Too Many Artists: Transcript, part I

December 9th, 2011 | Posted by admin in art | art education | data | discussion | event | research | slideshow

Market Project’s public debate TOO MANY ARTISTS took place on November 9th 2011 at Firstsite in Colchester.

Our initial proposal to the speakers: Over the last few decades, in both the commercial and subsidised art worlds, the assumption has been that more and bigger is better; more galleries, more art students, more artists, more art projects, more arts facilitators, more participants. But would society, the art world and artists themselves actually benefit from a drastic reduction? Could the funding crisis and thousands of people falling out of the profession be a positive development?

On the panel were: From Market Project, artist Alistair Gentry and TED Fellow Julie Freeman (with the latter chairing the debate); Dave Beech, artist, writer and member of Freee collective; Professor John Hutnyk from the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths University; Susan Jones, director of a-n The Artists Information Company.

NB: Our recording (and this transcript) begins with Susan Jones’ talk, which was the first. Also omitted is Alex Pearl’s brief talk about his Project Pusscat (a satirical proposal that he receive an Arts Council grant for exterminating excess artists) plus Julie Freeman’s introduction to Market Project and of Susan Jones, director of a-n the artists information company, who is on Twitter @SusanJonesArts. This is the first quarter of the transcript, more to come next week.

Susan Jones: A hard act to follow, Alex Pearl. How dare you, when I’ve done all this preparation! Obviously an issue like this is very diverse and is semi-serious, but I’ve done a bit of a study that’s background to that and I’m going to give you a lot of data because that’s what I’m good at. One of the advantages of being old is that you have a lot of data. So I’m going to look at some of these issues about oversupply, if you like. This issue of oversupply has been around quite a long time and in fact it was raised by Ruth Towse, the economist. But actually in 1997, sorry 1977, it was reckoned there was only about 20,000 artists altogether. And looking at what they did indicated there was a lot of kind of hidden corners and so on about how they made a living. But there was this huge growth in the education system and it’s not a recent thing, nor is the growth of courses and student numbers which was as early as 1988. And very importantly those institutions have provided a lot of income for artists, so we shouldn’t knock them in fact. It’s a very important part of how they make a living.

Obviously that number has increased, we can see that from the data that’s appearing on the screen. But interestingly the amount of work available now is considerably higher as a result of extrapolating from previous years. So there has been a proportionate growth in the amount of money being made available to artists. Most recent figures actually put the total number at between 26,000 and 30,000 so it’s actually beginning to settle back down again without us having to exterminate anybody quite yet. But one of the issues I think we have to address is what exactly an artist is, and it’s a very wobbly and diverse description. We purposefully don’t over define it because if we did a lot of people couldn’t actually claim to be it.

So this [on screen] is a definition from 1989, which as you can see covers all sorts and actually allows people to self-define their position in the market. There’s a commensurate lack of interest amongst artists about calling themselves a profession because a professional is somebody who basically earns a salary, who makes a living, as well as having autonomy in what they’re doing… and a lot of artists don’t necessarily feel that’s a very important thing and therefore don’t want to be badged about it. And these various quotes are about the alternative ways of viewing the value of artists. Laura ?? Carty said back in 1998 that artists were important because of “blue skies”, they weren’t important necessarily because they’re in a work role or because they contributed to regeneration and so on.

Of course the issue about oversupply is that it brings down the price and the value of things, when in fact artists may prefer to work full time and make less money than not work at all and that is a choice that people can make about how they live their lives. Nothing that we can say or create a yardstick for would stop people having their own personal choice.

[One person faintly, in the audience: “Hurrah!]

Interestingly, one of the things that I looked at when I was preparing this talk was how things were working the writing world and what I heard was that new forms of publishing are actually making it possible for many, many more books to published- this is not self publishing, this is traditional publishing- but it actually works outside the world of publishing in order to do that so the publisher doesn’t become the arbiter of taste. It does mean that each book sells fewer copies, but you know that’s the issue that’s facing a lot of people working in business and enterprise at the moment, you have to sell a lot of smaller amounts of things in order to survive as a business.

When I put the same comment to somebody working in music, they said well how could you possibly restrict people’s right to become self-employed and to be autonomous in their choice of profession. Why would you even want to do that? Why would you want to think about doing that? But she did go on to say that in the world of contemporary music the link with the market is a lot more clearly defined and the issue that I think we face in the visual arts is the interference, perhaps, that the state puts into the equation. The state is not at all neutral in the way that it decides to operate within the visual arts, and I really like this piece of information from a very early survey about the state and its role in the arts which talked about the role of drawing in helping the working classes to denounce [? unintelligible]. That it would “civilise” and create taste and so on, and in fact the Arts Council in its original form was set up purely to deal with the visual arts and not to deal with performing arts at all, and that was because the view was that the performing arts had its own regulation mechanism.

It was only the visual arts that stood outside that, and in fact if you think about that, that’s why museums and galleries were free- because they were designed for educating the working classes and we are in a sense carrying that forward to now. We might wonder why on earth it has to be that there are no gallery charges when in fact it’s the norm across every other country in the world, and artists would often be the first to say “well I don’t want people to charge for galleries because I couldn’t afford to go”… but in fact every little gallery that you might go to outside the UK charges and that means there are catalogues, that means are fees to artists and so on. But we are stuck in a sense with the millstone of how the state started off with its relationship with the visual arts. So I’ve completely deviated from everything I was trying to say, but that’s what you do when you follow Alex Pearl, there’s nothing you can do about it.

So, 1% of people make a living from being a fine artist according Mary Throp [?] in a book that came out earlier in the year. Artists feel both inspired and embarrassed by the fact that they find it hard to command an income from what they do, but they are all making a positive choice about art being an important part of how they live their lives. From that point of view it’s a balancing act more than anything else. I’m against the notion of restricting the number of artists, I’m against censorship and even in the nicest possible way the notion of cutting down numbers because somebody else thinks it’s a good idea is a path fraught with difficulty.

What I am in favour of is the notion of thinking about redundancy, because artists as a profession may benefit enormously from being able to say “actually, I’m now redundant,” but there are no mechanisms to that. I think that is a better proposition to look at.

Julie Freeman: Thanks, Susan. I think that’s very interesting- if there was a good redundancy package then maybe some artists would be taking it. It’s very interesting that you say the state is not neutral in how it operates in the visual. I don’t think the state is neutral in how it operates in any area, particularly.

So we’ve got Alistair Gentry now on the “for” side. Alistair is an artist and writer, or a writer and artist from the east of England. He works nationally and internationally in video, animation, installation, drawing, photography, performance, text and programming, and his writing career is parallel and equal to his career in the visual arts. He’s authored two published novels and is currently writing another. His latest book is ‘Career Suicide: Ten years as a Free Range Artist’-which is actually very funny and worth reading- it’s a first hand, non fictional account of the art world’s flaws and failures and is available on Alistair tweets @AlistairGentry and… is worth following.

[Some microphone shenanigans.]

Alistair Gentry: OK, this book ‘Career Suicide’… I’m here to represent the dangerous path that Susan just talked about, actually. I was going to talk but I realised I’d already gone over this ground a little bit in my book, so I’m just going to read you a little bit from it. Don’t worry, it’s not too long.

The huge amount of wastage or dieback― substitute your preferred demoralising term here― is not even because most art students aren’t good enough… although as it happens most of them really aren’t good enough. In fact most students or schoolchildren I’ve known or taught were the most colossal dumbarses, which is not a specific slight against the youth of today because it also applies to a great number of professional artists and gallery people. A child at least has the excuse that they’re a child and their brain is in most cases physically incapable of competing with that of an intelligent adult. Unfortunately there are grown adults working in the art world who- like many five year olds- can’t add up very well, lie and shift blame constantly if there’s any hope of getting away with it, struggle to control the impulses of their ids and are unable to pay attention to anything important for more than five minutes. The overwhelming majority of people in the world are morons.

Charles Mackay’s exasperated Nineteenth century book ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’ nails it from the beginning: “Men, it has well to be said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” Incidentally, Mackay’s book is seven hundred pages long. The first hundred or so of those pages are exclusively and strikingly dedicated to the flamboyant and contagious foolishness of early capitalist debacles like the Mississippi Scheme, The South Sea Bubble and Tulipomania. Mackay points out that he could have filled fifty more volumes without fear of ever repeating himself, where the subject of human stupidity is concerned. And he’d never even heard of Twitter.

Even before I heard of it, experience had made me a believer in American sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of everything is crud.” He got tired of defending the genre he earned his living from, not least because in his view the majority of science fiction really was indefensible. So instead he took to pointing out that science fiction’s distribution along the quality curve was exactly the same as any other genre, medium or product that he was aware of. He seems to have been an intelligent and self-aware man, so at the end of his life he’d probably have agreed that ninety percent of his own work was crud, too. Ninety percent of Western films are crud; there aren’t many like ‘The Wild Bunch’ or ‘A Fistful of Dollars.’ Almost every consumer product currently on sale is pretty much undeniably either a blatant waste of money or at the very least deliberately and ridiculously overpriced relative to its true value in everyday use and the cost of manufacturing it.

This ratio doesn’t just apply to what is still snootily referred to as “genre” work or mass production. Sturgeon’s Law also permeates what is commonly described as high culture. Ninety percent of contemporary art is meaningless crap. Almost every work of so-called “literary” fiction isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Only about one in ten truly popular, bestselling novels are anything but utter drivel and every publisher knows it. It’s a commonplace that a great many people (middle class ones, anyway) have an unfinished novel stashed in a drawer or lurking on their hard drive. The wisest people usually leave them there permanently. The general public should count themselves very lucky indeed that they never have to see some of the utter shit that does get hauled out and submitted to publishers. Much of it is so heinous and such an embarrassment to the author that it can’t even struggle up to the extremely low standards of coherence and intellectual heft that are currently operating in the commercial publishing industry. Working in editing and copy editing, I’ve seen first hand the kind of material that gets published and suffered through some of the submissions that one fervently hopes never to see unleashed upon the world. As a result of these experiences I can tell you without fear of contradiction that if you’re able to construct a meaningful, grammatical sentence, if you have a rudimentary grasp of what makes other human beings tick, and if your insanity or other mental deficiencies don’t leap off the page or screen, then you’re already head and shoulders (at least) above many of your potential competitors. Very many of the semi-literate evolutionary dead ends responsible for these slush pile outrages will get published anyway and you probably won’t, because they went to Cambridge or Harvard or wherever and you didn’t. Life is totally unfair.

Being absolutely and blithely in the lower ninety majority is also quite evidently not much of an impediment to many artists or aspiring artists, especially if they have the aforementioned deep pockets combined with a grave lack of self-awareness and a narcissistic need to reshape the world to their own twisted specifications. Sturgeon’s Law and Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies at the same time ninety percent of art students have the same egocentricity and lack of talent as Adolf Hitler!

The idea of being an artist sounds cool and this has always led a lot of people (including Hitler) to think it’s so easy that they could do it as well. One of the many myths about artists that these wannabes have blindly bought into is the fallacy that being an artist is not a job: it’s a way of avoiding the need to get one. Unfortunately for everyone involved, opportunities are rarer than hen’s teeth and getting rarer all the time, even for that tiny minority with the talent and tenacity necessary to stick with the job for as long as it’s usually necessary to get anywhere. That’s probably always been the case. From the skills and deliberation we can see in the surviving works, it seems that not just anybody was allowed to paint bison and deer on cave walls forty thousand years ago. A lot of Stone Age people probably thought that any idiot could do that job, and some of them probably tried; those individuals were no more correct than their modern counterparts are. I expect there were also people who sat around the fire grumbling about the artist getting a share of the mammoth meat, when all he did was draw or think all day.

Right now, though, this inherent scarcity of artistic opportunity is being exacerbated by a prevailing culture in which it’s frowned upon to tell a student (or anyone at all) that they’ve failed, that they need to improve their skills, that they should quit this very instant and do something for which they have real aptitude, or simply that they’re wrong. All of these things involve honesty on both sides of the conversation, and honesty is unfashionable and “nasty” in our current culture because self esteem is paramount and it’s supposedly damaging to peoples’ self esteem for us to tell each other the truth. In my experience there are a great many people who esteem themselves far too highly, even without external validation or encouragement. In the creative professions this leads to a massive surfeit of people clogging the system and obliviously sucking up resources without any hope of ever making it. Anybody who’s actually achieved something worthwhile should of course be proud of it, but the important and often expediently ignored words here are “actually achieved something.” Just because you really, really, really want to do a thing that doesn’t place any obligation on the universe to start making it happen.

Imagine going to a restaurant. For every waiter and cook who knows what they’re doing there are nine wannabes following them around and getting under their feet, offering to work to a lower standard and for much less money, wannabes whose knowledge of the job they claim to want begins and ends with microwaving a frozen ready meal. It wouldn’t be a very nice place to work or to have lunch.

Anyway, please forgive this brief detour into class warfare and schadenfreude, especially if you’re currently an art student. When I said all that stuff about most students failing to make viable lives for themselves as artists, or I derided people wasting a lot of money and the best part of their youth doing pointless MAs that culminate in futile research and derivative graduation shows about art that already exists, leaving themselves totally unemployable, and so forth… I was only joking, dear audience. You’re going to have a very long and productive career, I’m sure.

Julie Freeman: Thanks, Alistair. I was just thinking that if 90% of the art world is crud, that means there’s 10% that is actually good, but of that 10% only 10% of them are making any money if only 1% of artists are making any money, so there’s a big chunk of people making excellent work and still not making any money.

Alistair Gentry: Well, yeah, and also in the art world quality is often divorced from success as well.

Julie Freeman: This is true.

Part II: Dave Beech on art world economics and his disagreement with the idea of oversupply.

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