Market Project’s public debate TOO MANY ARTISTS took place on November 9th 2011 at Firstsite in Colchester.
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.
Julie Freeman: Now we’ve got Dave Beech. Dave is an artist in the Freee Collective, with three “E”s. He studied Fine Art at Leicester Poly and the Royal College of Art and is currently a writer and lecturer at Chelsea College of Art. He’s written widely on the politics of art and is a regular contributor to Art Monthly and other art magazines. In 2002 he coauthored a book, ‘The Philistine Controversy’, with John Roberts and he’s a founding editor of the journal ‘Art and the Public Sphere.’ As an artist he’s exhibited widely and internationally and most recently in the Liverpool Biennial in 2010. His current research as a writer, artist and curator focuses on three areas namely the politics of art, the legacy of the avant garde and research into art and the public sphere. You can find him… I think not very often! … on his website Freee.org.uk.
Dave Beech: Thank you. The first thing I want to say is that if we’re going to talk about having an oversupply of artists, we need to think of this geographically. Are there too many artists in Colchester? Are there too many artists in the countryside? We might think there are too many artists in London, but are there too many artists in Mayfair, and are there too many artists in Putney? Are there too many artists in Warrington, where I come from? Not that I’ve noticed, I’ve got to say.
It seems that the geography of the arts, and the arts in London, indicates something about how art’s experienced by most people. It’s experienced by most people as something distant, something far away, done by other people. There are different figures for the amount of arts graduates in the UK per year. Abbot said that there were 10,000. Stroud Karnock [?] said that there are 4,000. There are 150 art courses in the UK, I think the average is probably 50 per course. So I make it a maximum of 7,500, but I think it’s between 4,000 and 7,500.
There are 20,000 engineering graduates in the UK every year. India produces 170,000 engineer graduates per year. In the UK there are 30,000 Business and Finance graduates per year. That’s about 300,000 graduates overall for the UK every year. So our 4,000-7,000 arts graduates is quite small in comparison to most of the courses and subjects and I just want to keep that in mind, that when we say that there are maybe six or seven thousand new artists every year it’s actually a very small number taken nationally.
There’s another problem with thinking about oversupply. Oh, sorry, there are currently as of the end of 2010 it was measured that there are 938,000 NEETs. A NEET is not educated, employed or training [ed. note: officially the acronym NEET stands for "Not in education, employment or training"] so these are young people who are not engaged in education or in the economy. Nearly a million of them, whilst at the same time there are roughly- this doesn’t include international students- 2.5 million students in the country. So our five or six thousand I think is a drop in the ocean. And in fact if you think about how some people in this room will think that art is an extremely important thing to be engaged in, we’re talking about a very tiny proportion of the population that are actively engaged in producing art.
The issue of oversupply is an economic idea, it comes from economists. It’s a way that economists talk about labour markets. Sue talked about the problem coming from the 1980s and as being recognised in 1977. The first time economists talked about the oversupply of labour in the arts is in 1966 by the economists Ballmer [???] and B[???] and they talk about the oversupply of performing artists, and they’re thinking of the theatre and the opera and so forth. But this argument of the oversupply has been used by economists ever since. And as Sue mentioned, Ruth Towse says in her book, I think it’s ‘The Handbook of Cultural Economics’, that it’s understood by “all” economists that there’s an oversupply of artistic labour. Economists will then use this kind of badly derived pseudo-fact to make an argument on our behalf, they’ll say because there’s an oversupply of artists, then artists are badly paid.
Hans Abbing makes this argument in his book ‘Why Are Artists Poor?’. They argue that artists would be better off if they took different jobs, if they quit art and took some other kind of job and earn more money from taking this other job. And this is in fact what waged labourers normally do. If you are in a job that’s badly paid, and you are capable of getting another job that’s better paid then waged labourers typically move to the more lucrative labour market. And if artists acted in this economically rational way, economists tell us, then the market for artistic labour would find its equilibrium, in other words the number of artists would match the number of positions for artists and the wages would be liveable, whereas at the moment they’re not livable wages.
In fact there is no labour market for art at all. This is what’s never mentioned by economists. There is no labour market, so how can we have an oversupply of labour when there is no labour market to be oversupplied. Nobody has a job as an artist, nobody is employed by a capitalist to work and be paid wages for making art in the way that people are employed in industry and commerce.
Now, that’s an important fact and we need to dwell on that, but what’s also interesting is that economists will constantly tell us that there is an undersupply of art. There’s an oversupply of labour, but an undersupply of art. This is how economists explain the fact that prices of artworks are so high, incredibly high. We’re talking about $15 million for a single work by Damien Hirst, for instance. That’s quite high for something where the cost of production, as we’ve heard, doesn’t come anywhere near that. Economists will say that the reasons these prices exist is undersupply of art works. But what they mean is the art market is actually a second hand market. The primary market for art is so small in comparison both in terms of volume and in terms of turnover, the portion of the primary market of living artists compared to the amount of sales and the cost and the prices of those sales in secondary market, makes the primary market almost irrelevant. What economist look to in the secondary market, it’s primarily populated by dead artists. This is why economist will tell you there’s an undersupply, because all the people who supply that market are already dead. So you can’t get them to make some more when there happens to be demand for their work. We’ve got this very odd economic argument made, based on an oversupply of artists and an undersupply of product.
I would rather argue that the way to think about the undersupply of art works is to argue that there is in fact NO supply of art works, in the sense that I think truly speaking artists do not produce products for a market. I think artists produce art for lots of other reasons and I think that’s also true of artistic labour. The reason that there’s an oversupply of labour, as I think Sue was hinting, is that people don’t do it for the money. People become artists because it’s important for them to produce culture. This is why we need to rethink the question of oversupply of artists. There is no- for instance- oversupply of people who recycle their waste. I don’t you can have an oversupply of people who recycle their waste. And the important thing to remember in this hypothetical oversupply of people who recycle their waste is that there would be nothing wrong with absolutely everybody recycling their waste. If it’s possible for everybody to recycle their waste and that doesn’t impinge on other people recycling, if that’s possible you simply cannot have an oversupply of those people.
So if you then think about other things that it might be impossible to have an oversupply of. Too many people baking their own bread. It seems to me that there’s no way of arguing that there could be an oversupply of people baking their own bread. There might be a case made by people who industrially produce bread that they wouldn’t want that to happen, but you would just have to say they’ve lost their market which wouldn’t necessarily be any bad thing.
The other thing that even economist would agree with is that you cannot have an oversupply of consumers. One of the things on the website, I can’t remember the exact wording, is that art can be for all. Now the reason you can say that art can be for all is that you can’t have an oversupply of consumers, you can’t have an oversupply of art viewers. There’s a cultural argument that everyone can enjoy art, just as everyone can recycle, everyone can bake bread, so there’s a cultural case for it but there’s also an economic case for it in that economists will tell you that since markets are governed by demand, you cannot have an oversupply of consumers, you can only have an undersupply of products for those consumers but the job of industry and commerce is to match that demand.
So you can’t have an oversupply of consumers, but what I think we need to do is shift the debate entirely and I would want to suggest that we cannot have too many people who produce culture rather than just consuming it. In other words there cannot be an oversupply of people having an active engagement with our culture. That is impossible.
Julie Freeman: Thanks very much, Dave. There’s loads of food for thought in there.