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New status for today's artist: up -- by a little

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''Protect An Endangered Species! Hire An Artist Today!''

That was the boldly lettered message confronting me on the local supermarket bulletin board. It went on to proclaim the virtues of a group of young artists who had banded together to do odd jobs in the neighborhood, such as cleaning and painting apartments, moving furniture, walking dogs, shopping for shut-ins, and baby-sitting.

It ended with the declaration that anyone hiring these young artists would not only get good service for their money, but would also know that they had made a small but significant contribution to the future of American art.

Two things in particular struck me about that notice: It stressed that these were artists who were offering their services for hire, and there was the assumption that the public would hire them because they were artists, and thus worthy of preferential treatment.

This assumption is increasingly being proved correct. For the first time in as long as I can remember, the young artist (or even the older one struggling for creative or professional identity) is beginning to be seen as a potentially valuable cultural commodity by the public at large -- and not merely as a nuisance, an alien creature, or a failure at occupations that really matter.

Not that this perception of the artist is universal by any means. Nor that every community is as aware as others of the artists in their midst or of their contributions. (The bulletin board mentioned above happens to be in the very art-conscious Upper West Side of Manhattan -- hardly a typical American community!) Even so, it does represent a general improvement in how the as-yet-not-successful artist is perceived in this country today.

At the same time, I wonder if the artist is any better understood today than he was 25 or 50 years ago. Or if this greater acceptance hasn't resulted from much greater media coverage (leading to greater curiosity about art) - and from the stories circulating about the money a successful or even nearly successful artist can make. It is fairly common knowledge, after all, that there are a dozen or so recent American painters and sculptors who became millionaires through their art, and that there are at least a dozen more whose annual income runs into the mid-to-high six figures.

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