Letter from Bruce Conner
The following letters constitute the entire exchange between Bruce Conner and a “Young Artist.” Art on Paper, which sent the letters from a “Young Artist” to Mr. Conner, initiated the project. Both as a matter of public record, and because The Rail believes this exchange is potentially useful to the arts community, we therefore have decided to publish the exchange unedited and in its entirety with the consent of Mr. Conner. (The Rail made a serious effort to secure permission from Art on Paper to publish the letters from the “Young Artist,” but at press time still have not received a response from their staff.)
April 10, 2005
To a Young Artist,
I made a conscious choice in 1957 that I would not live in New York. I decided to live where the climate suits my clothes and rent is cheap. I was aware that this action would likely put me at risk for serious acceptance as an exhibiting artist by the center of the art world.
I use the term artist as a functional excuse for my behavior. It makes it possible for me to deduct costs and expenses to the satisfaction of the I.R.S. The people who most likely deserve to be called an artist are the ones who can’t stop producing work no matter what happens. I try to use the term work instead of art when I talk about what I do. Someone else makes the decision that it is art.
My first solo show at the Alan Gallery in New York took place in 1960. At that time it was common to speak of artists over 35 as young artists and I was 26 years old. Recognition for an artist’s work was expected to come later in life. Today, young artists are led to believe they are a terrible failure if they are not exhibiting and making a living from art by 25. I have heard of people selling out entire shows but I have never had a sold out exhibition. I made enough from art sales to live on during only one year in the 1960’s. After that I made less than $500 a year for many years. I was able to make a living wage from my work after I retired at 65 in 1999. I have been lucky to find responsible and ethical support from for-profit galleries that handle my work. Because the artist is in partnership, both partners make sure that the representation benefits both of them. It’s amazing to me that I am able to exhibit and sell my work these days. Such possibilities are a matter of chance, luck and fashion. Beware of flattery. It is cheap and is used to blind a person to the sleight of hand trickery designed to diminish your values and empower the flatterer.
It’s possible to rent an apartment somewhere other than New York City without buying your way in the door. Hopefully you can develop a capacity for patience and limit your needs and expectations. Never go into debt and never make a loan to anyone. Consider gifts as an alternative. Consider that a solo exhibition is more than the sum of its parts and exists as a uniquely valuable work in itself even if nothing is sold. It is good to have a source of income independent from art business so that you can quit immediately at any time and not suffer serious economic consequences. A regular part time job unconnected to art activities is desirable. Building custodian is a good occupation.
Beware of predator museums. Carefully read and understand any exhibition or other agreement before signing. I received a letter from the New York Museum of Modern Art requesting permission to reproduce one particular work in a catalog at the museum by signing the enclosed Standard Agreement. This was a bait and switch maneuver since the agreement did not name the work or the exhibition or publication. If I signed the paper I would give the museum non-exclusive copyright to exploit any of my work in their collection in any way they choose, forever. They would have the right to license others to do the same thing. The agreement stated: “This non-exclusive world-wide license… may not be revoked, shall endure for the life of the copyrights, and shall survive all assignments of copyrights.” At the very end of this generous document the agreement expanded their exploitation into infinity: “Should the Museum acquire any other of my works after the date of this non-exclusive license, its terms and conditions shall also extend to and include such works.” I would never be able to sign an exclusive copyright agreement with anyone in the future.
The NYMOMA agreement could be used to sell, print and distribute duplicates of any work of art they may acquire in the future. It could include paintings, sculptures, prints, motion pictures, photos, artist books, plays, written fiction, music, etc. These works could be mass-produced in any quality and quantity without consultation with the artist. Such unauthorized use could be in direct competition with the original work by the artist and destroy income from sales. Don’t sign copyright agreements of this kind and request a specific agreement for each particular use.
A few years past there was dispute with the Guggenheim Museum about their intention to open money-making franchises that would display installation pieces using the personal plans and designs of artists. The Director, Board of Trustees and their legal representatives claimed that they had a right to hire others to reproduce the works described and still credit it to the name of the artist. A collector had donated the plans and they claimed that they now belonged to the museum to use as they saw fit. The Guggenheim’s attitude demonstrates how a museum can attempt to dominate and exploit your rights as an artist unless you understand and limit their exploitation.
There is a popular misconception that there are basic humanistic and generous qualities to non-profit corporations. Non-profits in the arts propagandize the myth that they are here to make this a better world for everyone, especially artists. Their manner of helping artists is to make money using the artist’s name and work in every way possible. They siphon off much of the money and power that would go to you if they did not exist. The non-profits are paid well. They are very reluctant to share proceeds from publications, gift shop knick-knacks, licensing of non-exclusive copyrights to second parties and entry fees to exhibits of your work. They justify not sharing this income because they make the artist “famous” and the artist will become powerful and rich as a result. These non-profits can act like the same kind of animal that perpetrates the notorious rip-offs by Board, Staff and CEO that have taken place in commercial corporations. However, non-profits are still treated as if they are a national park.
Dennis Hopper told me he was shocked when he had his solo museum exhibition. He is in show business just like you and I. He expects the artist to be paid or get a percentage of the gate and a royalty on the publication of the work. None of this took place and he found he was paying out of his own pocket like many artists do. Dennis said, “Artists need a union.”
I’ve been paying people to see my movies and my work all my life. I define the Art World as the political, social, economic exploitation of what is currently and fashionably called ART. I have acquired a reputation for being a difficult artist to work with because I try to protect the character of my work and if it is damaged or exploited to receive some recompense other than the aristocratic “honorarium.”
I have noticed a number of conceptual changes take place over the years in art magazines. The first magazines I read contained news of events and places as well as commentary. It seemed important for a dialogue to exist within the pages from one issue to another in the form of articles, opinions, theories, etc. by the published writers as well as commentary from the readers in the form of letters. A very lively dialogue. Editorial control of the pages was generous in an egalitarian way. The magazines changed bit-by-bit so that most of the dialogue was between established writers and establishment counterparts. Finally, the letters to the magazine and letters to the editor slowly faded away. It is rare to see any dialogue in the form of letters in an art magazine today.
The editor of Art on Paper magazine asked me if I would respond to a letter from a young artist. It seemed to be an attempt to begin a dialogue of correspondence in an art magazine. I said I would like to see the letter. I soon learned that that letter was not to me personally and the same letter would be sent to several artists. My response would be attributed to me although the letter writer would be unknown. I next discovered that the letter is from a synthetic, fictitious artist created by amalgamation and committee. Finally, a March 25 e-mail stated that the Young Artist letter would not be published. This progression seemed to duplicate in miniature the decay of dialogue and communication that has taken place in art magazines. It does not offer a basis for someone to understand the response that would be written in reply and limits the response to an exercise in traditional editorialized publication.
The editor described this as an “Artist Project” intended for art programs and modeled after Rilke’s concept of “Letters to a Young Poet.” Artist Projects don’t represent a serious participatory relationship to me when they are not conceived, directed and performed by the artist involved. They are like proposals I have received in the past that usually included a phrase like: “You can do anything you want.” The outcome is generally the same. My proposal or writing is not acceptable because the project is tightly pre-conditioned and plotted to involve the artist in an illusion of creative dialogue.
After reading your letter, it is difficult to tell how much of your confusion is caused by serious schizophrenic damage or the end result of being assembled as a pastiche in the laboratory of Doctor Frankenstein. I don’t know if you are animal, vegetable, mineral, liquid or gas. The only reason I did not toss your letter in the trash is that you are fictitious. I hope that my response will not encourage living artists to write letters to me.
March 21, 2005
Dear Mr. Conner:
I have considered writing you for several months, but have put it off out of fear of burdening you with a responsibility that is not yours and making myself vulnerable to someone who knows nothing about me. Nevertheless, there is a sensibility in your work and the way in which you have approached your career that I respond to—that keeps me hopeful despite the intense solitude I feel right now in the shadow of the sublime and invisible mountain that is my career.
Last summer, after graduating from art school, I moved to New York from the West Coast. My friends and family discouraged me from doing so. They warned me how expensive New York would be, that I would have very little time to make my own work. Unfortunately, their warnings have become my reality. I feel like I need to be here though, to absorb everything I can in the museums and galleries so that I can develop an historical awareness about my own work. But the struggle is almost too much.
Over the nine months, I have met many artists my own age who are in a similar situation except that they have grandiose ideas about their future success. (It is true that gaining access to galleries is easier than I thought it would be.) Some of my friends are already showing and selling work. They claim that getting early recognition is important because it will be much harder to get farther down the road. Although I’ve had opportunities to show, I have been resistant to do so so soon. I have always believed that it takes time to develop a true sense of self, and that that process should precede any commercial endeavors so as not to be tainted by them. Still, I wonder if I am my own worst enemy—if I am sabotaging my future.
And that leads to my question for you: is it possible to maintain one’s integrity and freedom of thought and participate in the artworld? You appear to me as someone who has dealt with these issues successfully. How have you managed to reconcile what seems to be, at this point, to be irreconcilable?
Thank you for decades full of challenging work. That in and of itself is a gift to me and has given me inspiration. Hearing from you directly would be an unbelievable honor.
April 28, 2005
Dear Mr. Conner,
I received your letter last week, and I must admit, it was quite upsetting. Because you lament the loss of true dialogue and open communication in contemporary culture, I thought it best to write you back—rather than let my anger and disappointment boil inside of me.
I should start by saying that the majority of your letter had nothing to do with the issues I raised for you—or, if they did, only tangentally. The MOMA situation sounds horrible, but I would expect that it will be some time before I have a piece in the collection—my work isn’t really very collectible, so it may never end up there.
But what I found disrespectful and offensive was the way you characterize me—and the way you denigrated my very real, and very sincere attempt at communication. Mutual understanding is the end-product of an evolving exchange of thoughts and ideas. You are right to say that I seem to be hard to define, that I am a multi-headed monster—but who isn’t at my age? In struggling to define myself I am many people, many characters. As I wrote in my letter, I am on a path to determine my true self.
You may have known who you were when you were my age—or you may have pretended that you did, hiding behind a growling mask of your own. So that no one could get close enough to see what you really looked like…who you really are. I don’t know.
My dialogue with you and other artists has been organic. How I would make use of my letters, your responses, etc, was not defied when I started writing. Through my back and forth with others, for my ideas become clearer, largely in response to their desires. It was during that process that I thought it was best not to include my correspond.—if indeed—I was to publish anything at all—and keep the reader focused on the responses I received—in that way, through the eyes and minds of others, the reader can come to know me, and my struggle.
Bruce Conner was an artist renowned for his work in assemblage and film, among other disciplines.