Contributed by Sharon Butler / Explaining to friends and family outside the art world what it means to be an artist in New York can be a little like describing color to a blind man. What is it that we do? Artists might be attracted to art school because they enjoy the process – drawing, painting, making videos, etc. – but becoming a professional artist is a much more complicated endeavor. This is not lost on sociologist Hannah Wohl. To understand how all the moving parts or art careers fit together, she spent countless hours trailing collectors at art fairs, talking to dealers, making studio visits with artists at all professional stages, and analyzing hundreds of art reviews. Her penetrating new book Bound By Creativity—How Contemporary Art is Created and Judged rewards the effort, crystallizing how New York artists are impelled to operate.
At the beginning, Wohl flatly and accurately declares that traditional success – gallery representation, a waiting list for artwork, and so forth – eludes the majority of artists. New York’s gallery system is essentially a winner-take-all proposition whereby a multitude of artists vie for few opportunities. Wohl adopts the term “creative vision” to explain what the players – artists, dealers and collectors – aspire to develop, and her assessment is on target. While artists frequently lament that dealers don’t want them to try new approaches, Wohl explains that this isn’t exactly the case. Rather, she observes, market expectations define and circumscribe an acceptable range and kind of creativity. Thoughtfully calculated evolution is, in fact, an important and challenging aspect of an artist’s creative vision. This does not mean, of course, that the market always works and invariably yields sound aesthetic guidance. I found myself nodding in agreement throughout, chuckling as Wohl described the sometimes absurd challenges that art world participants willingly embrace.
Wohl’s approach is ethnographic rather than art-historical or anecdotal, and she has used pseudonyms at some interviewees’ request: the names have been changed to protect the idiotic. But New York artists will recognize plenty of her subjects. Among Wohl’s case studies are the careers of Ginny Casey, Gina Beavers, Lauren Luloff, B Wurtz, and Katherine Bernhardt. Engaging and well-written, Bound by Creativity deftly walks the line between cautionary tale and roadmap for success. In a recent Two Coats of Paint Clubhouse conversation, Wohl confirmed that it is a little bit of both.
Hannah Wohl, Bound by Creativity: How Contemporary Art is Created and Judged (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021)