So my pet hate/rant this month focusses on the emergence, over the past 30 years or so, of the requirement for artists to ‘big themselves up’. With the explosion of social media and online content in the past 2 decades I am asserting that the problem is now well out of hand, having reached epic and epidemic proportions (sorry Covid you don’t have the complete monopoly here).
So what triggered my vitriol you may ask and what’s the problem? Well, on reading yet another inane weblog claiming the author’s work to be possessed of a ‘unique insight into the relationship between nature and photography’, I barely managed to prevent the bursting of my already strained corpuscles, marvelling at the entitlement and certainty of such statements by the creator. Of course, we used to call it vanity publishing, and it’s nothing new, but I had to ask myself, how did this self-promotion phenomenon gain such widespread traction in our consciousness, and why do such frequently exorbitant claims to insight and originality, require scant evidence beyond that of the assertion. But the point of this is not to take a cheap shot by naming or shaming individual practitioners/over-claimers, it is to look at the artistic, educational and media origins of such hyperbole.
I am not so naïve to pretend that artistic self-promotion is a recent occurrence; I am sure that the artisans of ancient Egypt, China, Mesopotamia and Japan had a healthy interest in promoting their skills to court, to patrons, Pharoes and emperors of their time. And one only has to read Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists (1550) to understand that the key figures of the Renaissance, (Donatello, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo et al.) were, for that time, the equivalent of being ‘media savvy’. But I think what I am referring to here is not the personal self-advocacy that undoubtedly took place variously between the Renaissance, the Salons of 19th century Paris and, what I would refer to as the innocent Surrealist bluster of the 1930’s, ‘40’s and ‘50’s. But I believe what we are seeing now from a younger generation of artists, is quintessentially different.
To give a little context, I recall a pivotal moment or two from my own history as one of only 8 students of sculpture admitted to London’s Royal College of Art (RCA) in 1984. The first were encounters with Sir Henry Moore and Professor Bernard Meadows, both of whom were advancing in years, and both of whom left a strong impression on myself and others who toiled in the sculpture school in Queensgate at the time. Sir Henry of course had, unsurprisingly, at the age of 86, become somewhat frail, but was nonetheless a real luminary-cum-legend. Meadows, formerly Moore’s assistant, was also a determined and extremely astute presence in the School. But what freaked me out wasn’t meeting them, it was actually a couple of weeks later when I visited the RCA library to research them both a little better to alleviate my relative ignorance. The first Moore/Meadows catalogues I opened took my breath away, not because of the work, but because both had photographic representations of themselves in print that were in soft focus, and both portraits made them look like movie stars. In the post-war years and beyond, they effectively were the movie stars of British, and to some extent, European sculpture.
The second pivotal moment I recall was a conversation with a fellow sculpture student, John Atkin; I recall bemoaning the lack of opportunities for young sculptors at the time and we compared notes on the progress (or lack of it) of our respective preoccupations at the time. Atkin offered a view that whilst Chatham House rules might apply within the College, it was crucial that for all other external audiences, it was vital to state one's busy-ness. That is to remember to respond readily with the retort to any enquiry: ‘I am incredibly busy, it’s going very well’. This advice stuck with me over the years, not that I heeded it, but because I saw that there might be such a thing as a self-fulfilling prophecy after all.
After spending some 30-odd years in universities and art schools, where league tables and graduate salaries have become key metrics and KPI’s, the rise and rise of ‘professional practice’ for art students has coincided, perhaps unfortunately, with the advent of social media, self-authored websites, wordpress and the like. From experience, I would argue that the importance of undergraduate art and design students to be able to write a cogent and persuasive ‘artist statement’ as a lever into the next stage of their creative career, seems to have gained almost mythical and potentially disproportionate importance in many UK and European art schools. The ability to write a good work of art, a good narrative, has never been so important across the whole range of platforms for curators, dealers, educators and critics alike. In my view, the visual arts and their practitioners have proved themselves to be particularly susceptible, and perhaps seduced by language as a way of validating their art, or of over-compensating for a sense of deficit (real or imagined) at the heart of the work. There is of course a deep-seated sense of insecurity for visual artists who feel they need to justify or defend an open-ended or speculative practice, for fear of ridicule or, perhaps worse, being perceived to be deluded or fraudulent.
Magnify these insecurities through the lens of social media, honed through debate and higher education, conditioned by poet-modernism and scaffolded by the research methodologies of the social sciences and one finds a heady mix indeed. I do not mention the social sciences idly here; the propensity for US, Australian and UK universities to require academic post holders in the visual arts to possess a PhD qualification, I believe, is fundamentally changing (skewing) the artistic practice and activities of undergraduate student artists – and not necessarily for the better. The number of times I have heard a sophomore visual arts student being asked by a (PhD qualified) arts academic ‘what is your research question?’ or ‘what is your methodology?’ has become frighteningly predictable, and in recent years, has absolutely come to the fore. To be frank, fine art PhD’s, practice-based or otherwise, have adopted, almost unquestioningly and by default, the research methods of the humanities as a way of validating or lending academic respectability to a range of creative practices. Unfortunately, this is mainly because they simply don’t fit with the empirical methodologies of the natural sciences or engineering.
Back to the beginning, and what on earth has this got to do with self-advocacy and hyperbole you may well ask. I suppose the crux or my argument, as contentious as it may be, is that arts graduates and emerging artists have adopted a series of sophisticated linguistic models as a means of representing their practice in a positive light, with a degree of erudition and authenticity (real or projected) that is facilitated by the smoke and mirrors of the internet, social media and the like. It's not that such representations are disingenuous necessarily, it’s just different and hard to fathom the wheat from the chaff in terms of where the visual practice really lies.
To be honest, if visual artists could use the lingo of social science research as a Trojan Horse, that wouldn’t bother me, but what does concern me is that such research methods and the paraphernalia that surrounds them (bibliographies, citations, semi-structured interviews etc) are changing the visual arts for the worse and inhibiting creativity and passion. I mean can you imagine if the Neue Wilde had had to predicate a practice driven by a methodology? In short, it would never have happened. Despite this ramble, the concerns I hold are real in terms of the potential to misrepresent visual arts practice by ‘contracting out’ their raison d'être to the third party of the social sciences. All of course exacerbated by the virtue signalling facilitated by the 'www'. So the advice might be; next time you read a good artwork, check out the production that goes with it, read between the lines and triangulate the references – and then see how you feel.