Like so many things that I’ve watched struggle to evolve over the last 15 months, June, Juneteenth, and the holiday’s recent official, federal status have brought new light and some long awaited changes. Thinking about my posts from June of 2020, we’re a ways away from the National Guard driving tanks through my residential neighborhood and the state flying helicopters over my house all aimed at peaceful protesters. I’ve watched more inclusion and awareness happen, more solidarity and activism for marginalized groups, more expectation for justice and equity.
It’s a start.
As I watch how these micro-changes and attempts at equity play out in the arts, I see a bigger problem amidst the good things: as long as we’re addicted to an elitist model, we’ll never be truly inclusive. Sure, more attention will go to some truly deserving women and people of color who have unjustly been marginalized in the past, but unless we change the problems of accessibility and status, too many deserving people will continue to struggle to have their artwork seen and collected.
Creating art requires the means to learn how, time to practice, and money to buy the supplies and equipment. Whenever I’ve railed against the lack of diversity at a craft conference or at art exhibits, I get told that being creative, especially being creative for a living depends on privilege. Well, duh. How do we fix that? By changing the model, of course.
An elitist arts model depends on perpetuating a status problem and promotes an us and them mentality between gatekeepers and those seeking to have their work collected by a wider audience. This model relies on a narrow funnel of tastemakers and money makers calling the shots. It relies on the audience being told and believing what’s good, what’s bad, what’s hip, what’s in, what’s worth collecting, and, most importantly, what is not.
It’s a who knows whom model that is based not on the quality of artwork but on high school popularity contests with all the fickleness of who gets to sit at the cool kids’ lunch table. The official language is artspeak, a language of white privilege, taught only in certain academic and curatorial circles. Like holding Mass in Latin only, it ensures that the priests and not the unwashed masses can participate in the conversation.
The model also relies on a perceived and utterly outdated sense of scarcity. One scroll through an Instagram feed of who’s making what or the ever increasing availability of art supplies and “handmade” works on Amazon, and we know the scarcity is fake. Art and artists are everywhere from pros to hobbyists. It’s a digitally communicated and 3d printed world. Anyone can be a designer or an artist with the right app or by clicking “add to cart and upload your design.” If we can all see that vast level of abundance, why do we stick to the old model of elitism?
Part of the reason is that the choices and noise surrounding what to look at or buy are overwhelming. Having someone or some system direct us by narrowing our choices seems comforting. Another reason is rooted in 20th century patriarchy and the rise of the art gallery.
For decades I’ve said that success in the art world is like dating in the 1980s. The gatekeeper system in the arts is a masculine one that courts the belles of the ball and sends the message that the plain girls, or the ones who don’t play the game, or will not accept the inappropriate advances are less likely to be chosen.
Regardless of how we identify, the artists play the traditional feminine role, the passive role, those waiting to be picked. Cold contacting a gallery to represent your work is like brazenly walking up and asking the cute guy out; it’s a recipe for instant rejection because the artist looks like the desperate girl who hasn’t been asked to the prom. The gallery, the old school male, has to believe it was his idea. He has to do the noticing and the asking, or, even if the answer isn’t an immediate “Your work isn’t for us,” the relationship will likely be unprofitable.
In this outdated dating model, women historically saw each other as competition for attention rather than banding together in solidarity to create change. The gatekeeper system relies on pitting artists against each other in the same spirit, keeping us in the us and them power struggle for getting work exhibited and collected.
Some say the internet has leveled the playing field. Certainly, anyone can now get their work seen, potentially. The same is true if you sign up for a Match.com account. In the early 2000s, having a website was a a grand leveler if you had the means to launch one. Social media opened more accessibility to anyone with a decent smartphone, though ones with good cameras for capturing art and processes aren’t exactly cheap. Posting on Instagram can garner attention, it can even create sales for those who play the game exceptionally well and who beat the algorithms designed to serve as digital gatekeepers.
The internet isn’t so much the grand equalizer as it is a way to scale the elitism and the popularity contest. It still requires that money, time, and energy be spent on posting. It involves choosing between creating one’s art and marketing it, which can be a losing time management battle if you’re having to work a day job to make ends meet. Back to the accessibility problem.
In using the internet to circumvent the problem of inclusion, have we merely been lazy in our efforts to really find people worth inviting to the table by replacing who knows whom with Instagram and Facebook’s hopelessly slanted algotrythms? Are we encouraging artists to play the same game of sucking up to the gatekeepers but appearing as outsiders and outliers because they have played a similar game of getting followers?
The answer then lies not in how we pick the cool kids to sit at the lunch table. By keeping the elitist model, we simply trade one cool kid for another. Saying one demographic is uncool so we can invite another isn’t inclusion. It’s merely substitution.
Rather, the answer is to create a bigger table with more seats, more conversations, and more art. If a primary point of creating art is its inherent uniqueness, then elitism’s competitiveness among artists is meaningless. Instead, let’s drop in that big, long, table leaf my grandmother used at holidays to make room for more people and invite more artists to the feast. Together, we can celebrate the abundance of our creativity.
And in Other News…
“Boogie Woogie is Hard and Easy” was picked up by Thrive Global
My recent essay on how to avoid burnout was published on Thrive Global, Arianna Huffington’s platform helping people navigate this challenging time with less stress and greater resilience. Yay!