Saturday 22 August 2020

The Age of Adz

In a previous post I spoke about some of the problems the Dutch art market faces by trying to establish credible signals.
One consequence of this approach is that immediately after winning a prize or attending a post-academic institution, one sees that younger artists tend to make a 'jump' to the larger exhibition venues or galeries of repute, even when their work hasn't appreciably changed compared to the previous years. Not just the buying public, but also curators and other sycophants tend to wait out the validation that these markers bring.
What this means for other artists who don't tote these easily recognisable signals is that their 'breakthrough' tends to come later than for artists who do. In fact, the last Dutch artist I can think of who truly got mainstay recognition right after art school is René Daniëls and that was in 1976.

Again, this doesn't seem to be the case in countries surrounding the Netherlands. Especially in the United Kingdom and Germany, it's much more common for artists to be included in shows at respected venues just one or two years after graduating. These exhibitions then serve as much more reliable gauges for other (international) exhibitions to follow.
What many of the famous artists from these countries also have in common is that the shows where they were first noticed by a public were held at distinctively low-brow venues. Wolfgang Tillmans had his first shows in a bar, Thomas Hirschhorn placed his works on public roads and the Freeze show that led to the rise of the YBA's was of course self-organised by Damien Hirst while he was still a student.

I would thus argue that what the art market of the Netherlands is missing are not places where an artists' reputation can be measured, but rather a genuine democratic place where instead the public can figure out its own tastes and interests. Generally speaking people prefer making their own decisions about what they want to buy or at the very least they want to feel like they have a large degree of agency concerning these decisions.
For this reason I am reminded of the state of skateboard media in the early 2000's. Print magazines were still the primary way to inform oneself about the world and the largest magazine of the time was titled Transworld Skateboarding. The monthly issues of this magazine were about 400 pages thick. Of those 400 pages, only about 1/3rd consisted of editorial content and the rest were simply advertisements. While this sounds like a nightmarish ordeal, the simple fact that all the ads were directly related to skateboarding meant that those ads were actually more useful in figuring out what was cool and happening than the mediocre articles, as those texts were often written by adolescents for adolescents still trying to find their voice.

While it has a bad reputation, advertising is commonly the first way people come into contact with a new business. This is also true for artists, if one thinks of exhibitions serving a similar function to trade shows or other demonstations. In many ways an exhibition is first and foremost an advertisement of what an artist is capable of, especially for younger artists.
So although advertising for (younger) artists might seem like an unwanted or unholy phenomenon, I think that if there was a way for artists to advertise in some accessible source, this could lead to better discoverability and somewhat undo the fictious need for extensive signalling that has arisen in the Netherlands.
If you intuitively disagree with this opinion, just think of the popularity of Instagram among artists and galleries at the present time. While Instagram is a heinous platform for many reasons I won't go into here, it does provide its users with the possibility to freely and easily distribute information about their activities, as well as provide a public that's looking for new information with a possibility of discovering it, which is just as important. So despite its many flaws, Instagram has become popular with both artists on the supply side and an interested public on the demand side. For a number of artists and galeries the sales made directly through Instagram have even become an important revenue stream.

Personally I would like to see a platform arise where a truly free market is directly available to artists. This would also preferably be a physical manifestation, so that it's both easier and more likely for an audience to come into contact with something that isn't similar to their previous preferences.
Perhaps this could be a magazine like Transworld Skateboarding, where about half of the magazine is editiorial content and the other half consists of full-page paid advertisements by artists, with as little gate-keeping as possible. For example, this quality control could consist of the technical requirements for the printable files being rather specific. In this way you will attract only those artists who are able to meet those requirements themselves or willing to invest in the knowledge of others in order to meet those requirements. In either case it shows that they themselves are serious about their own future prospects in the market, without an external party judging the contents of their ideas. This is also a genuinely costly signal for the parcipating artists, unlike the arbitrary judgement of one or more persons based on unclear and changing criteria.

The reality of such a project will likely be hindered by many ingrained assumptions about how an art market functions or should function, yet it should go without saying that providing an audience with the tools to inform itself is more effective in creating long-term market interest than attempting to pre-approve someone else's decisions and present them as the only available choices.