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The Myth of the Artist

Originally posted on Christina Webber’s blog found here.

Articles were circulating during the height of the pandemic expressing concern for the future of the creative industries. Headlines warned that the cultural sector had been one of the hardest hit by Covid, and that going forward early career artists and entry-level freelancers would struggle to find work. I read those reports and thought: ‘what’s changed’? Of course, the world has changed – and I don’t wish to minimise the impact of Coronavirus both on a human level and economically – but it’s not like we were inundated with opportunities beforehand. I agree that we need to seriously consider how we remodel after the pandemic, and that many inequalities in existing systems have been brought to light by the restrictions faced by the population and the adaptations that were suddenly made possible because the majority of us were in lockdown. A greater focus on accessibility both on and offline should be born from this, allowing for improved flexibility and provision for previously overlooked audiences: those with access requirements, caring responsibilities, chronic health conditions, those unable to travel into city centres, or travel at all. The digitisation of the creative industries through virtual exhibitions, digital engagement activities, remote learning and accurate, immersive translation of ‘in-person’ experiences for those unable to physically take part – all these things were simply not seen as a priority before Covid and now we’re realising how much can be done when the issue of access is paramount. That stuff is hugely important, and great leaps have already been taken. The programme of activity now available for photographers online? The variety offered by institutions like Street Level Photoworks, who have excelled in offering material online? It’s amazing.

But what I want to focus on in this hopefully short-ish text is the need for further adjustments to be made, and to highlight the perpetuated infeasibility of ‘accessibility’ in an industry that at its foundation relies upon unpaid labour, voluntary contributions, and a system of network-based nepotism that biases those able to physically take part and take risks. There is an unwritten assumption that to be a serious photographer you need to be flexible and comfortable enough to put all your energies into something with no guarantee of pay-off. As we move forward into whatever comes next, we should be careful not to misremember a world where exhibitions were always busy, where opportunities for early-career artists (especially those without certain privileges) were bountiful and lucrative, where commissions were commonplace and where early creators felt a freedom to try and fail. The truth is, it’s tricky to be present in this industry.  It’s tricky to consistently turn up. The last 18 months should not eclipse the reality of photography in Scotland pre-2020, merely because a pandemic has seen the bigwigs struggling and the ‘art world celebrities’ are suddenly also without work.

In 2020 I launched a podcast called Finding Focus, recorded shortly before the pandemic hit the UK. As a co-founder of photography critique group Fresh Focus, I speak to a lot of early career artists. I realised talking to my peers that I was having the same kinds of conversations with multiple people and that behind the scenes most other photographers were struggling too. One of the main messages coming through was that we all felt we’d been under some illusion that to be ‘a photographer’ or ‘an artist’ you had to do this with your whole self, you had to make your sole income only from photography, and that to do otherwise or compromise your time and energy in way was a failure. We all felt a pressure to appear professional, active and engaged, and bowed to an unspoken stigma about any pursuit that wasn’t behind a camera, any part of your life that didn’t fit into a specific ‘artist’ aesthetic. Before leaving University I was told to quit my day job by a tutor who I’m sure was well-meaning, but who couldn’t see that that simply wasn’t an option for me. He believed I needed to put everything into photography to succeed. He believed I needed the freedom and flexibility of being unemployed to be able to make it taking pictures. I knew, over £1k overdrawn after paying off my degree show, that that simply wasn’t an option.

Somehow the ‘myth of the artist’ prevails today: someone comfortable, flexible, prodigious, aloof, able to take risks. That’s just not real. In a world of image-makers changing all the time – where zero hour contracts, funding applications, burnout, bloggers, baristas, residencies, pinterest and polaroids exist all at the same time – why does this fantasy survive? 

I think the ‘shiny’ side of social media fuels the fire; confirming for many that the photography industry is full of competent, successful, happy and commercially savvy individuals who are solely making pictures. Scrolling through my feed I see artists with elaborate exhibitions, carefully considered behind-the-scenes shots of studios and work-in-progress, frames in bubble wrap, and desks draped in sunlight. Is this why the myth of ‘the artist’ persists ? The photographers on my feed don’t sweat, or cry, or stand behind a till. I mean they do, of course, but we don’t see it. And when we don’t see it, we don’t feel like we can talk about it. Considering that social media is the primary way a lot of early photographers network, and for many this may be the only space available to interact with their peers, it can take years to learn that actually you’re not the only one working three jobs, or with kids, or caring for a relative, or battling with your health, or struggling. The merging of professional and personal in online avenues creates an auto-biographical grey area, perpetuating the idea that ‘real’ photographers are worry-less, don’t falter, and don’t compromise. We crave professionalism and so we edit. But what does that achieve, really? We need to reclaim this space.  What exists beneath the surface of Instagram feeds and exhibition catalogues is an art world full of multi-faceted individuals with a range of commitments, skills, priorities, backgrounds and careers. Artists that stack shelves, that campaign, that breast feed, that drive trucks, that answer phones, that regularly, repeatedly, get rejected. For some reason all these brilliant bits get blurred out. Both institutions and practitioners are complicit in this bizarre performance. And in ‘real life’ too – it’s easy to assume that the photographers speaking at events and giving masterclasses don’t also have part-time jobs or other commitments because even if they do it somehow still feels taboo to talk about that. We’re encouraged to discuss our successes and not to linger on the hard graft, or the lucky breaks, or the undeniable privilege that got us there. Only once in my life has someone asked at one of these talks ‘where did the money come from?’ and I was ecstatic.

We have a whole generation of artists putting their best faces forward online on the off chance someone might notice them, see their cultivated professionalism and productivity, and invite them to do paid work. Indignation is muted because everyone wants to make a good impression. Nobody wants to challenge anything for fear of  burning a bridge, digital or otherwise, and everyone remains friends. Facebook friends. Nobody wants to be the first person to point out it’s not really working, especially minority groups, for fear of being branded ungrateful or problematic. It’s uncomfortable and it self-perpetuates – we all believe we’re the only one that hasn’t ‘made it’ yet.

It’s not all about money and it shouldn’t be all about money and yet calling it an industry does assume someone is getting paid. I didn’t pay the contributors to my podcast, but I was very clear with them about that. I didn’t make a penny from this, I never expected to. It wasn’t a profit-making enterprise. But equally, this was only possible because at the time I’d lost all my work. I had nothing else to do so I seized something I wanted to exist and squeezed it into the world. And that’s what I mean about access – when nobody gets paid, we’re instead relying on time. It’s either or. You’ve either got money or you’ve got time. Being ‘an artist’ requires both. How can we talk about accessibility without pointing out what a barrier that is?

Who is making money here? Voluntary roles that are necessary for Festivals and Galleries to operate are advertised as exclusive positions or ‘invaluable opportunities’ for which you have to carefully apply. Invaluable opportunities. All this language is doing is  reinforcing the idea that being picked to work for free is a privilege. I’m not saying that these aren’t meaningful experiences but there seems to exist this idea that if you enjoy doing something and care about it you shouldn’t expect to be paid. Again, I didn’t pay my podcast participants. It’s not definitively exploitative to seek voluntary support. But it’s important these relationships are considered as such – as relationships with a give and take – as opposed to an essential part of a business surviving. If an industry doesn’t work without its volunteers it’s not really working. We have to consider the financial machine behind a lot of these institutions as businesses, and recognise where the money is going, because someone is getting paid. At some point a value judgement has been made which acknowledges the vast appetite in early-career artists and understands it’s not necessary to pay these positions because there will always be those able to do this for free. What’s accessible about that? Those with financial support, those with allowances, those who have been able to put the unpaid time aside – everyone with the flexibility and opportunity and privilege to do so will. And all those people that face barriers here: those with access requirements, with caring responsibilities, those who are unwell, those unable to travel – what about them? Accessibility isn’t just about allowing people to view work. It’s about participation too. There are still so many obstacles in place that make taking part, or taking part for very long, impossible. The system acknowledges that there’s an appetite, and takes advantage of it.

How is this going to change? How can practitioners and institutions engineer a different path for young photographers, for those who face barriers in whatever format between their pictures and a platform? I keep coming back to the idea of changing the perception of what an artist is. Proving that often interesting photographic work often comes from individuals with a diverse remit; with multiple priorities of which ‘making art’ is but one dimension. 

So I return to my initial point: to say that the creative industries are ‘in trouble’ seems to be stating the obvious. If we were looking at this as any other business or commercial entity that can’t afford to pay all its staff it would seem outrageous. It’s unfair to assume that making work is dependent on having the time, space and money to work for free and this shouldn’t be all we see. I’m a huge believer in advocacy, in making things happen, in doing things yourself and I don’t want to shovel all of the blame on the galleries, festivals and competitions that likely believe they are doing their best to support practitioners. We’re all complicit in perpetuating the myth of the artist, and it’s a wider issue of course when we start to thinka bout editing our personas online. But let’s talk about this stuff! We can change the way exhibiting photography works, and lockdown has already kickstarted some of that: more paid online commissions, more flexibility in blended on/offline events programming, transparency on where money is going, transparency too on how you get your work seen, or which publications pay contributors, on which galleries commission new work, shared storage for those without space to store materials, an accessibility officer in every institution, listening events with recent graduates and start-ups to see what support is needed in a fast-evolving climate, low-cost equipment hire, low-cost studio spaces, community-building, more paid reviewers, more paid opportunities in general, and fundamentally more space for failure. Not only can we shed the idea that artists are privileged prodigies who sit all day waiting for inspiration to strike but it also makes the work accessible and available to so many more contributors. Those who can only afford to dedicate a day or an hour at a time to making photographs. We are curating an idea of success that just isn’t realistic. Unless we start to acknowledge the problems we’ve always had, pre-Covid as well as now, we can’t enable real change going forward.

By Christina Webber

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