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The End of Artists

  • Dec 02 2019
  • Mohammad Salemy
    is an independent Berlin-based artist, critic and curator from Canada. He holds a BFA from Emily Carr University and an MA in Critical Curatorial Studies from the University of British Columbia. Together with Patrick Schabus, he forms the artist collective Alphabet Collection. Salemy is the Organizer at The New Centre for Research & Practice.

Art will continue to survive or even thrive but it seems that we have reached the end of the most controversial plural common nominator: artists. 

We have nobody to blame for this but ourselves. That's right, the end of artists is a kind of suicide but through mass replication rather than cleansing or annihilation by external forces. Artists will disappear like how zombies eat each other in movies. The history of artists disappearance goes like this: 

After scarcity, let's say the 1950s, when there were only a handful of professional artists in each community and everybody knew each other. In Canada where I am from, around the time when the Canada Council for the Arts was established (the late 1960s and the early 1970s), there were more resources for arts than actual artists. Agencies like the Canada Council would advertise in art papers to let artists know that they can provide every applicant with project funding. Slowly but surely, the social policy makers began to think that universities and colleges needed more art programs. Still in the early 1990s, receiving a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) was not a common phenomenon but by the end of the 1990s, serious and ambitious artists with a bachelor of arts (BFA) knew that studying for an MFA would increase their chance of having a career. The 2000s were all about the natural/technological shortening of the art hype cycle or what it took for a young artist or a new style to make it from graduation shows to commercial galleries, art fairs and biennales. 

The decade also witnessed the mushrooming of PhD practices and curatorial programs at universities and colleges. In addition to tenured faculty, these newly expanded art education programs were increasingly staffed by famous but precarious Easy Jet-setting curators and artists flying around the world to give workshops, seminars and to advise departments and graduate students. By this time, career-making in art was a group effort and involved more than just a gallerist with a hefty rolodex in Chelsea like Tony Shafrazi or a single powerful curator at the Guggenheim like Nancy Shapiro. 

Curators and dealers were now only two nodes in a rhizomatic network of stakeholders that also included art press, art academia, art museums, art residencies, art prizes, art biennales and art collectors. To have a career as an artist, one had to have the support of at least half of these forces, but also each of these centers of art power had their own artists to introduce to the system and promote. Together, these factors lead to an oversupply problem in the field. 

For those who diagnose the disappearance of artists as part of a critique of capitalism- the death of artists began when Art Basel launched a Miami edition in 2002 and collecting contemporary art became a new status symbol for rich Americans with easy access to cheaply borrowed money. And since the dealers knew exactly what their budgets were, all of a sudden newly graduated artists from you-name-it MFA programs began making paintings and sculptures for around 50,000 dollars. 

Entire gallery systems were quickly set up around art fair schedules, and the growing art education industry worked in tandem to feed fresh blood into this infrastructure. If Warhol was glamorized the art world by introducing pop singers, celebrities, fashion models and designers to the field, the new art economy competed the circle by providing it with a stable supply of income extracted out of all sorts of places but also the minority homeowners who were taking out those high yield risky loans to fulfill their suburban American dream of a big family house.

Then came the mortgage crisis and the subsequent economic meltdown. Suddenly, the 20,000-50,000 range market was deserted, and those "investors" (what a nice way of describing assholes who buy our government and control our money and wealth supplies), who had supposedly lost everything but were about to receive most of it back through the Bush-Obama bailouts, were from now on only interested in blue chip artists as safe investment. 

One thinks that the economic shockwave of 2008 would have caused art education to follow a corrective course like that of the art market but no way. Art programs continue to grow, maybe even faster than before 2008, with many universities offering PhD practice and upgrading their MA in curatorial studies to PhDs. Perhaps the rationale for this counterintuitive tendency amongst art education administrators was that when the economy is hit with a recession, young people unable to find employment, tend to return to school. Meanwhile, as artists proliferated professionally, the number of galleries and institutions where their work would be exhibited and the number of collectors who would buy their work kept shrinking. The light at the end of the tunnel got smaller and dimmer by the hour. 

Let us not forget how the increasing capabilities of digital tools, especially the mobile phone coupled with platforms like Facebook and Instagram helped to balloon the number of artists, or at least those who thought that by increasing the number of followers and likes on social media they can claim to belong to the category. Interestingly, right around the time when the small and medium size galleries started to close down one after another, suddenly everybody was an artist. These capabilities also helped professional artists to double and triple their social participation, in a way inflating their existence in general by adding their virtual to their actual reality.

The last kick that finally pushed artistry into its historic grave was the growth of information about art. Everywhere people looked, they saw announcements about exhibitions, biennales, art fairs, conferences, symposiums, workshops and summer schools all appearing in one's mailbox or on social media walls, compounded by repeated shares and forwarding. People received so many invitations to events that on the actual day of an event they couldn't even find which one they had planned to attend. Art was finally, fully industrialized like pop culture, as Adorno rolled in his grave.



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