Leo Erken, Februari 17, 2016
On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon my former students of photography posted many Instagram and Facebook messages telling me that I should attend a Photo Book Festival they were organizing that day. When I looked at the posts I felt an instant depression. I saw pictures of them standing around tables trying to sell the same publications they sold me a year ago. At the time many of them borrowed large sums of money to finance their books projects. Some lucky ones managed to find funding. A few got media exposure. This Sunday there were hardly any members of the public attending. It was another small disaster for my old students because I knew that most of them are struggling to make a living. They are all talented serious young professionals who gained excellent skills in visual art, but our world has changed rapidly.
Should we be critical of them? Yes, I think we should. They should acknowledge that the market for paper products is declining: they only have to observe their own surroundings. Nowadays, many people their age have very few possessions. They own basic things: a laptop, a camera, clothes and various small items. It all fits in a few sports bags. They buy what they use, other material objects seem to have no value to them. When they move they advertise on Facebook: ‘who will take my room with all furniture for a small price?’
It is spreading out to society: we can do more with less. New technology is helping; it gives us freedom from our previous necessity to collect. We don’t need to own dvd’s, books, music cd’s et cetera any more. There is no reason to keep things for future use. If we need something it will be available in a few clicks. We can even share our living spaces and transportation means by renting it out to one and other.
For visual artists to succeed in this new world – of course there are always exceptions – the majority of us will stop creating products. We will bring experiences, insights, information, excitement, whatever – but no goods. Visual arts, music and performing arts are lining up. We are facing the same conditions now. This artistic generation has to find and face their audience directly and find ways to ask them for money for their work without selling objects. This soon also has to be done without the help of the old media structures that seemed to have owned the crowds in the past. Printed media and television are rapidly losing power.
Until recently most visual art students were trained by the ancient conventions of the art world. Selling art (and the art world speculating their value) and getting grants. With the declining value of objects many visual artists have become more and more dependent on funding. For many of us success has often meant being able to build a project and to get funding for it – being recognized by experts and not so much reaching crowds.
Most funding though comes from public sources. Often expensive projects – paid by us all – do not find a connection to a wide audience or are simply not available because there is no economical necessity for the artist to do so. After finishing one project, we start applying for funds for the next. It is of course a good thing that many art forms survived this way, but should we really continue training new generations to adapt into this vicious circle? Why is the public not more involved in the art process from an economical point of view? Shouldn’t they be given the opportunity to co-create art by paying for what they see and experience instead of art funds making choices for them? Crowd funding campaigns in recent history have shown that there are audiences out there that are willing to co-operate with artists and pay for the experience. Maybe it’s time we leave behind the idea – dating from the sixties – that art should not be commercial. The snobbish thought that the public at large have no taste is completely outdated.
When it comes to fine art education, economics in visual art has to be re-invented. Curriculum writers for future study programs on arts have to make fundamental choices. How can we rediscover the accessibility to both the audiences and economics? Elaborating with the existing economical structures (galleries, print media and public/private funding) will not by in large create a financially stable professional practice for today’s needs. Professionals in visual arts will have to be (co-)creating new paid media structures based on use and not on ownership. Together with our art students we should therefore train ourselves in the economics of experience and dialogue. We will have to learn to take our audiences and surroundings more seriously. More so than we ever did before.
Leo Erken is lecturer at AKV|St. Joost in Breda, the Netherlands.
Picture: the bookshelf in Leo’s home.
Thanks to Kiran Rana.