Throughout art history, creative progress has been something of a high-wire act. Forward-thinking artists stretch their ideas ahead to a new anchor point in the distance. Meanwhile, much of the art market holds back, clutching onto familiar content with all their strength, afraid or unsure of whether to move forward. Then a few brave souls––usually led by curators, gallerists, and private collectors––step onto the line tensed between those two terminals and tiptoe across to the new territory. Once enough of them complete the journey and call back about the wonders waiting on the other side, more conservative parties eventually work up the courage to follow. The great unknown thus becomes the next home base... and soon enough, the process repeats.
While this sequence of progress through tension is inevitable in the general sense, the specifics are often unpredictable. How long will it take for a sustainable amount of money to flow to the boundary-pushing artists? How many risk-takers and taste-makers have to buy in before the tentative patrons start to follow suit? And as art continues to evolve beyond traditional object-based media, the most crucial question of all becomes this: How does the process change when the new thing just isn't as "collectible" as the older ones?
I started thinking about these questions after reading a short New York Times Style feature on the changing nature of contemporary artists' studios, with their more-or-less unorthodox working spaces reflecting their more-or-less unorthodox creative choices. The piece highlights four artists ranging in age from 26 to 31, all of whom I would classify as "high emerging" in terms of their industry standing: Amalia Ulman, Jared Madere, Neïl Beloufa, and Darja Bajagić. Out of this quartet, only Bajagić has earned attention entirely for working in a traditional medium (painting). Although it's never discussed in the piece, the others are all under exactly the pressure I described above.
For the uninitiated, Ulman primarily creates extended conceptual performances delivered via Instagram photos and videos. She literally works out of a high-rise office in downtown Los Angeles. Madere has until recently been using odd materials (like fresh produce) to craft installations from start to finish at their exhibition sites, partially because he's spent years living and working out of his gallery-in-an-RV, Bed-Stuy Love Affair. Beloufa makes some sculptures but has increasingly turned toward filmmaking, with his current project being a self-funded neo-noir feature titled "Occidental." He's shooting it in his warehouse-studio, which he and collaborators have built out with a variety of sets like a budget Hollywood production. None of these screams "Easy sell!"
I don't want to suggest that we've entered an all-or-nothing, generation-wide crisis. Artists who primarily work in more forward-looking media always reserve the option to create a few more traditional pieces to support their most avant-garde ambitions. (Beloufa is a case in point.) Additionally, there are––and will always be––plenty of other young artists working in easily collectible media, especially painting. A few of them will even find ways to innovate in these well-traveled channels. (Saying otherwise would mean pronouncing painting dead, and as we all know, that's historically worked about as well for critics as investigating strange noises in slasher flicks has worked for on-screen sorority girls.)
Nevertheless, it seems increasingly clear to me that many young artists are concentrating their efforts on new media and technology––that they see these tools as the best (and maybe even the only) ones for addressing the most relevant issues in contemporary life. That means their work will often be more challenging to rig into a commercial context than that of previous revolutionaries. Think: fewer objects and less tangibility than ever. And that, in turn, convinces me that everyone involved should be rethinking the entire concept of "acquisitions" and patronage in order to support the next generation of meaningful work.
So the high wire stretches out again. Only this time, it extends further ahead and higher above ground than any time before. The artists on the far side need risk-takers and taste-makers to join them just as badly as their predecessors did. But most of all, they need the migration to be led by a few equally creative thinkers from the market side––ones who can figure out how to convince the tentative parties that, despite appearances, this walk will be enough like the others to step up once again. The show must go on.