spent in labor, in a lifetime of preparation, sometimes even in materials. Asking for work for free, and often auctioning it off way below the artist's asking price, is not just depressing, but devaluing. Add to this the disproportionate tax write-off (buyers at charity auctions can write off the amount they pay for the work, while artists can only write off the cost of materials) and a clear cultural message about when art acquires its value emerges. This is not the work-for-hire situation that Pigs on Parade suggests, but something infinitely more fuzzy. It's that disconnect, again: We want the creativity, the sexiness that artists bring to events (why aren't we asking plumbers for their work, or florists?), but we want it for free.
This situation is migraine-inducing for artists. You want to support the good causes; you want to give what you can; but you watch in despair as your work becomes something that can be acquired cheaply at a dozen or more yearly auctions. It's a topic that occasions a fair amount of back-and-forth in the art community--again, about how to live in the world, the balance between taking and giving. Certainly, artists have different tolerances for what is and isn't an acceptable request for work. (Lee told me, "I'd rather paint what I want on a pig than do a painting of baseballs for Safeco Field.") And artists simply need to be selective about donating their work--don't say yes to every group--but always there's that possibility dangling in the not-so-far distance: Maybe someone will love my work; maybe I'll get a studio visit; maybe I'll make a sale. But happy stories about artists making sales thanks to auction exposure are rare; I myself have never heard one.
And the upshot of it is that these artists are not a sustainable resource for fundraising. As the world of donated-art auctions becomes more competitive and more complicated, artists will burn out. In the April issue of RedHeaded StepChild (a visual art zine published for nearly two years by a group of visual artists and yours truly), artist Stephen Lyons proposed a process that might alleviate this problem: have donors buy the work from the artist directly, and then donate the work to the nonprofit organization. The value of the work remains intact, the artist makes the money, the donor gets the write-off, all before the work goes to auction. It's a simple idea, but it seems virtually revolutionary. What Lyons is proposing is a renegotiated relationship between the artist and the fundraising world, one in which equal value is accorded to both.
Anne Focke, executive director of Grantmakers in the Arts, a Seattle-based national organization that investigates the finer points of philanthropy and art, declined to offer any new ideas for fundraising models, preferring to wax philosophical. "Anyone who exists in the world, all they have to give is money or time," Focke said, a rare combination of criticism and graciousness. "Giving, contributing, donating oneself or one's money is different from a financial transaction. We have to treat each other not simply as access to money, but as a community. And community arises out of exchanging gifts rather than buying and selling. That's where it falls apart."
Personally, I don't know what Focke's ideal world would look like. But I suspect that it wouldn't have two floppy ears, a snout, and a curly tail.
So why do artists do it? "Because we will," said Trainor. "We know how to work for abstract social ideals. We're used to working for nothing." Some artists I spoke with simply thought it would be fun, while still others said they were doing it for the money.
Seattle--all wrist-slitting reports of diminishing housing aside--is not a terrible place to be an artist. Artist Trust offers Gap grants every year (up to $1,200 for projects or materials or career administration) and fellowships of $5,500 every other year. Visual artists are very good at the grant process, according to Dwyer, and are suitably rewarded. In 2000, 40 out of 73 available Gap grants and 15 fellowships were awarded in the visual arts. The Seattle Arts Commission's main focus is on public art, outreach, and community projects, but programs such as Seattle Collects provide merit-based funding for work. And until the recent dot-com crash, the Fuse Foundation was planning to give large amounts of money to artists in every discipline. Post-crash, Fuse's future is unclear.
But still it's not enough, and this is why artists make pigs. And further, this seemed to me to be why none of the artists who were actively working on pigs wanted to voice dissatisfaction with the process or the concept: No one wants to look a gift pig in the mouth. What if you alienate a possible future patron? This kind of stranglehold on art is disturbing, to say the least, if it keeps us from trying to make a flawed process better. (This also may explain the Market Foundation's defensiveness about Pigs on Parade; a number of my questions about specific pig ideas were answered with "your audience wouldn't be interested in that," and my final round of e-mail inquiries was ignored.) But the cloak of philanthropy and the short-term benefit to artists barely hides questions that people are afraid to ask.
This is not only true in Seattle (where our famous passiveness keeps a lot of ugly truths under wraps), but all over the country; the majority of the media attention around the things-on-parade has been gushing and positive. The critical response has been largely dismissed as cynical, humorless, and unkind. Trainor asked what might be the most indicting question among all the indicting questions that Pigs on Parade provokes: "Is this thing so fragile that we're afraid to poke at it?" she asked. "Are we so sure it will all fall apart?" Perhaps it should fall apart. Perhaps what would rise from the ashes would be smarter, better, more in keeping with what artists are truly good at.
These are not the only problems with Pigs on Parade; the parade of gripes goes on. One person pointed out that it made him feel like a tourist in his own city. Then there's the feeling that Seattle came lately to this, as we have with so many things in our quest to be a Real City. "I always get disappointed when there's some good idea somewhere in the country and people copy it," Focke said. "Where are people's own ideas?" And even in this highly accessible form, public art isn't going down so well in Seattle: The last time I talked to the Market Foundation, at p-minus three weeks, they had only found sponsors for 115 out of 200 approved pigs.
But these are small annoyances in a big picture that gets increasingly dark the more I consider it. And while I may be raining on a parade whose intentions are nothing but good (you know what they say about good intentions) let the record show that I have no problem with the Market Foundation; it's not my target, but it's unfortunately standing in the way. And to the everlasting credit of the artists who have chosen to participate, I've heard about some truly interesting and complicated proposals. That's remarkable considering how easy it would have been for artists to slap a coat of paint on the pig, pocket the thousand dollars, and call it a day. There are some very good and respectable artists on the Market Foundation's roster--Jaq Chartier, Cathy McClure, Randy Hayes, Carol Bolt--participating for whole constellations of reasons. The critic barks; the parade goes by.
There was no rain on the day of the parade; it was bright and hot--hot enough, in fact, to fry bacon. The streets were thronged with people, and a booth did a brisk business in Pigs on Parade merchandise. John Curley donned a pig logo-ed T-shirt and emceed the proceedings; he was also listed on the roster of pig decorators, an artist, apparently, in his own right.
The parade had the event's contradictions written all over it. I was appalled and bewildered to see the procession led by one of the market's street musicians, a tall, stately black man attired in a cloak and top hat, both fashioned of newspapers. He strutted unevenly down Pine Street singing an amended version of "When the Saints Go Marching In" ("When the Pigs Go Rolling By"), giving the parade a strange, New Orleans funereal feel. I was ashamed to run into a college friend of mine marching with his wife and sons, in a group of parents and children chanting, "Kids for pigs!" The by-now ubiquitous "Disco Pig" was accompanied by a group of (wait for it) disco dancers, with platform shoes and big Afros, groovily outfitted, I assumed, by Nordstrom.
So there I stood under my own personal little black cloud, assaulted by the event's unimpeachable earnestness: the children in wheelchairs rolling along with the parade; people wearing Bailey-Boushay T-shirts; the Fred Hutch kids with the pig they helped paint; the people in the crowd murmuring "So pretty!" I was briefly cheered by a group of four anti-corporate-art protesters bearing signs reading, "Lame and Tacky Event!" and "Stop Art-vertising!"
A group of middle-aged ladies scoffed at their rhetoric. "What are they protesting against?" one of them asked. "They've completely misunderstood."
Aristotle wrote that art should inspire pity and terror; in the face of these ladies, all I felt was pity and despair. Defeated, I left. n