TOO MANY ARTISTS: some initial ideas for getting rid of them

July 18th, 2011 | Posted by Alistair in art | discussion | slideshow

On Saturday 16th July 2011 I ran a workshop during ArtSway‘s Beyond the Commission symposium at Arts University College at Bournemouth (AUCB); the workshop’s aim was to develop some ideas for ridding ourselves of the acknowledged excess of artists around at the moment.

When I say acknowledged, I don’t just mean that artists all basically know it; this is true, but at Market Project we’ve also heard similar sentiments from virtually every arts professional with whom we’ve spoken. There are now far too many people competing for dwindling resources and opportunities. Galleries and arts organisations are overwhelmed with serious applicants and hopeless wannabes. There’s even a massive oversupply of work to the commercial market and an overabundance of artists represented by commercial galleries (despite them only numbering in the low hundreds), as we were told directly last month by the director of the Contemporary Art Society, Paul Hobson.

At the workshop, in the spirit of Jonathan Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’*, no holds were barred and no solution was too extreme. Noted below are some of our musings and conclusions. Further comments are welcomed, especially if you were one of the people who attended the workshop and I’ve missed something out. Contributions are welcome from all and sundry as well, of course. In any case I’d like to say thanks to all the people who attended the workshop and shared their psychopathic ideas for the art world’s Year Zero.

[1] Once an artist is dead, totally destroy all the work they made. This would immediately torpedo a huge swathe of the art industry and force collectors (or the new, post-necrophile version of collectors) to only buy work by living artists. Galleries and museums would also be cleared out regularly as artists passed on, to be replenished with the new work of living artists.

[2] A license for artists based on what you’ve actually done instead of who you know or which art school you attended, akin to the process for an actor getting an Equity union card. Your license has to be actively renewed based on making and showing your work professionally. If you don’t actually make or show anything for a certain number of years you’re out, you’re no longer allowed to call yourself an artist and you have to start the process again from scratch.

[3] Fixed, mandatory retirement age for artists. Or a MINIMUM age for professional artists.

[4] Revival of the pre-Renaissance master and apprentice model; apprentices stay with their masters until they are truly ready to practice as independent professionals in their own right, at which point the master bows out gracefully instead of hanging on for as long as they can. Japan already does something similar to this, with “living national treasures” receiving state funding to pass on their skills in music or craft to young apprentices.

[5] Reclaim the words “art” and “artist” for things that actually are art and people who actually are artists. There’s nothing wrong with crafts or craftspeople, for example, but craft makers have increasingly been positioned (usually for funding purposes) as artists instead of what they are: professionals in their own right, but not artists. The labels “art” and “artist” should be earned, not automatically bestowed upon any passing object. Art galleries are for artists only!


[7] Eliminate every situation in which an artist is expected to be an underpaid teacher, social worker, daycare nanny or some combination of the aforementioned. Eliminate the very idea that artists are meant to fulfil these roles. Art is important to a peaceful and civilised society: so are social workers, teachers and nannies. Let the people who want to be social workers be social workers, and let us do our jobs.

[8] Eliminate all hobbyists. You can keep your hobby, but you’re not an artist.

[9] Probation, or something like the doctor’s Hippocratic Oath. Amass enough demerits and you’re struck off and forbidden to practice by a jury of your peers.

[10] It was generally agreed that whatever one’s political objections (or not) to the rise in tuition fees for graduate courses in the UK, this development will ultimately have relatively little impact on the oversupply of artists because the fees are gathered in the form of student loans. Even successful artists will take many years to start earning above the threshold required to trigger student loan repayments. Many of them will never hit that threshold unless they take up other full time jobs, which is what most art students have been doing for decades anyway.

In either case the deterrent is primarily psychological rather than practical. Most artists don’t expect to make very much money and they don’t enter the profession for the sake of being rich.

[11] Although she wasn’t there, I should add to this list our Elaine’s excellent idea of a vicious Shirley Jackson-esque lottery where everyone simply draws lots and the losers are summarily ejected from the profession with no chance of appeal.

[12] Pay people to NOT be artists, something similar to the EU occasionally paying farmers to stop farming in order to manage oversupply and waste in agriculture.



We also thrashed out a hit list of individuals and institutions who have done the most damage to the morale and the livelihoods of artists over the past ten years or so.

[1] The YBAs. In fact I didn’t even finish my preamble before somebody shouted out “Damien Hirst!”, followed immediately by “Tracey Emin!” Their  adolescent pursuit of celebrity, shock and notoriety, their Thatcherite greed and the sheer stupidity of the things they’ve done and said in public have done incalculable damage to the rest of us. I and most other artists I know have wasted many hours of our lives explaining that we’re not like these people, that we work really hard, we’re not rich and that we actually care what ordinary people think of our work.

[2] The media, especially the national press who have profited by whipping up ridicule of contemporary art and artists (albeit sometimes justified, in the case of the YBAs) and the art magazines with whom certain artists and galleries have an excessively cosy and unchallenging relationship.

[3] The Public. Both the idea of “the Public” and the public as a mass of real human beings. Every person who ever said “my five year old could do that” or anything similar is on the blacklist. So is every person at a gallery or funding organisation who insisted on “interaction” or “community involvement” without knowing what either of these things means, and without really caring if people genuinely interact or get involved in their community.

Although most artists care what people think of their work, the idea that all art should be subject to majority approval is both dangerous and increases the quantity of art and artists without actually improving the QUALITY of art or artists. Art and society move forward because of initially unpopular ideas that challenge the status quo.

Also heading for a swift demise in our revolution are all the people who moan that there’s nothing for them to see and do, but who can rarely or never be bothered to show up for exhibitions or arts events. So are people who complain about and object to art projects they’ve never even seen.

[4] Artists. The ones who stab other artists in the back, the ones who work for nothing instead of demanding proper pay, the ones who care about nothing and nobody but themselves. Compliant artists who never complain no matter how badly they’re treated, because they’re scared of blotting their copy book. The liars and plagiarists.

[5] Curators. There are too many of them, as well. Still too many artists remain, but it seems that rich, overprivileged idiots are turning away from calling themselves artists and calling themselves curators instead. Especially sought for crimes against artists are curators who forget that their jobs couldn’t exist without artists, “postcode curators” who only ever look in one place for artists to work with, and curators who manufacture trends and themes artificially instead of bothering to find out what artists are actually doing.


It was cathartic, we had lots of laughs and we plotted the murder of thousands.


*In which Swift satirically proposed that the solution to Irish starvation was very simple: the Irish had too few potatoes and too many children, potatoes cost money but children could be begotten for free, therefore they should stave off starvation by eating their children.

** I must also acknowledge Alex Pearl’s brilliant application for an Arts Council grant so he could set up an extermination programme for the verminous hordes of excess artists. Sadly his application was declined.

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15 Responses

  • Corrected the numbering… these things are too important for procedural irregularities.

  • Alex Pearl says:

    Putting the Lilly liveredness of the Arts Council to one side for a moment I do agree with Alastair that this is a serious issue. Actually, back to the Arts Council. They have, this year, made some very brave decisions in their spending review which will go some way to culling numbers and to defining who qualifies as an artist (or at least an artist worth funding). The real artists are those in the Tate collections (in the south) and the rest aren’t. But I don’t want to get grumpy and to over simplify the issue. Rather here are a couple more suggestions.

    1. All “artists” should be registered and issued little coloured patches of cloth according to the type of artist they are and whether or not they are worth funding. I would suggest something along the lines of the money in “The Adventure Game” red triangles being the lowest, violet hexagons the highest. Thus the lower ranked “artists” could be singled out for educational roles and opportunities and funding allocated according to rank.

    2. I read a book in which a great wizard challenged all the other wizards to a show of magic. If he was best they would sign a contract never to be wizards again. I’m sure we could do something with this. Though it may only lead to argument.

    • And the patches have to be worn prominently at all times on an external garment so people can point and laugh because you don’t have a proper job, artists with superior labels can condescend to you without fear of contradiction, critics know who to talk to at private views and who to ignore, and strangers can tell you that what you do isn’t art, that their five year old kid could do better, etc.
      Your preamble made me realise, though, that not paying artists and withdrawing money from them seems to have had the counterintuitive (or even perverse) effect of INCREASING their numbers.
      I agree that the AC have certainly had a good stab this year at culling opportunities for artists, but it’s still not working so perhaps the state needs to waste MORE money to get rid of all the art world’s parasites?

  • Alex Pearl says:

    Are artists like those Star Trek aliens whose powers/size etc increase under phaser fire? If so we shall soon be buried like Kirk under tribbles (to badly mix metaphors). If so, (unlike the tribbles because they liked feeding). The only hope is to chuck lashings of cash at the artworld until those that are only in it for the joy leave and stop giving the rest of us a bad name. Perhaps Portillo’s new private (£55million Arts Council funded) funding initiative will help?

  • mrsparaguay1991 says:

    Yes, neoliberalism… First we wanted art to be part of the economics and now we have way too many people recognising art as a market. Problem is, to have a steak in the market you don’t need to be an artist but a dodgy merchant.

  • peter green says:

    Too many civil servants, not enough jobs.

    It all comes down to quality and meaning in my book, something that can affect you and hit you like a bullet between the eyes or something that blows your mind – there’s no point in making or presenting anything less, just way too much mediocrity out there. Too many people of not high enough quality who have too many possibilities to make anything and call it art and themselves artist’s. Not enough whittling down of what’s good and what’s bad. It’s not supply and demand, it’s quality, quality, quality. Subjectivity has a lot to answer for.

  • DamienMQ says:

    [0] Before the private view it will be an event call “Art or Dead” in which all the local artist will be invited to experience the exhibition. The group will be divided in two. Group A: those that believe the exhibition makes the time of their life’s worth living;
    Group B: the ones that believe the exhibition deserves to be burned in fire with the artist trap in it.
    Each group will kill all the other artist of the other group.
    If there are only survivors of Group A the exhibition has a pass that authorice the artist to show it.
    If there are only survivors of Group B the exhibition will be taken down and the artist will be burn with his/her work.
    I believe that after one o two years art will change, for good or maybe for bad. The survivors will be accepted by all and they will define the new meaning of art.

  • liv says:

    Too many artists. Daft. You can’t have too many artists. If only more people would keep making time to thoughtfully and passionately create things that are beautiful and / or meaningful the world would be a much more peaceful place. The problem here is money, not art.

  • Mark says:

    I have to think that your blog is unread by most if not all since no one has stated that your designation of artists via sew on patches smack of the Jews having to wear the Star of David patches. Please think before you post. Someone might call you a facist or nazi for that small punch-list gem…

    • Alistair says:

      Thanks for your concern, Mark, but don’t worry: we have thousands of readers. I think the reason that hardly anyone has raised an objection is that most people get the point and have some sense of humour.

      May I suggest you do a bit of research on the definitions, functioning and purposes of satire and black humour? The allusions by myself and other people to the forced wearing of patches were, I assure you, not an inadvertent revelation that we are all secret Nazis.

      While you’re at it you could check the spelling of “fascist”, assuming that’s what you meant and “facist” wasn’t a typo for the intended word “racist”.

      And to fight indignation with indignation, I’m quite offended by you unselfconsciously calling Jewish people “the Jews”, which is as objectifying and dehumanising as saying “the blacks” or “the gays”… which (for the avoidance of any possible doubt) are both also completely wrong and offensive, and I am not joking. The only people I’ve encountered using terms like these are genuine antisemites, racists and homophobes.

      Take your own advice and think before YOU post, please.

  • myron says:

    i would start a supreme artist court, you submit your best
    (in order to save your life) work, they look at your work for two hours and if they thumbs down on you, you will
    be taken out and executed , your choice of execution.
    this will take care of the problem

  • admin says:

    Portfolio session… TO THE DEATH. We’re interested in who the judges would be at the supreme artist court.