Comment: Medici is the Crowd

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This is a story about not asking permission.

It starts with Occupy Wall Street.

I'm an artist who got her first job making covers for SCREW Magazine. While I gradually carved out a nice career doing every sort of art that one can extract a living from, I had always been afraid to draw "activist things." Real struggles were serious business, and I drew girls with feathers and bare tits.  Making activist art seemed like posturing. So I'd sell paintings on Twitter to raise money for abortion funds, but hide the subversive bits in the margins.

The last few years changed that.

Suddenly the world was crumbling, and people from London to Tahrir Square were taking to the streets. Everyone said Americans were too apathetic for that.  But we weren't.

 

 

When Occupy Wall Street first parked their mattresses in Zuccotti Park, my friends and I felt that something very rare was happening, and that we should help however we could. Noticing a lack of OWS graphics, I drew up a clunky octopus with "Fight the Vampire Squid" written on its belly. It became a protest sign around the country. Since then I've been churning out posters for Occupy — for libraries and general strikes and unions. Doing political work enabled me to take the subtext dancing at the margins of my art, and make it loud and proud. 

Political posters are fast. I'd draw one, brain on fire, and two hours later a masked protester would be carrying it on the streets. But I wanted to do something bigger- to take the political content of my OWS work, and express it in paintings that were giant and detailed. I wanted to make the kind of art that takes 100 hours of carefully daubing paint onto a giant piece of wood. The sort of work that would traditionally be sold in galleries.

While I was in a pop-surrealist group show here and there, no one was going to give me a solo show of my work. Especially of the sort of paintings I wanted to do.

And who could blame them?

Galleries sell one-off objects at prices the majority of people can't afford. A fanbase means nil, if your fans can't spend thousands of dollars on something that isn't a computer or a car. Nothing of mine had even netted the price of a beat-up old Nissan.

It's a problematic business model. While there's nothing wrong with a liquor store selling a thousand buck bottle of scotch, a prestigious gallery doesn't just position itself as a luxury vendor. They define what art is good, what gets reviewed, and what gets into museums.

If big, elaborate paintings (and reproductions thereof) are something that everyone can enjoy, why should the only people funding them be the rich collectors who can buy them outright?  If the tastes of rich collectors dictate what sort of art gets made and acknowledged, isn't that pretty limiting for everyone?

Plus, galleries scared me. I was the dropout of a rather cruddy state school. I had a past as a fetish model. I didn't dress right or talk right or have the right degrees. Academic art writing made me squirm. Worse, I worked as an illustrator, which in the mainstream art world was like a neon stamp of "Not Legit" on my forehead.

So I found myself with fourteen thousand twitter followers and a brain punch-drunk on ideas that I wanted to express while they were still relevant. 

The snot-nosed punk kid inside of me said this: Fuck it. Stop asking for permission. Do it yourself.

 

 

We're living in a time where the structures around artistic endeavor are, for better or worse, mutating. Record labels, newspapers, publishing houses, and movie studios are collapsing like flan left in the heat. Yet in many ways, the art world has remained the same. This is because only a relatively small amount of people can afford to buy original art, and only a select few galleries have access to these people.

Banksy, the British street artist, says it best: "The Art we look at is made by only a select few. A small group create, promote, purchase, exhibit and decide the success of Art. Only a few hundred people in the world have any real say. When you go to an Art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires."

Government projects like the WPA once allayed some of this. But arts funding is now a joke in the US, and the specialized skill and language that goes into applying for grants is so labor intensive to acquire that you're often better off just working a dayjob.

What I wanted to figure out was a way to create work that was funded neither by rich collectors, nor by grant committees, nor by someone's supportive sugar daddy. I wanted to make giant, fancy, glittering art, paid for by small donors, all of whom, even if they couldn't afford the pieces I was making, got something of value in exchange. I wanted to make and fund art with the democracy and speed of the internet.

I decided to turn to the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter, where I had done three other successful projects.

Kickstarter is run on small backers, with most people donating between $20 and $100 dollars. 

Here was my plan to give them something awesome:

I broke my rewards into four categories: "Access," "Artifact," "Art Objects," and "Art."  "Access" was livestreams and parties and interactions with my backers. I wanted to hear their thoughts, and give them mine. "Artifact" meant the brushes, drawing scraps and paint battered palates that went into making giant paintings. I got the idea watching baseball players sell their baseballs. For "Art Objects," I made postcards, art-adorned poker chips, and other reasonably-priced reproductions.

This left "Art": the six-foot-tall, impossible-to-sell-affordably, paint and wood megaliths that I felt compelled to make. When three patrons bought these paintings from my Kickstarter, I was flabbergasted.

Rewards from each category were bundled together into packages, so that someone who donated $20 got livestreams (access), and fake money I designed (art object).

The plan was met with some skepticism. Most people asked what I would do with the paintings if they didn't sell.

That didn't concern me.  I just wanted to be able to make them without going broke.

When I pressed the launch button on Shell Game's Kickstarter. I feared a rather public failure. But after a few compulsive days on Twitter, and with the signal amplification of some friends with large followings, I had raised fifty thousand dollars. 

Fuck yeah gold and glittering art. Fuck yeah populism.

Great American Bubble Machine.  The first painting in the Shell Game series

 

My plan for crowd-funding art isn't for everyone. Buying and selling diamond encrusted skulls will probably remain the domain of the 1%. But for working artists like me, who have a substantial following that isn't made of millionaires, this may be just as good an option as chasing gallery approval.

Why did we get into art in the first place? It wasn't to churn out increasingly polished versions of our most salable pieces until we die.  It wasn't to wait for permission to create what we want.  But nor was it to starve. Crowdfunding is a way to make a living wage while bringing into existence our hearts' desires.

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Check out Molly Crabapple's Kickstarter project, Shell Game: An Art Show About the Financial Meltdown