Too Many Artists: transcript, part IV

December 19th, 2011 | Posted by admin in art | art education | discussion | event

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.

Read Part I. Read Part II. Read Part III.

Julie Freeman: Something I was just thinking about… Dave, you were talking a lot about “the economists say”, you used that phrase quite a few times. I think the models that we’re talking about seem to be at the top level of the art market, where only a few artists operate, and you said, a lot of them are dead! It’s high value art that’s changing hands in the primary and secondary markets. The majority of artists don’t really work at that level. The people that are in that art market are businessmen, collectors, investors, not actually the artists. Artists on the whole work in a very different world, there’s a different art world to that art world you talked about. I wonder if you want to say a little bit more about that, how the actual practitioners function?

Dave Beech: There’s two aspects to this relationship between the bourgeois capital “A” Artist and something that I still want to call an artist, which is people that make art but are not these bourgeois capital “A” Artists, and they have different relationships to the market, but I think any art that’s been produced in our history… if you look back to, say, the 1960s, then you could say at that point there’s an oversupply of conceptual artists, there were so many conceptual artists working, nobody wants to buy the stuff. If we deal with that generation of artists economically and we expect them to behave in an economically rational way, rather than doing what they do because they believe in it, we would ask them to stop doing that and do something more lucrative.

But we did have, in the 19th century, an oversupply of Vincent Van Gogh. Nobody wanted to buy that stuff. Economically that is an oversupply. We have a lag, a time lag, between the production of art and the purchase of art, and sometimes not just the purchase of it but also the viewing of it, the valuing of it and the esteem of it so we have this lag which doesn’t work very well with economics. Economics doesn’t deal very well with that lag. That says something to the relationship between the market and artistic production. But I think we need to think about artists’ production in a much broader sense.

I’m thinking about people who can play a musical instrument. You cannot have an oversupply of people who can play a musical instrument. Also if you think about music before the 20th century, or even the beginning of the 20th century, before mechanical reproduction of music, before radio and before records and CDs, the way that music was consumed was with sheet music. In other words, the way that you heard your songs was to play them and that gives you a very different experience of the music. It seems to me that the same is true not only of music and art but also of sport. If you engage in a sport then your perception of that sport is heightened. So what I would say is that the production of art is an important part of simply engaging with it. In other words when I’m talking about the problem is that we’re being asked to be consumers of art rather than producers of art, it’s not because I don’t want people to consume art, it’s because I think producing art is part of consuming art, and it ought to be, and there’s no economic or cultural reason I can think of why we shouldn’t all produce art in response to what we see.

Alistair Gentry: I would add though that sheet music was a massive industry.

Dave Beech: Of course it was, I’m talking about the different experience of music where it’s not about listening to somebody else, it’s about playing it.

Alistair Gentry: No, I understand that but it was nonetheless a huge industry that fought for its survival… my point is, it was a huge industry that fought for its own survival in the same way that certain cultural industries are fighting for their survival now. It wasn’t a folk movement. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you, but it’s important to point that out.

John Hutnyk: Alright, I’ve got a question for Dave. If you make bread or art, you’re either a baker or an artist and what you were saying is that we could never have too many people baking bread… if we all make bread, we don’t need bakers. So is the logic of that, we don’t need artists? You [DB] should be on our side!

Alistair Gentry: And could I just add to that furthermore if everybody’s making bread, that isn’t necessarily the best use of everybody’s time. Surely it’s more logical for the best person, the baker in the family to make the bread and other people in the family to engage themselves in doing other things, things that benefit other people in turn?

Dave Beech: I think that baking bread is a valuable experience in itself, and making bread shouldn’t be something that you farm out to other people. The point is- I think you [JH] should be on our side!- you kept saying that there’s this small number of artists with a capital “A”, they’ve got a monopoly on the production of art and the problem is that art is therefore bourgeois, artists gentrify an area, in other words artists who are this minority, an elite, are then set on geographical areas or institutions and have this leadership role in terms of the expansion of coffee houses and so on. It seems to me the argument therefore is not that we should have fewer artists, but that if everyone was an artist then that leadership role would not be possible. One of the things said in the opening remarks was wouldn’t we benefit from a reduction in the number of artists… let’s think about who would benefit. It’s Artists with a capital “A”.

John Hutnyk: No, I disagree.

Dave Beech: Financially, if there’s an oversupply there’s an underpayment. If you reduce the supply of labour then the payment goes up, in other words the people who are already in it are the ones who will benefit from a reduction.

John Hutnyk: Can I explain why I disagree? I’m kind of with Alex [Pearl] in a way, let’s just exterminate the brutes. I like humour but somehow I think that kind of grotesque humour is at the expense of, well in this case the Jews, or the Japanese that suffered the sarin attack but the uncomfortable edge of that- well, both uncomfortable and comforting- is something that brings us to a key question about the crisis, and solutions for the crisis are what we’re talking about here. Not the Final Solution, that would be kind of obscene. Yes, it is true that capital “A” Artists have a privilege, they belong to the Rolling Stones or they go to Goldsmiths, or they’re critics- I have to include myself, right? They have privileged exemption from visa restrictions, Anthony Gormley is their champion, and they occasionally get grants.

So the solution to that is to rip up that system and have a social wage, where everybody gets not small amounts evenly handed out but an actual living wage. This current economic system is fully capable of delivering it. The bankers’ bonuses are part of the story, the cuts are part of the story. The distribution of wealth in this country is the key issue.

Alistair Gentry: I think that also connects to Susan’s point of the idea of redundancy, the idea that if you’ve got a huge number of artists and you’re arguing that artists are agents of government policy or social engineering or whatever, why would you want more of them to be used as tools by the government? There will never be any end to the places that can be regenerated, so if there’s more artists you’ve just got more tools for government policy, surely?

Susan Jones: I want to raise a different point. When I started out as an artist in the early 70s, artists signed on, that’s what artists did. The debate in my group was whether we could put any work up if most of the group were signing on. The local press would scour for anything about exhibitions and say “well, actually you’re selling work”. There was a really interesting scheme in the Netherlands that may still exist, although it was a couple of years ago, but the de Wickes [???] scheme was about redeploying social security and using that provide that wage-

John Hutnyk: Indeed, and going back a bit wasn’t one of the Thatcherite initiatives the… business opportunity…?

Susan Jones: Enterprise Allowance, yes. That was the first time artists talked about self employment…

John Hutnyk: … but they got recuperated through that.

Susan Jones: … and what was interesting about the Enterprise Allowance scheme was people like the Wilson twins were on Enterprise Allowance, and actually as a scheme it was incredibly successful in terms of moving artists out of a certain kind of labour market and into another kind of market. But I can remember the point at which surveys to artists started to ask the question about self-employment rather than signing on, because that was the sea change.

So a lot of the issues we’re now faced with is to do with the ways that artists value themselves and where they expect to make a livelihood.

John Hutnyk: But that’s why I think it’s not an issue of artists. Artists is the wrong word. If we talk like that we end up in Gormley’s position, trying to defend some of the people subject to UK border restrictions rather than all of the people. The people we need to get rid of are those neo-liberal rock god artists like Emin and Hirst and so on, they’re the ones who we have too many of. In fact we need none of those.

Well… they employ a few people. If you’re going to compromise with capital… at least they employ a couple of my friends and stuff… But it’s often internships, it’s often unpaid and we have too many artists of that type. But, yes, we talk about unemployment- we all should be artists of unemployment. I’m all for that.

Julie Freeman: Talking about the Enterprise Allowance scheme makes me think of patronage, patronage of artists and how I personally think that’s a much better way, if you can have small, steady income rather than trying to get funding for projects, or scratching around or selling one piece of big work a year. If we had some kind of patronage system, do you think that would have an effect on how many artists we could have?

Alistair Gentry: Well for one thing that connects to what’s said on both sides of the argument, that artists often don’t go into being an artist for the sake of making money or being rich. People like Emin evidently do but most people, whatever your political view, generally most sensible people who know anything about artists know that artists go into it knowing full well they’re never going to get rich doing it. And they’re right for the most part. So that social, living wage, whatever you want to call it-

John Hutnyk: I’m not sure- can we have an internal caucus?


Alistair Gentry: Of course, yes.

John Hutnyk: Do I agree or I don’t? I’m not sure…

Dave Beech: David Throsby is one of the pioneering economists that deal with artists and he’s said that artists are on the whole are perverse, and he uses the word perverse because he says that they don’t make good economic decisions. Even uneducated wage labourers make better long term decisions about what they do with their time.

John Hutnyk: That’s where we’ve got to have this out. I don’t think that… I think that most capital “A” artists are enthralled to Moloch, they’re breaking their backs to reach that… it’s a bit like the absurdity of buying lottery tickets. You’ve hardly got a chance. Everybody wants to be in the game with questioning the parameters of the game. And that’s our position, comrade!

Alistair Gentry: No, I agree totally! The bit I read you, I was alluding to that. Artists are incredibly unrealistic a lot of the time, sometimes to their benefit, sometimes to their great detriment. They refuse, often, to accept the reality that 99% of them, or 99% of any class will never do what they’re training to do.

Annabel Tilley, in audience: Can I just ask a question about what you’re saying? Do you think artists are exploited by a system that knows artists will make the work anyway? That’s what you’re saying, that artists make their own decisions… often you go forward with some kind of commission then you don’t get the funding and so you have to do the work anyway, and so whether it’s a public gallery or a commercial gallery, do we get exploited?

Alistair Gentry: Personally I think there’s no doubt that the whole industrial system works in that way. If they can get people working for low or no money, they’re not going to pay you, are they? Particularly in a system where there’s plenty more where you came from, always.

Annabel Tilley: … but if you’re focused on the art, not the money, is that bad decision?

John Hutnyk: I would say that’s true of all industries, we all stay fit for capital and we are all exploited, even if you’re part of the reserve army of labour, not actually in work, you’re in the reserve army of labour, in the categories of that old guy with the big beard who died a 160 years ago.

Susan Jones: It is interesting that a self-employed person would consider that kind of expectation, it’s much more readily associated with somebody who is not able to have that sort of control, and that’s what I think is a perversity. Other parts of the arts are very familiar with self-employment. If you go to something about contemporary music, they will have all their CDs on sale and encourage you to buy them. They actually recognise that selling some CDs is part and parcel of their practice. But we’re still in the arts stuck with this notion of, you know, don’t put the prices on, don’t actually be too forward because something might think you’re the wrong kind of artist. I think that doesn’t sit with the notion that is inherent with self-employment, which is about entrepreneurship and confidence. The confidence to say “actually, I do want to sell something” or “I want to make some kind of value exchange for what I’m doing.”

I think one of the things that people often say is that artists find it really difficult to sell work because they themselves wouldn’t be able to afford it, therefore that sets a pattern about expectations. But if you think about what else you spend money on, or what else you exchange- I mean I’ve just paid a guy to fix my roof, that was, I don’t know, £5,500 pounds, and my partner had a tooth filled this week and it cost £250, and the dentist said to him “well, that’s not much really, is it?” And he said, “It’s quite a lot to me, actually.”

So in a way, are you joining a self-employed market and looking at how to exchange your value and support your needs, whether that means having enough money to buy the ingredients to make bread instead of having to buy the cheap, horrible supermarket bread. We make bread because I can’t find any other that I think is palatable. It’s a nice thing to do and the kitchen’s nice to be in. It smells nice and it reminds me of when my mother used to make bread and therefore it is a kind of lifestyle choice and so is the lifestyle choice about being an artist.

Alistair Gentry: I would say that not only artists but the art industry, for want of a better phrase, is incredibly perverse as well because it acts as an industry or as if it wants to make money but particularly at the highest levels it’s run still as a 19th century gentleman’s agreement kind of club. They’re not even rational or subject to any economic sense at the level where they’re making millions and millions of dollars.

Helen Judge, in audience: So are you saying that the artist is never going to be a waged worker because the only way they can continue is to be an entrepreneur?

Susan Jones: No, I’m saying that the increasing volume of… in my slides I think I showed that only 7% of all other people were in that market, being self-employed. According to some of our most recent surveys, about 70% of artists were self-employed. In the creative industries as a whole it’s only about 41%, so artists are placing themselves in a very different territory, but the tradition for artists’ income was a secondary income that largely came from teaching or it came from a partner supporting an artist. Or it came from signing on.

Audience member: [Partly inaudible] …I don’t get the notion of being “employed” as an artist.

Alistair Gentry: So you’re saying if you’re not conventionally employed, then how can you be unemployed?

Audience member: Well, it’s just the idea of redundancy as well. Does an artist ever stop working?

Alistair Gentry: Well, no, maybe not, but their work may stop being of value to anyone but themselves.

Julie Freeman: Maybe they should?


Susan Jones: I’ve talked to people in studio groups who’ve said “there’s these buildings full of work that people made ages ago” and they’re paying rent on the places because they don’t know what else to do with it. To be honest I own my studio, so it’s full of the work I stopped making in 2002 so I don’t have to worry about do I throw it away or empty the studio. But from the point of view of the studio building there’s no activity going on in this studio.

So that’s where I came up with the notion that if you could allow that artist to become redundant and say that they are actually something else now, that may be that they’re or something else, but there needs to be a point where it’s recognised that a creative person no longer is doing that. Actually that would be part of making that number of artists go-

Audience member: Doesn’t that suggest that creativity can be turned on and off?

Susan Jones: I think people do stop being creative.

Audience member: Is it accepted then that if you don’t make money you’re not a success, and if you do make money you are a success? Is this what we’re saying?

Susan Jones: No, that’s not what I’m saying.

Audience member: What is success?

Susan Jones: Well, success is- as Paul Moss would say at Workplace Gallery- success is artistic autonomy.

Audience member: Something that people haven’t really addressed fully is that there needs to be a cultural change, from the top down and that includes ourselves in terms of how we view the value of what we do. For instance in Colchester if you’re an artist of any sort you rarely get paid for anything you do and it’s considered that you should be doing it for free, out of the goodness of your heart. So to get somebody to be an events manager for an arts festival, pay somebody to do that is a definite no-no. I think that’s something that comes from the bottom up as well as from the top down.

Julie Freeman: Do you think that if there were less artists, that wouldn’t be the case?

Audience member: No, I think if people valued what they did more, everybody who’s engaged in art, and they saw that there is an economic value in what they do as well as an emotional and aesthetic value, then I think we would view what we do very differently, culturally.

Annabel Dover, in audience: So are you thinking about a regulatory body of some kind?

Audience member: … probably! [Laughs]

Annabel Dover: There’s an association of illustrators…

Audience member: But then you’re pocketing them, as different types of art. I’m actually not a visual artist and I actually feel very different about being here this evening because I’m a professional but I’m not a visual artist. So do I call myself an artist?

Alistair Gentry: That’s interesting, talking about terms, I would say that term “artist” has become so incredibly elastic over the past few years that it’s almost entirely lost its meaning because so many people are calling themselves artists or are labelled as artists- against their will, or with their collusion- what is an artist, any more?

Audience member: More of a comment, I don’t know if anyone else has experienced this. I’ve moved from another industry into the art industry and my feeling is less that there are too many artists and more that there’s too much funding. I’ve spent about three years trying to come to terms with the fact that as a language graduate my skills as a linguist are “this much tutoring for an hour cost this much”, and I’ve moved from that into art where in some parts of the country artists are being paid £5 an hour and some people are getting £300-£400 a day for the same skills.

I think you commented on the open market, the fact that there is really no open market for art means that the value of us as practitioners is so random that only way you can get any value out of your art work is applying to the Arts Council and therefore we’re all chained in to continually having to apply for funding because there’s no functional market where we can be entrepreneurial and try to make a living, other than working as a teacher, or whatever…

John Hutnyk: I think it fits with what Scarman did with ethnic arts policy, there was all this theatre funding. It depends what genre we’re talking about here. “Artists”. If you’re a sculptor or a painter or maybe even a Goldsmiths practice by research person and you get a grant- great! If you’re making hip hop and you’re money from the government- problem! It really depends on breaking up this 99%.

Julie Freeman: You do, in Lewisham, get money for making hip hop.

John Hutnyk: Not very good. Can you imagine ‘Fight the Power’ funded by the California state? It just ain’t gonna work.

[Cross talk and mostly inaudible comment from the audience, something relating to the controversy that sometimes surrounds funding to artists.]

John Hutnyk: We need to be more analytical about this word, “artists”.

Alistair Gentry: And controversial to whom? That’s an important thing to think about, because in terms of funding and publicity in the art world more than probably any other, the squeaky wheel gets the oil. It’s the outrageous artists that get the press coverage and tabloid rage, and some of them cultivate that and benefit from it, like YBAs we were talking about earlier.

Audience member: The building we’re in [Firstsite in Colchester] is an example of that as well…

Alistair Gentry: Precisely, yes. This place has been hugely controversial.

John Hutnyk: Though it’s quite comfy.

Susan Jones: It is ironic that last week the Arts Council England announced a whole new raft of schemes for the arts, knowing of the extreme circumstances for individual artists, and all those grant schemes are aimed at institutions, and at existing institutions. Whilst at the same time announcing a conference for 2012 on the state of the arts, in which the title is “artists change the world”.

Alistair Gentry: To me it relates pretty closely to the banks being “too big to fail”, I think in this country-

John Hutnyk: Banksy is too big to fail.

Alistair Gentry: Yes, Banksy IS too big to fail.

Julie Freeman: He’s actually very short.

Alistair Gentry: He’s not a big man… in any sense.

Julie Freeman: Allegedly.

Alistair Gentry: Banks have been regarded as too big to fail and there are arts organisations, like the Royal Opera House for example- it’s too big to fail. They’re never going to take funding away from those kinds of organisations. The value judgement doesn’t really matter. They are regarded as too big to fail by the people who make the decisions.

Julie Freeman: “Artist” is a slippery term, but also something you could say all artists have in common, I read this recently, it’s called “aesthetic logic”. It was placed against marketing or business logic. The woman has written a paper about the Philadelphia Orchestra and the tensions within the orchestra are down to these two types of logic where the artists, the musicians, they’ve got their own agenda, and then the non-musicians, the administrators, have got their own agenda. The artists are wanting to play certain things but that doesn’t necessarily generate revenue. The people running the organisation need to generate revenue so they want the artists to change what they’re playing. That tension is at the end of the day effecting the quality of the work that they’re producing.

Elaine Tribley, in audience: Isn’t the problem that anyone can be an artist? Maybe there should be a kind of Equity card system for artists, so through jobs you actually earn-

John Hutnyk: Why would you want that privilege? Why can’t everyone be an artist, like everyone can think?

Dave Beech: I knew you were on my side!

Julie Freeman: Because we don’t want too many artists!

Alistair Gentry: I think it’s false to say that everybody can do everything. Theoretically it’s true but we don’t live in a theoretical world. In the real world certain people are better at-

Dave Beech: We’re not talking about everybody being a good artist…

Alistair Gentry: That’s a different issue.

Dave Beech: Making art can be transformative.

Elaine Tribley: Wouldn’t having something like an Equity card help you prove that you are a good artist?

Alistair Gentry: No, the point of the Equity card is you don’t have to prove you’re a GOOD actor. You just have to prove that you have worked as an actor. So you can be a really crap actor or be in a terrible play, but the accreditation is based on you working professionally.

Audience member: Yes. You have be in a paid professional production like four times, or something like that.

Alistair Gentry: It’s an important issue but it’s a separate issue, quality… you can be the worst actor ever, but if you’ve been paid to do it, you’re accredited.

[Laughter at a member of the audience who takes "worst actor ever" as their cue to rush out.]

Susan Jones: Visual artists are one of the most highly qualified of all the cultural industries. The number of artists with a first degree and a second degree is much higher than other industries, and interestingly when I looked at the situation for writers one of the things that came back was the growth of creative writing, which has been absolutely exponential and links directly with the numbers of books being published and the amount of self publishing. There was a bureaucracy that said, one, there will be course to run and secondly people will therefore think that a qualification… that certainly has been the case in the visual arts.

Fifteen years ago it was quite easy to do a bit of part time teaching, if you had something to offer. Now the hurdles that allow you to get there are much higher. It’s a way of protecting the education industry and looking after the people who’ve been through that process. There’s a plus and a minus in that. I think we do have to consider that artists working in education is a very important part of the art world and that it doesn’t create courses that are about how to make widgets that sell, it’s actually about an artist learning the skills that they can go on using through thick and thin.

Annabel Dover: As a tutor, I wish it was about those things, but for us who work together, an Alex who was recently made redundant… it’s not about creating functional and accountable human beings that are going to be useful to society. It’s based on a business model and for me it’s completely against creativity. It’s about outcomes, and it’s not about people. I wish it was.

Susan Jones: You’re working in it, it’s a long time since I did any of that kind of work so forgive me if I’m speaking from another era, but an artist who graduates is going to go on practising for, I don’t know-

Alistair Gentry: About six months.


Susan Jones: … until somebody says “you can do something else” so therefore the learning of those skills and attributes that allow them to navigate through life is a very important thing.

Alistair Gentry: But do you think they’re getting that? Do you think students are getting that?

Annabel Dover: I absolutely agree those things are valuable, but we haven’t got time to teach those things and we’re not judged on that, we’re judged on how many people we get through the course and out. We’ve recently had a huge reshuffle and people had to reapply for their jobs, and the ones who were left we actually had a official warning saying we’re not supposed to be making any work other than work at college for your courses. So it’s completely against creativity being encouraged or passed on.

Audience member: I agree with that. The process of marketing is interfering with education… [tails off into an inaudible conversation with another audience member]

Julie Freeman: So we’ve just got a few more minutes, anyone of the panel have any final words?

John Hutnyk: So what’s to be done? The question that has to be asked if you’re a Leninist, Marxist, whatever. The Artists, capital “A”- not gas them. Maybe a one child policy? Recognise that we all make art, assembling expression is also a collective process. We don’t do it individually. All art is social, we make art together. Recognise that intelligent creativity need not always be product. Social policy is more important than arts policy. There is still the possibility of resistance against the government’s ordering, thought in a box, life as death, for a secret omnipresence of resistance. And re-reading Adorno and thinking about the dialectic.

Julie Freeman: So, unless anybody else has anything-

Alistair Gentry: Well, he’s done.

Annabel Dover: One thing about Anthony Gormley, you mentioned he’s a good person to work for. Somebody was mending one of his things that had cracked open, and inside it said “Gormley is a cunt”, and he said that probably every one of those that’s made has that inside it.

John Hutnyk: I’m not surprised. He took me round his exhibition in the Hayward and the thing is being installed and he was downstairs and up in the far corner one of things got dropped and a little bit broke off and this hush rushed across the whole gallery, because everyone was freaking and panicked. “What’s he going to do?” And to his credit, he just walked up and welded it back on.

Annabel Dover: Maybe he didn’t want anyone to see inside?

Rosalind Davies, in audience: I just wanted to say I heard Graham Shepherd talking about the arts and he said travelling across the world as an ambassador for art, the art world is seen as the last credible institution in the UK. Its ability to cross continents makes it really valuable. Talking about how much money it makes doesn’t necessarily capture the intrinsic value of what it does, or that art is really valuable to the wider society.

Julie Freeman: Yes. We have to remember it’s not all about the economics.

Alistair Gentry: Thank you, that’s actually a really beautiful way to end.

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3 Responses

  • Steffan jones-Hughes says:

    Really Interesting debate. Many thanks for posting.

  • speaking as an artist of twentyeight years i think you are all bonkers, you either sell or dont sell , if you dont sell ,do something people want to buy, sobviasrealey.

    • Alistair says:

      This kind of reductive argument is not very helpful and gets us nowhere. Even in the most lucrative commercial art sector there is a spectrum of practice and ethos, not a monoculture or an orthodoxy that “doing something people want to buy” is the only option.

      You seem to be talking about a product (i.e a consumer good), which can indeed be honed to meet consumer needs or desires, rather than an art work (i.e. a type of cultural or social good) which may be commercially desirable or profitable but isn’t necessarily so. The cultural and even sometimes the monetary value of some art works lies in the fact that they go against current taste and mass consensus instead of playing to them.