• Andrew McIlroy

'Everyone is an artist', but not everyone can make art: Artists in a post-Covid world

Joseph Beuys' famous line 'Everyone is an artist' is often misunderstood. For Beuys “artist” was the word to describe the essence of what it means to be a human being: The deep need and fundamental ability to create and be creative - being an artist means being creative in whatever way is available for and feels natural to you.

But not everyone can make art.

Melbourne’s enforced Covid-lockdown has given those of us trapped here a lot of time to think. Afterall, there has not been much else to do. And while Zoom chats with like-minded friends and family and endless hours surfing the internet have provided some comfort, the existential questions confronting us have only sharpened. With so many shaken from their normal lives and work, is it even worth competing for perhaps fewer opportunities in the rugged new order? Perhaps it is time to explore a more creative and less competitive career path?

Watching these things unfold, I wonder whether there will now be too many artists in the world?

Yes, artists are hardly a danger. They are not rampaging through the streets, weaponised or forcing people to think a certain way. But there might be too many - like it is now a career option, a way of turning a lockdown driven self-belief in one’s artistic ability at last into a profession.

Melbourne in lockdown (2020) Photo: Broadsheet

Being an artist was once seen as something different and rare, requiring a very specific set of extraordinary skills. Works were limited and access controlled. Artists were patronised by kings, popes and societies’ elites; ensuring reputations and immortality.

Schools instilled self-discipline in their pupils, rather than the dim-witted ‘all creativity must be rewarded’ mentality we for the most part see today - invariably setting the less-able up for disappointment.

Today, a growing number of people think they have a right to be called an artist simply because they say they are one and hope others agree and buy something from them.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not angry about it. It is simply making me question my own artistic ability and purpose.

So, what actually makes an artist? Are they supposed to make a living at it? Be any good at it? Or do they just decide they are one.

Gustave Courbet, The Artist's Studio (1854–55) Photo: Musée d'Orsay, Paris

So, here is my proposition. There are too many self-declared artists emerging from our pandemic-fuelled hiatus. Too many people who want to be artists, and most of them not very good.

This leads me the question: Are they simply setting themselves up for failure or is their influence far more disruptive?

Putting talent to one side for a moment, it is widely understood that the arts have low barriers to entry. Many people are attracted to what are seen to be fashionable fields like writing, acting, directing, and painting. Perhaps our love affair with reality television shows plays some part, where one person is often pulled from the crowd and becomes a star.

Nonetheless, the economics of ‘crowded fields’ means the larger the number of participants, the more randomness and luck play a role in determining success.

Reality TV's Rove McManus, host of Life Drawing Live Photo: SBS

Many professions today have associations restricting access to the right to work as say a doctor or a lawyer. Historically, artists have done very well when guilds and unions have been allowed to control the flow of entrants to the profession. talented wtiters and artists by contrast today have no such protection - having to persuade either markets or governments and their institutions (often driven by a convoluted mix of social policy) to give them money.

A sustainable arts career relies then on the subtle balance between supply and demand on the one hand, and the effect that has on opportunities for artists to be paid for their creative work on the other.

Regulation of an art market - via government policy, or guilds and the like - will not constrain an increasing flooded, unfiltered art market.

To my thinking, the best way of navigating through the mire, is to embrace the gallery, come-dealer model. Good art presented to the market in a curated form will do more to sustain a vibrant artist community than an alternative where every self-described mediocre artist is cheered on and gets a prize. It remains to be seen whether these businesses themselves can survive in a post-Covid future. I hope so, as there may not be a viable Plan B.

Main photo: Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) Photo: Tate

Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist, living and working in Melbourne, Australia

Copyright 2015