Reading Martha Schwendener's review last week of the exhibition Images of an Infinite Film, I clicked through to the late Hollis Frampton's letter to the Museum of Modern Art—in which he told the museum, in no uncertain terms, to pay him in more than "love and honor" if they wanted to give him a retrospective. (Here's one of his films I like.)
The letter is legendary in lefty art circles and among art historians, but I'd never read it fully before. I found myself pumping my fist along with him.
I'll put it to you as a problem in fairness. I have made, let us say, so and so many films. That means that so and so many thousands of feet of rawstock have ben expended, for which I paid the manufacturer. The processing lab was paid, by me, to develop the stuff, after it was exposed in a camera for which I paid. The lens grinders got paid. Then I edited the footage, on rewinds and a splicer for which I paid, incorporating leader and glue for which I also paid. The printing lab and the track lab were paid for their materials and services. You yourself, however meagerly, are being paid for trying to persuade me to show my work, to a paying public, for "love and honor." If it comes off, the projectionist will get paid. The guard at the door will be paid. Somebody or other paid for the paper on which your letter to me was written, and for the postage to forward it.
That means that I, in my singular person, by making this work, have already generated wealth for scores of people. Ask yourself whether my lab, for instance, would print my work for "love and honor": if I asked them, and they took my question seriously, I should expect to have it explained to me, ever so gently, that human beings expect compensation for their work. The reason is simply that it enables them to continue doing what they do.
But it seems that, while all these others are to be paid for their part in a show that could not have taken place without me, nonetheless, I, the artist, am not to be paid.
And in fact it seems that there is no way to pay an artist for his work as an artist. I have taught, lectured, written, worked as a technician...and for all those collateral activities, I have been paid, have been compensated for my work. But as an artist I have been paid only on the rarest of occasions.
You really should read the whole thing.
In the end, Frampton, presumbly, was paid, because he did indeed have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1973.
In the letter, he spells out his terms. He asked for $560.88 total. According to an online inflation calculator, that amount would have been $3,030.08 in 2013.
Peanuts. Peanuts. But there is a qualitative difference in what might seem quantitatively minute. Or is there? Artists?
After reading Ben Davis's book 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, I've been thinking about, well, art and class. Here's what I wrote in my review of the book:
It would be a Galilean-level shift, Davis argues, to view artists as middle-class rather than working-class. Class is not about how much money you have, it's about how you relate to your labor, he explains. If art's conflicted middle position were understood, we might also perceive the difference between artists, defined by their freedom, and laborers, with the powerful unity that's gained in the shared experience of being alienated from their labor.
In other words, the difference between Frampton and his lens grinders is that he is, perversely, the boss. Though unpaid—and in fact, acting as the payer—Frampton has the freedom of being in charge.
The way nonprofit museums function in this version of the capitalist system, the artist is often charged the ultimate price for being in charge. It is an inversion of CEO-to-worker pay ratios. The artist is the CEO, and the artist gets zero pay. (Even not in museums but in for-profit galleries, artists receive nothing for showing their work unless it sells. They are not paid for showing it to audiences who are free to not pay for it, but to enjoy it nevertheless. This is a condition of existence for the vast majority of artists—even those at surprisingly high levels of accomplishment make shocking little money by their art, especially those whose works are not easily commodifiable, like video, installation, and performance artists.)
Yet Davis's distinction holds. Frampton's self-comparison to the working-class demonstrates instead how he is different from working-class people, who do not necessarily choose—and certainly do not choose "with gladness"—the standard by which they live:
In order to continue in [my work], I have accepted...as most artists accept (and with the same gladness)...a standard of living that most other American working people hold in automatic contempt: that is, I have committed my entire worldly resources, whatever they may amount to, to my art.
Okay, so an artist is not a soot-covered miner in a Zola novel. But—what I have to return to is the cold hard number Frampton asks for: $560.88. Or, okay, $3030.08.
Here are the consolidated financial documents from 2013 for the Museum of Modern Art. (The numbers are in thousands of dollars, so you have to add three zeroes to the end of everything.) Its total revenues are $166.6 million. And if there's a single person in the administration of the Museum of Modern Art who makes $3,030.08 per year for their full-time devotion, well, that's not happening.
Given the modest requests artists tend to make, it seems undeniable that there is room for artists to get paid even without changing the overall system. But how? Out of which budget? How do local museums like the Henry, the Frye, and SAM handle this?
I don't have big answers here. But I'd like to look into it more, as artists are doing everything they can in this age of DIY fundraising, publishing, production, and PR. Send me some thoughts or some firsthand testimony either in comments or by email, will you please?