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A Mantle of Scraps: Why Artists Fail

Pablo Helguera

It isn’t easy. Deciding to pursue one’s vocation as an artist within the system involves tacit acceptance of probable economic adversity and elusive professional returns, in a capricious field of unreliable values. Youthful naiveté regarding stability may overcome uncertainty, but the compulsion to make sense of life via artistic mandate is under increasing pressure from practicalities. As the years go by, living deprivative cliches while tussling with societal issues, or one’s place in the world, is a romantic trope which the cultural one percent at the apex of the art world is grateful to artists for perpetuating.

It is pointless to blame power imbalances on the soullessness of art fairs, wealthy dealers, and an inbred hierarchy, because they don’t care, and nobody is forcing them to. So what complicity do artists have in the conservation of a status quo that is so detrimental to the majority of them, those workers manufacturing the products that fuel the cultural economy?

What is meant by failure depends on what is meant by success; this typically means reaching varied audiences through gallery and museum exhibitions, critical appreciation, sales, and perhaps leaving a legacy to “art history” that rickety bridge of false idols, mediocrity and occasional visionaries, over which all are expected to pass. But this involves incredible effort, timing, fashion, nepotism, tenacity, serendipity, and no guarantees. There is scant logic as to who will gain traction, at least regarding quality. Only rarely will consensus form around a uniquely able artist who conduits the zeitgeist or can elucidate environmental tectonics with genuine aesthetic and intellectual faculties. Art that is incapable of this—most of it—isn’t constitutionally important beyond decorative purposes, or localized meaning, until gallery pr teams try to spin it as globally vital. Accordingly, it ought be treated skeptically.

Among the multitudes competing as professional artists, the names of only a fraction will ever be widely known, and fewer deserve to be. Artistic production is necessary as a barometer for culture temperatures, change and record, but it is exceedingly difficult to make efficaciously. It’s instructive to remember that the business of art is based on the opinions of gallery owners, curators, directors, or collectors who are in positions to maneuver their preferences into canonical “truth” via exhibitions, retrospectives, publications, awards, or auctions. But the core of artistic appreciation is simply what one likes, and nobody’s taste is more valid than anyone else’s. It has always been the job of influencers to deny this, and convince the masses otherwise.

From its upper echelons the art world structure functions as an authorizing body for the opinions of a very few as “correct.” This totalitarianism has overwhelmed the judgements, and courage of the public to disagree. Dissent, and one is looked at askew as uncultured. It’s a potent deterrent. Questioning  this dogma is discouraged because to do so would be to undermine the jurisdiction of those in power. Today’s attempts to extend the dubious arc of art history by establishing emerging names, are shoddier and less sincere than ever.

Into this maelstrom enters each generation of MFA-educated artists, indoctrinated into a mindset of self-diminishment by the tournament of their school experience and their eventual compliance with art world strictures. They are taught to be downtrodden, and must begin jousting for attention by participating in the annual crucible of residency and grant applications that bestow a certain credence. Very few will be awarded them with the consistency required to ignite a viable career.

Another version of success is arranging one’s life so that art can be made at all, and the commitment to, and sharing of one’s practice with one’s community. But absent recognition, at what point does the endeavor decline into mere hobby? There is no reasonable argument for more art, rather, for more incisive art. Instead, thousands of students of are admitted, by art schools pleased to funnel them through their cash registers. After all that investment, most graduates will do no more than contribute to a wretched excess of irrelevant artworks, already so vast it makes the Pacific Trash Vortex seem like efficient waste-management. If teaching hospitals delivered the incompetence that art schools do, we’d still be sputtering to our deaths from Consumption. 

The system has done its greatest (and most successful) damage in pressing the lie that there is nobility in the higher purpose of pursuing one’s art while relinquishing expectation of fair payment. No plumber or electrician would offer free services the way that art workers are expected to, in return for padding a resume. Make, frame, ship and insure your own work, and then maybe you can be in this exhibition. This standard robs artists of basic transactional confidence that is difficult to disburden. The dictate is that crass commercialism may be pursued but unless achieved through the approved gallery channels, one must forfeit criticality. It is ironic considering how much dross is presented at art fairs on the other end of the financial spectrum.

Art criticism’s current feebleness (and dereliction of duty) is in part due to a rising tide of near-illiterate contributors at poorly edited internet platforms. These reports are regularly spattered with the egotist’s ejaculate, “I” and “me,” reducing them to rash opinion and tawdry self-promotion, not helpful, dispassionate consideration. Every word of this voluminous sediment is then fished out and regurgitated by artists as proof (or hope) that their exhibitions mattered. So often these deficient texts would be better avoided, because in sharing them, artists divulge how meagre are the crumbs that they will settle for. 


Pablo Helguera

When heed is paid, artists often post a giddy “thank you” confirming how “excited” they are for the “thoughtful” review. It is a gesture of subjugation. Noticeably, when a review is an autopsy on predictable thoughts expiring in turgid vessels, or even gentle rebuke, thanks are less forthcoming. 

Artists further erode intrigue, by their prostration to Instagram and its lexicon. It can be a communicative asset, but the clamor for visibility, results in unwise outflowing of unresolved ideas and smug pictures of steaming coffee cups, quasi-research materials or morning light hitting the studio wall just so. Works-in-progress are by nature not ready to be viewed (even if they have their own hashtag) but there is pressure to shoehorn oneself into a marketable brand—the antithesis of creative investigation. The quest for cheap attention gained by such posts risks undermining concentration, and the quality of precious time spent making, while frittering audience compulsion to see the work in person.

Gushing compliments between peers are another online conceit. Everyone in a group situation is described as “wonderful” or “talented,” and the poster is often “honored” to be among them; a look at the definition of that word reveals the lack of humility in applying it to oneself. But no discerning mind could find magnificence in all of those collaborators or their works. That is not how taste—nor honesty—proceeds. The chances of finding ten artists in a single exhibition deserving of wholesale congratulation are thin, and indulging them cedes the rot. Such hyperbole diminishes an artist’s authenticity, because what they are saying cannot be true. When artists ooze gratitude to “everyone who came out for my opening” do they wonder how many didn’t show up because they’d already seen enough online?

These quirks are symptomatic of the current neutered condition of art discourse, which has been exchanged for echo chamber whining, partly inspired by politics and hyper-sensitivity. It constitutes a Great Depression of thought. Does the current government mean we must huddle together and suspend criticality despite how fantastically awful many artists are? Without forthright acknowledgment that the ideas underwriting many group exhibitions are meritless, and the art within, risible, it is not discussion that is being expanded; it is fraud. What use is a commonwealth when its language has been lobotomized? If this charade gave way to intellectual verisimilitude, and the risk of shedding “likes,” it might initiate more fruitful results and recast usage of social media. Artists ought to close their digital mouths and get off their knees.

Pablo Helguera

Rites of submission include, gifting artworks for benefit causes; being “in conversation” which many artists should stay out of. As solitary, internal thinkers they aren’t well equipped to do justice to themselves or their listeners during gallery talks, often shuffling between somnolent rambling and nervous posturing; hustling to be seen at the right events; and the degradation of having to produce an artist’s statement, wherein grandiose third-person claims read like hospice care for words, terminally cliched after years of abuse. Usually the only thing being “challenged” is the reader’s patience. Shouldn’t the work itself be the artist’s statement?

Are these policies what artists should reap from the arena they enter with sterling intent? One they commit to, struggle financially in, unless buoyed by their parents’ money? Artists may feel hard done by, but they are too comfortable, in the West at least, to demand changes, and too selfish to upend for posterity a system that they do not realize they control. 

Rather than storming the doors of museums and pitching directors from roofs for their trespasses, perhaps the answer is smaller, quieter. Artists might tinker with adjustments in thinking. Determine if they have something unsaid, or said differently, for the gristmill. Despite it appearing otherwise, ingenuity is still rewarded, and there are marvelous galleries searching for it. If so, they might cultivate a keenness for the worth of their output; if not, it would be difficult to bear, but is there a point in continuing? Make modest, consistent requests for respectful recompense, that would nonetheless be audacious. Expect, and ask rather than hope and wait. Do what is necessary to connect meaningfully with allies, gallerists, writers and curators of like mind, because it is almost entirely about who one knows, and that won’t change so it must be grappled with. It cannot be an impossibility to request a return on the immense wealth made from artists’ efforts to update their infrastructure. In modifying approaches, they might forge larger, consequential improvements for future generations. Redirection is required from the ground, not the gilded tower. Artists could collectively achieve progress instead of groveling as serfs to a structure which ignores, tolerates or loathes most of them, and plunders a few for its own ends. That would be a legacy. Until then, artists will remain little more than breeding sows in the art world’s piggery. 

Darren Jones, New York Editor

Volume 33.no.1 September / October 2018 pp 7-9

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