The Metrics of the Art World and why Art Schools resemble a Cult

When it comes to the importance of a contemporary artist, two different metrics seem most important. The first metric deals with financial success, this tries to take into account sales through the primary market (sales directly through the artist and through a gallery or agency), and through the secondary market (mostly sales through auction houses). Since most participants in the primary market are quite secretive, when it comes to business details, measuring financial success relies heavily on published auction results.

The other way the success of an artist is measured is by looking at how widely his or her work is presented. But not every exhibition is equally valuable, and the field is extremely diverse. Is it merely participating in a group show at a small privately organized off-space? Or is it a solo show at a major museum, curated by an important curator?

There are multiple magazines and websites that offer their own rankings. Some rely more on the first metric, some on the second. Even though there are many intersections, some artist feature more prominently in one metric, while others shine more brightly in the other.

Very often, the artist CV, the paper trail that keeps track of exhibitions and collectors, seems almost more important than the work created by the artist. In most months, the CV available on my website is downloaded dozens of times. Many of the projects on my site receive far less attention than that. To be honest, when visiting the website of another artist, I frequently look at their CVs myself.

The importance of these metrics is deeply enshrined in the art world. Pretty much on each level. Even at art school, people frequently discuss, whether a certain artist deserves his position in a certain ranking, or if his work might be over- or undervalued. Every library of every art school is filled with books on precisely those artists who rank highest in these metrics. It seems quite natural to accept all of this, since every available piece of evidence seems to point to them being extremely important. But the whole thing is complete nonsense.

The art market is precisely that – a market. And an extremely manipulative one. Gallerists and investors push certain artists. Curators follow the pack and show those artists who seem to get more attention than others. Museum directors expect blockbuster shows and choose blue-chip artists. And the audience fells hip, when attending a show of an artist whose name they have heard before. There is little real development involved, it feels more like a mixture of a self-fulfilling prophecy and blatant manipulation.

Thinking about it, I find the way these metrics make their way into the academic setting of the art school troubling. Let’s face it, a vast majority of graduates will never make it in neither of the two metrics. Hardly any artist makes his or her living from selling art. And almost no young artist is ever going to have a huge solo show in a museum. This is true for the most brilliant and talented of the graduates. Only a handful ever make it and when judging their work, the whole thing seems extremely random. And yet, these lists and metrics – consciously or unconsciously – shape the debate on what artists one should look at and emulate. Even though the chances are quite slim that students at art schools will make it in these metrics, this is precisely what these institutions ask for, when recruiting their teaching staff. Imagine a business school that is only able to get five percent of their graduates in business positions, but their teaching staff looks as if everyone is going to make it. This is absurd.

By surrounding students with teachers that made it in these metrics and by constantly referring to artists that made it as well, it becomes a promise. I have spoken to quite a few art school teachers in the past and they all claim that they are trying to address this issue with their students. They also tell me that they are frequently confronted by students who tell them that they try to be rich and famous. It seems as if the way they address this bears little fruit. I also remember my own ideas and dreams, while studying. Now, I feel ashamed of how naïve I was, but no one really showed me an alternative approach.

Like a cult, there was only one possible way for salvation. Just look around you. Everyone you see has found the promised land. You had to hope and to try to emulate the path to success already taken by others to make it in the end. If you are not sure of how the whole system works, don’t be scared. No one understands the system, so just try to blend in and emulate the people that came before you. Maybe you are one of the chosen few.

I am not saying that there are not always a few artists who are going to make it this way and that their work should not be looked at. But focusing on these few seems odd.

Trying to look into the future, things seem somewhat bleak for the classical role of the artist. Everyone nowadays carries a camera around and, oh my God, do people use them. What was once a certain style, a handwriting, developed by artists over a whole career, has now become Instagram filters. Simultaneously, publishing your creations and sharing them with the world is now built right into the tools you use for their creation. These things were long two separate steps, but today sharing has become the driving force behind creation. Everyone creates, and everyone shares – and the world is drowning in images. But the ability to share with others is not limited to people who use the camera, built into their phones, as their creative device. Being creative in general has become part of a modern middle-class lifestyle. And who might blame them? Trying to express yourself is nice, and this is precisely what drives young people to apply to art school. At least that is what most applicants tell during their entrance interview.

I know so many artists who feel miserable, since they have neither made any financial success, nor is their work presented in exhibitions. Many even stopped producing art, since the whole enterprise seems to be entirely pointless. Even though all of them were once praised at art school for their talent and creativity. Even I myself quite frequently feel the need to say, “fuck you all” and stop doing whatever it is I am doing. Judged by cult standards I am a failure and salvation seems out of reach.

The art market is, in its current form, highly unpredictable and seems to care about art mostly as something that can generate revenue. While in art school, having a B-ranking gallerist visit your class, should definitely not be considered the most important day in the semester, but the way I remember it, many people do. The same is true for curators. There are many curators who are doing a wonderful job, nevertheless they have to follow their own agenda. Some feel the pressure of market forces who partly dictate their work, others are driven by other factors beyond their control. And even the most open minded and careful curator will never be able to detect each and every talent, let alone be able to give every talent ample space in upcoming exhibitions, to make their voices truly heard.

When talking about this issue with friends, I encounter resignation. The common remark is that there is just nothing one might be able to do. Some start to talk about all the stuff they have tried to kickstart their career. But maybe all of us try to tackle the issue the wrong way. When talking about raising a certain amount of money to buy a stand at an art fair or when talking about this new concept for an exhibition someone is planning. Even when talking about novel ways to get the attention of a collector/gallerist/curator… we are always merely talking about how to play the metrics game. But these metrics themselves are the issue. And the system they represent.

Maybe at art school it might be possible to teach students that these metrics are actually not that important. I truly believe that the role of the artist within our society will change in the coming years. It must. As mentioned, almost everyone now has the potential to express him- or herself on a public stage. I am not even talking about creativity expressed by AI systems. How long is the aura granted by art schools able to stem against this development?

Art schools should take their role as research institutions far more serious than today. Some schools have programs implemented, but all too often these are focused on an MFA or postgrad level. This does not go far enough. I believe that research should be a key element from the very beginning of one’s studies. And this should aim very high. When a student manages to better understand a certain issue or topic through his or her work, that should be the metric for success. No matter whether the respective work is ever shown or not. No matter if it is ever bought. Damn, no matter, if there results actually a tangible thing from the research. A real object or image. If something is better understood, that alone should be counted as success. Everything else, shows, sales, interviews, should be a mere byproduct. Maybe this way graduates find it easier to define their role within society, without having to rely on the unreliable art market.

I take research as a given term that can certainly be found in many of founding documents for art schools on a university level. But this should not be understood as a call to bring established research structures into the art world. Classical academic research certainly carries its fair share of systemic issues. Research papers need to be written and peer-reviewed in a certain way. Dissertations focus on miniscule sub-issues, take years to write and no one ever reads them. A whole new set of frustrations. No, this is not worth being copied at art schools.

I have no clear vision of how exactly something like this might look. It certainly includes an interdisciplinary approach, that tries to work with as many other fields as necessary. Maybe young artists would have to give up some notion of freedom and liberty. I say notion, since the liberty experienced at art schools quite often is an illusion. For once – as mentioned – the whole system operates under the vague influence by outside forces anyway. And what is this idea of liberty truly worth, if it leads most participants to frustration? It is not as if one would have to give up all freedom and liberty, but once in a while one should let others determine the direction a certain project takes. Personally, I have spent some time as an exchange student in Chicago. The system there was very different from the system in Berlin. Very much like a school, with classes one had to attend, courses that could be failed and homework that had to be made. Quite an extreme contrast and maybe too extreme. But while there, it didn’t feel like I had lost all my liberties. On the contrary, personally this was the most productive time I have had while being a student. And to me that felt extremely good.

Being more school-like isn’t what I mean, when calling for a more academic approach. It rather has to do with each artist’s own approach in creating his or her work and how this is being taught at art school. Schools should put more emphasis on the question how artists might find success once they have graduated and how this success might be defined. Reading all these statistics about how few artists will make their living through art after graduating just does not help. True, there is little we will be able to do about the financial success or about the path into big museums, but then why should we care about these metrics? I am not saying we should ignore them and merely conclude that the ship is sinking and that there is nothing we can do about it. This seems to be the current approach.

In engineering, failure is something most people can agree upon. If a rocket blows up during launch, we might derive some knowledge from the event, but overall it clearly looks like a failure – Elon Musk’s PR department might attempt to spin it otherwise, but let’s discount that. Success or failure in fine arts on the other hand is something that is mostly defined by how every single artist feels about it. Sure, you will find an audience that tells you how pretty things are or journalists who praise your approach. In the end though, one has to believe them to make it count. And I am arguing that we are all trained to look at the wrong things, when it comes to outside evidence for the failure or success of our works.

With this we also have to rethink the role artists play within society. Most higher education in Western Europe is founded by the public. This is true for art schools as well. Naturally society expects something in return. Right now, this comes in part in the form of established artists who have graduated from these institutions. There is a lot of finger pointing going on. Young artists point to the institution that has trained them as proof of some kind of quality and once an artist has established himself, art schools refer back to show what kind of quality and success they deliver. Little to no pointing is ever done towards the nameless hordes that might have graduated in the same year as the important artist. The idea seems to be, that the overall success rate might seem bigger, if you only mention success and no failure.

But what if artists start to redefine success in a way that does not deliver tangible results of that kind to society? There are already quite a few politicians that continuously question the amount of money spent on educating people in fields like fine arts. The return already seems quite limited and, in the future, it might diminish even further. Here, a more active role taken by art schools in contemporary debates might certainly help. I was talking about some of the looming changes earlier in this text. These changes, like the developing creativity within AI systems or the fact that everyone nowadays publishes his work on the same platforms as professional content providers – just to mention two -, are not just going to have an effect on fine arts, but on society as a whole. Many professional fields just come to realize how vulnerable their position actually is.

To me, the strongest selling point for fine arts was always its position slightly outside established structures of communication. Over time, society seems to struggle constantly to develop the right way to approach certain topics and ideas. The changes in speech are quite obvious, certain words come into fashion or fall from grace. But underlying these changes in language are changes in perception at a very fundamental level. Art was always playing a role in these developments. This might have to do with the role of the artist as the jester in society. While everyone had to speak and think in the agreed upon fashion, the artist was able to look beyond the limits of the accepted and poke around. Art can therefore provide a testbed for new ideas and developments. But as long as art stays focused mostly on itself and tries to fill in the nonexistent role of the “avantgarde”, arrogance might spell doom.

I am having issues with the idea of the “avantgarde”. It is the claim that art might storm ahead and open up new fields for society. This is not what I meant, when talking about poking around. Society does not move in a straight line, nor is art able to predict further developments. All art can do is to try things out. If there is enough poking, some of the stuff discovered might even become relevant, but that is mere chance. Most of the claims artists have made in the past, have left little traces beyond the inside of books on art history. Avantgarde feels like “told you so”, by people who make every possible claim beforehand.

It seems difficult for many fields within academia to open themselves to other fields. Sometimes there seem to be common interests and a cooperation seems sensible. But more often it is unclear what the direct benefit of a cooperation might be. Often, funding leaves not enough space for experiments. In countries like the UK, it has become relatively normal though, to open big research projects to artists. This is precisely what art schools should actively try to develop further. Artists as mediators between different fields.

But the way I have experienced German art schools, this might mean that one has to overcome the internal pressure from art students themselves. If you ever wish to see a human hornets nest in action, you should try to give art students the idea of limiting their creative freedom in any way. Best not to disturb an art student in its natural habitat. That is sarcastic, but that might in part be what makes it so difficult to prepare art schools for the future and help young artist cope with their shitty existence. Only working on the stuff, you feel like working on (the students) and not trying to come up with stuff for young artists to work on (teachers) is the path of least resistance. Maybe even the path of no resistance. The last time a professor at an art school ever told me to do something particular was on the day I did my entrance exam. After that no one ever gave a shit. That was absolutely not what I had expected. To be honest, I felt offended. I really expected people to teach me things. I was eager about that. But no. After some acclimatization I managed to blend in by becoming lazy.

I get the call for freedom to some extent, when talking about grad students. They should be able to try out the real live after graduation, while still being in the protective environment of the art school. But this call goes beyond that and seems to include everyone from the first semester on. Art school taught me almost nothing of value for my live now. I have realized that by now. Did I have a good time? Sure. I had a space to work, the tools to work with and no outside pressure to come up with plan-B, since I was already attending one of the most prestigious institutions. But I constantly doubt that this was in fact the right decision. In retrospect, I would have loved someone forcing me to learn stuff and find my role in the structures of society outside the narrow art world.

Since having students take care of themselves is so convenient for the teachers, it might be a lot for them to simultaneously come up with stuff to teach and face the uproar by students who think you try to limit their liberty by actually force them to do something. But someone should try it.

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