Letter to Levi’s, July 2011

INTRODUCTION

In June 2011, I was approached by a representative of Levi’s (yes, the denim outfitters), requesting an interview.  It would be for a feature on their Shape What’s To Come website, which is an initiative to mentor and empower young women.  I was informed that this would not be framed as an endorsement of Levi’s, and that the purpose is entirely philanthropic; I would tell my personal story and serve as a role model for youth interested in the arts.  I considered it, because I’m usually a friendly person and generous with my time.  Besides, I’m not a curmudgeon that despises children.  But I couldn’t bring myself to responding with a decisive “yes” because I’m somewhat political, and this Levi’s operation is obviously an insidious marketing scheme.  I wasn’t sure what to do, because I couldn’t fight off the feelings that I’m the “bad guy” if I turn this down, and debated this in my head far more than I should have.  Meanwhile, I was having hazy recollections of the terminology from the W.A.G.E. interview with Nato Thompson in the March 2011 issue of Artforum: economic inequality, social capital, replaceable. These were among the most prominent words chanting in my head.  Eventually I got very excited to write a letter to Levi’s and it poured out very quickly onto the page.  It’s not perfect, but I’d like to share the letter that I sent to Levi’s in reply, because somehow it might be relevant to you too.

 

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Dear Lance, Caitlin and Jason,

Thanks for your emails. I checked out the Shape What’s To Come website; I’m impressed with Levi’s’ enterprise to mentor youth by delivering a diverse spectrum of optimistic and inspirational messages on this site.  It’s refreshing to see the arts included, and I’m flattered that you’ve invited me to share my perspective.  Will I be financially compensated for this interview?  I don’t like to assume, but considering that this hasn’t been mentioned in any of the requests for my time, I’ve guessed that the answer is “no.”  If my assumption is correct, I’m afraid that my participation in this initiative would be a violation of my own principles; not only because I firmly believe that artistic labor deserves to be recognized with the same economic equality that other professions enjoy, but because I would then have to dispense my own experience dishonestly; I would hate to further disillusion the youth of this country by encouraging them to pursue a career in an undervalued field where its practitioners are expected to subsist on social/cultural capital and the sheer love of their endeavors.  So, if financial compensation isn’t a possibility but you’d still like me to share my encouragement, allow me to dispatch some realistic advice:

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Dear Potential Levi’s Customer—

I am a visual artist, completing a Master of Science in Visual Studies in the Art, Culture and Technology Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  My artistic practice is research-based, occupying a discursive and subjective field of knowledge, and operates as a contemporary, poetic response to shifting social and political environments.  I am unemployed, so I have time to offer you some advice based on the cynical wisdom that’s unfortunately accumulated throughout my willful struggle to be an artist.  If you are hoping to defy your parents and follow your dream of wearing a beret while you pontificate on politics in a Paris café with other liberally minded people, or more succinctly you want to be an artist, I write to you today with disappointing news. 

The aforementioned social and political circumstances in our capitalist society are not welcoming to you.  And if they seem to be, perhaps it’s because you’re still in middle school where they convince you that no matter what you want to be when you grow up, your choice will bring you happiness, a sense of self-worth and an income.  This last mention, an income, is the tricky part.  Right now, you probably don’t have to think much about where your lunch comes from, or question whether or not you’ll have a place to sleep tonight.  But eventually, you will need to consider the means of obtaining these basic human needs: food and shelter.  If you live in a country where monetary currency is used to purchase these essentials, you will need to have an income.  And according to the hierarchy of fundamental human needs, if you do not have one, you will not be able to successfully acquire the other fulfilling career rewards promised to you (happiness, a sense of self-worth and other emotional necessities.)  Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly possible to be successful in this field, if you’re lucky enough to be within the 2% of artistic professionals who are actually paid the adequate means to survive solely by selling their artwork.1

If you’re not yet disenchanted, closely examine the practical conditions under which the other 98% present their work.  We are charmed and lured by the honors of social capital, a benefit that increases our agency through relationships or affiliation, and should theoretically advance our careers by increasing the number of future (paid) opportunities that will be introduced to us through this expanded social network.  However, the institution has learned that this system is fully functional as an empty promise, so that “potential advancement” needn’t involve financial compensation to tempt us.  So again, we participate in an unequal exchange, one that you too will experience:  you will offer your artistic services to an institution or corporation, and in turn will receive a verbal handshake fueled by utter appreciation for volunteering your altruistic input.  “How nice!” you’ll think, as you return to wait tables or answer phones at one of your multiple other jobs. 

Like the rest of us, it’s very likely that you’ll be exploited by institutions whose opaque (but certainly immense) budgets have been designed without you in mind.  You’ll learn that funds are rarely allocated to you in the expenses category—you’re just an in-kind donation.  Let me say this again, because this is a red flag for those who already have low self-esteem: you will be asked to render your services as an artist without compensation, frequently. Perhaps you will, because you deeply care about your practice as an artist.  Or because you want to network and heard that schmoozing is lucrative.  But be wary eager beavers. Over time, your infinite enthusiasm, dedication and self-respect will erode. Not only because you will struggle to make payments towards the severe debt accrued through student loans, or because you will have to live on friends’ couches for month-long stretches while you search for a paying job that has nothing to do with your intellectual interests, but because you will begin to realize that you are replaceable; the passion you fervently release into your work, your individualistic voice you render in visual language, your tireless vocation to make a spirited contribution to culture….as perceived by the capitalist machine, are not all that important.  If you don’t do it for free, someone else will.  Your talents are void of meaning if you request ethical treatment. 

Have you ever wondered why so many artists are pictured wearing black clothing from head to toe?  No it’s not because they’re “Goth.”  Maybe it’s because they feel invisible.  Or less imaginatively, maybe it’s because they’re depressed over the futility of their efforts.  The artists’ relentless labor to create a poetic and critical culture is no doubt dismissed and destroyed by reigning corporate power.  Clearly, if artists aren’t paid for their contributions to culture, they have very little impact in decreasing the intensity of the technocratic, capitalist agenda.  If they do have impact, maybe you’ll hear a different story from me, one in which I proudly profess the position I take as an artist who gratefully earns her living through mutual respect from the institution.  Or second best, my brutally honest words will find you.  But in the event that they didn’t, good luck young artists.  You’d be better off getting a job in business so you can afford health insurance and get a therapist to help you cope with the abandonment of your dreams.

If all of this is just pessimistic jargon to you, and you do somehow find yourself in the creative field, you’ll hopefully be doing it fashionably.  In a pair of Levi’s.

Yours truly,

Sarah Witt

 

1 This fact was obtained from an interview with Nato Thompson and the artist/activist group W.A.G.E. in the March 2011 issue of Artforum.  W.A.G.E. cites this figure as derived from the Columbia University Research Center for Arts and Cultures’ “Information on Artists” report.

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I’ll conclude by saying that under no circumstances is this a display of disrespect or contempt for the three of you who have contacted me to do an interview.  I understand that you too are only trying to earn an honest living.  Hopefully, my words are taken as commentary within the context of global capitalism, not as a personal attack.  That said, I hope you can accept this response as institutional critique and understand why I’ve shared it with you.  Regardless of the mission statement of this Levi’s initiative, be it truly philanthropic or just a covert marketing strategy, I cannot compromise my own values. If Levi’s would able to negotiate a fee for myself and all the artists featured on the Shape What’s To Come site, I would be able to genuinely deliver a positive message endorsing the arts as a territory I successfully occupy.  But until then, I’m afraid my letter is the only message I have to the hopeful young artists visiting your site.  Thank you for taking the time to consider these words.

All the best and with respect,

Sarah Witt

 

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