The Artist as Fruit Tree
Artists are trees that are meant to bear fruit: the bright, juicy, desirable result of a sacrifice of precious resources, which sustains not only ourselves, but all who pass by. Not all trees will bear fruit under any conditions. But certain trees under certain conditions find it within themselves to perform a small miracle, over and over, for as long as those conditions remain favorable.
A level of self-actualization required to bear fruit. A fruit bearing tree in survival mode is just a tree: it does not spawn or sustain anything but itself. I imagine it as a sort of biological, inanimate analog to frustration, bordering on existential longing, boiling up in the tree who wants to fulfill its destiny in creating fruit, but cannot. Some fruit trees live out their entire lives without even temporarily experiencing the right conditions for the generation of fruit.
Fruit is itself a desirable acquisition for a variety of lifeforms. If an animal wants fruit, it knows enough to hang around a fruit tree and catch what falls off of it. Even the rotting failures of fruit passed up by larger creatures feed the insects and even the soil, which leads to more fruit and even more fruit trees. If a human wants fruit, she would do well to identify which trees would be able to generate it, and ensure the conditions that those trees find themselves in become and remain favorable.
But people, it seems, are not wise in the fundamental ways of other walks of life, and would rather invest their time, effort, money, and other resources into finding new ways to generate near-fruit assets, to simulate the textures, colors, flavors, and nutrients of fruit in a variety of other applications, and would even sooner re-engineer themselves to live without fruit altogether, than to simply maintain an orchard.
In Ben Davis’ “9.5 Theses on Art and Class,” he describes art making as a textbook example of the dream of a middle class career, not so much in the amount of potential wealth generated for the artist, but in the sense that an artist’s labor is self-directed. The dream of deciding what to throw your efforts behind, and being able to reap the rewards of your own work, is at the heart of the dream of the artist.
Our communities need culture, and we ought to be able to generate it ourselves at a local scale. A modern economy being unable to support the generation of its own culture is far more bankrupt that we wish to admit.
For me the primary frustration of the current arts ecosystem is that we do not treat art as an even potentially viable career. We train artists to expect that cultural generation will always be a thing they do on the side, a ridiculously consuming vanity hobby, one that sucks in inordinate amounts of resources and for which there is little return to the individual as well as to the individual’s community. Art making, then, is a bad habit, something foolish and wasteful and only practiced by the few grown ass adults who just can’t help themselves.
But this is false premise, and the proof is in the golden hue that everything an artist touches takes on. Because what is the result of these supposedly selfish hobbies? Often, is it wealth generation for whatever creature happens by; the artist is a tree that never picks back up its own fruit, somehow never benefits financially from even the rotting remains of their efforts. We see the value in the emotional component of what we’ve produced, we feed off of the social connections our work generates for us. But we always seem to let the financial component of labor go for free, not recognizing that we are getting cheated out of capacity. We are trees growing in a pot, rootbound for so long, we don’t even realize how limited our production is as a result.
Artists move into neighborhoods and rehab them, the first step in gentrification somehow never ends up benefiting them. Artists tend to price themselves out of their own communities over time. The soil they refresh is razed with profit turning in mind. And so artists swirl around on a 30 year cycle; only welcomed back to fix your neighborhood after all your failed enterprises render it barren again.
One way to fight the larger environment of exploitation is to carve out an alternate, smaller environment in the hopes of saving a handful of plants, and that is largely what museums, artspaces, and galleries have done. Wonderful, hardworking people fight to gather the resources to sustain one or two trees each season. The artists all compete for one growing season’s worth of resources, but even the winners are still barely able to scrape by. And the winning trees count themselves lucky: many trees never get their turn in the sun.
But even our model for success presupposes that art making will never be a sustainable career. We’re told the soil here is just not suitable for sustaining a whole forest, so we’ll have to take turns. Even this compromise is waning: there is a growing sense that these tree are selfish for even wanting to bear fruit in the first place. It is needed? Is fruit the best use of water, soil, and sunshine?
We know, of course, that is IS important to make art. That it is more than compulsion. That there is value in the enterprise, value that draws those who have resources to trade for it to do so, value that changes the hearts and minds of everyone who comes across that piece they were meant to see at that moment they were meant to see it. We know we need fruit!
But we don’t believe we can fix the climate, and so we try to build the very best, most efficient greenhouses that we can. I wish we’d dream bigger. I wish we saw our whole yard as potentially fertile soil, not just the sunroom out back that houses a few trees in large planters. I wish we, the general population, could see the cultural value of growing full size trees again, in messy and natural conditions in the center of our neighborhoods, that would bear fruit we could all eat instead of these scant, lab-grown handful of bizarre, most-rare life forms we find in most modern galleries and institutions, each show a single piece of fruit, which we then split between us at openings.
When the only images we fund with any regularity as a society are commercial images, our visual language will be defined by ad agencies and Instagram influencers.
When the only way to capture attention on a national scale is to be outrageous, you will end up with a society that believes art to be outrageous.
But if we worried about our culture the way we worry about our produce, we might start seeing the value in consuming local culture again. We might reconnect to the soil that culture springs from, we might generate needed and necessary community wide discussions around ideas, around the fruit we ate together, instead of trying to impose it across time and space among the handful of self selected patrons that are comfortable in a museum context.
What would this look like in practice, locally, now? How might we refresh our barren civic landscape and set ourselves up for the outpoured abundance of fruit that could manifest in a few years if the seeds already sown throughout the region were allowed to germinate? What should we, the artists, focus on in order to become a self sustaining, full fledged ecosystem? Owning our own spaces so that when we build the neighborhood we build our own wealth? Unionizing to require that art is not given away for free, despite the regrettable effect of further pricing out the working class from the art world?
As the brightest minds around me pour their efforts into the small-yield micro-gardens of grant-funded arts incubators, I find myself dreaming of a full fledged farm, of art that thrives like a community co-op, where discussions and connections happen organically and where art can reflect the real world of the 99% of people who need cultural nourishment, instead of decorating the chic, rarefied interiors of the handful of trees that happen to currently be drowning in trade-able resources, but themselves never bearing fruit.