Monday, October 24, 2011

At TEDx Brisbane

The following was the text of my address at TEDx Brisbane, on Saturday 15th October, titled Art and an undistracted conversation - and the dealer is doomed:
When I look up at the screen behind me and see my name associated with the word ‘artist’, I suddenly feel a little self-conscious. These days, everyone calls themselves an artist. In fact, I don’t think there’s an occupational description that has been more misused or, frankly, abused – except maybe ‘visionary’ or ‘whore’.
And yet, unarguably, an artist is what I am. I paint, I draw, I make photographs and videos. And for the past decade, I have made my living from exhibiting and selling this work.It is, in so many ways, a traditional occupation, as old as, maybe even older than, well, being a visionary or a whore. And over several thousand years the meaning and function of art within society – and with it, the cultural, intellectual, spiritual and economic relevance of the artist – has ebbed and flowed.
Right now, no-one would dispute the ascendancy of the visual in our culture.
Popular interest in art has risen to such an extent that tickets for those public gallery shows starring art’s most bankable box-office names – Da Vinci, Caravaggio, Picasso, Warhol – are restricted or meted as sparingly as lottery winnings. Despite hard times, auction houses are reporting record prices for the works of contemporary artists. The half a dozen or so best-known living artists in both the USA and UK have annual incomes that exceed the gross revenues of Australia’s most successful trade book publishers and record companies.
Of course, this ascendancy has paralleled the expansion of the web and the rapid evolution of technology that not only makes the creation and distribution of imagery easier but through various forms of social media, encourages its discovery, collection and sharing by more people than at any other time in human history. It also enables quite small groups of people with an interest in the obscure or arcane to discover and share with each other, giving presence, appreciation and influence to work that might, in an earlier, pre-internet time, have been entirely overlooked.
All this is fertile material for discussion at a forum such as this but it’s not why I am here today. Instead, I want to offer an intensely personal perspective of just one aspect of this visual culture: the murky business that exploits what is loosely defined as ‘fine art’. I want to argue for a new sense of freedom, of possibility, for a younger generation of artists with the nerve and – not to put too fine a point on it – the inclination to kick a bunch of old farts in the balls.
So let me begin with this simple statement: The art world as we know it is doomed. And it is a good thing.
I was one of those fortunate artists who enjoyed some success at a relatively young age. At first, it was entirely down to my own efforts. I mounted my own shows and improvised the marketing of them sufficiently well to paint full-time from what I earned from them.
Of course, the whiff of money drew the interest of commercial art dealers, first in Brisbane, then in Melbourne and Sydney, and it didn’t take long before I found myself being courted like a football player or a one-hit Hollywood starlet – with sly promises of personal attention, fame, money, and even drugs – well, better drugs than I was taking then – if only I’d sign over all rights to my output, along with 50 percent of whatever might be earned on it.
Some of the things said to me during this period were downright odd. “The last thing you want is everyone interested in your work,” one gallery owner told me – as if ubiquity and accessibility should be anathema to an up and coming young artist. Another promised, “You’ll never have to deal with collectors – such a distraction. I’ll take care of everything for you.” How silly and girlishly naive of me to think I might want to develop a closer relationship with the very people who were interested enough in my work to want to fork over hard-earned cash for it?
Of course, the only real guarantees anyone gets out of a dealer is one show every second year, maybe a book for which the artist underwrites most of the production costs, and few positive reviews bought from a tame critic or two for a bottle of claret and a bistro lunch. But for a time, too long, I bought into it. And whatever qualms I felt I suppressed, reassuring myself that this is what being a ‘real’ artist was all about. It left a bad taste in my mouth.
Fatefully, my career as an artist began in the same year the first Mozilla web browser found its way onto personal computers. Suddenly everyone had access to the world wide web and we were all caught up in the evolutionary speed and excitement of this new medium and the shape-shifting new social and economic paradigms it inspired.
I tried to absorb as much as I could of the real ideas that emerged. It wasn’t easy given the ambient white noise of bullshit, tech’ jargon, and vaporous free-thinking that defined the ’90s. But I learned that attention is currency: the more you have, the more you can leverage; And I learned that ubiquity not rarity defines value. The dealer who told me, “The last thing you want is everyone interested in your work,” didn’t have a clue.
There was also a third idea, a little less well-defined then. It was this: if a truly networked society, culture or economy was to be successful, access to it and the flow of information across it had to be open and unrestricted. In recent years, I’ve applied this openness to nearly every aspect of my public life as an artist.
The interesting thing about all three of these ideas was that they were not really new in the art world. They were well understood by Andy Warhol and informed the way he operated in New York’s downtown art scene back in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Andy might have begun his career within the conventions of the commercial gallery scene but it didn’t take long for him to grow beyond it. By the time he was telling us, with an eery pre-social media prescience, that we all had a chance to be famous for 15 minutes, he was mass producing his art, appropriating the universally familiar – from Campbell soup cans to Elvis movie posters – and removing himself almost completely from the art-making process to focus on commoditising his own fame through mainstream mass media, rather than the parochial art press.
Make no mistake, Andy leveraged this attention into revenue, from portrait commissions to product endorsements, as well as increased prices for his diversified output. The respect his art received – and it took a while – was encouraged, no question, by an urbane and skilled dealer, Leo Castelli, but the wider strategies were Andy’s alone.
When I was first preparing my notes for this talk, a few days ago, I thought I might honor the tech’ heritage of TED by comparing the attitudes of the traditional art world and of artists, such as me, who thrive quite independently of it to the differences between closed and open computing technologies. But there’s nothing remotely contemporary about the art business. It depends on and almost medieval, feudal confinement and control not of its own intellectual property – after all, because it has none – but that of its artists, who are its indentured servants, its oppressed serfs.
Galleries go out of their way to limit the degree to which their artists interact not only with collectors but everyone who might establish some stake in their future, from auction houses to corporate and institutional curators. This control is vital, because at its heart, the system is devoid of imagination, innovation or real value to those from whom it levies egregious tolls. From a gallery’s perspective, there’s nothing to be gained from transparency, let alone open-ness.
Not so long ago, one of Australia’s most eminent dealers bellowed at me, “I get to decide who gets to see art.
The sad thing is that a new and younger generation of dealers is just as blinkered. It’s as if the internet never even happened. It’s as if they’re clinging to denial while their whole fucking world is torn away from them in a radical, irreversible change.
A couple of days ago, I read this comment from one in
The Art Newspaper: “Obviously, finding new clients is crucial for galleries: You have to go to fairs, as clients don’t live around the block any more – they’re global.”Yeah, well, doh! So why not turn on your damn laptop or iPad? Or pick up your phone? Re-adjust your working your hours so you’re available to clients in Asia, the Middle East or Russia. Reach out for thousands, not just a few hundred that might pass your stand at a fair.
In 2006, a year after I left the two highly respected galleries that represented me in Sydney and Melbourne, I decided to break away completely from the commercial gallery system. I decided to use the web to promote my art and develop a direct relationship with those who were interested in it.
Later, I learned to use technology to manage every aspect of my art-related business, from communicating regularly with collectors and effecting transactions with them to managing my archives and even my art supplies. I was the first artist in this country, one of the first anywhere, to walk away from what others saw as compelling opportunities within the traditional art world, and to assume responsibility for my career myself. For the first time in nearly a decade, I felt like I could breath again.
The effect on my reputation and my earnings was almost immediate: my income rose from around $A30,000 in a good year to more than $300,000. My web site traffic increased by several thousand a week, and generated enough of a buzz that it provoked the curiosity of mainstream media. I ended up in a double page spread in
Vogue.These days, nearly nine and half thousand individuals subscribe to my monthly email newsletter, while more than 4,500 follow my Twitter feeds and 2,500 others have connected with me on Facebook. And although I haven’t exhibited in a gallery or art fair for nearly three years now, the
Australian Art Auction Record lists me among the top 50 most traded artists by value across Australian and New Zealand auctions this year. I’m one of very few women – and one of very few artists under 35 – included.
For the past three years, every one of my works has been sold long before it’s even been completed. And from a collector base of no more than a dozen, all of them located in either Melbourne or Sydney and corralled by the dealers who used to represent my work, buyers of my work now number in the hundreds, spread across a dozen countries.

I have not sought to confine my work in any way. Ubiquity, not rarity, is value. Attention is currency. I release my work into the public space under a flexible Creative Commons license and providing you don’t alter the work or try to claim it as your own and you ask my permission to use it for a commercial or promotional purpose, then you can reproduce it anywhere and in any way you want. As a result my work is widely distributed and recognised and this adds value to my new works and whatever else I do as an artist.
Of course, even now, few dealers, curators, critics and even artists really get it.
A couple of years ago, I turned down an offer of the most stifling kind of representation from a well-known art dealer. I wrote about our meeting in my blog (a word the dealer had never heard before – he told me, without embarrassment, that he couldn’t figure out what my ‘blood’ had to do with anything). The next day I received an SMS from him with just one word. Thanks to the LA-based sculptor, David Buckingham, we are able to bring that word to you all today.
Yeah, he called me a wanker.
So professional, Howie.In the end, what provoked this puerile response was a loss of control. The dealer wasn’t mad because I had written about him unkindly – I hadn’t. He was mad that I had written anything at all. Time was, not so long ago, artists had to be wary of crossing swords with art dealers, even those with modest reputations. But the art world post-web is different. I don’t fear these pompous, impotent, late-middle-aged anachronisms. The world as they know it is coming to an end and they haven’t a clue about how or why it’s happening.
I suppose I’ve become more fearless as I’ve gained confidence in my own independence. I have few qualms about exposing every aspect of my creative and personal life. For four years, I maintained a candid and at times discomfortingly intimate blog and when I discontinued it, at the beginning of this year, I took to documenting every aspect of my creative and personal life in photographs with the same degree of unabashed open-ness. You can see how I create my large enamel paintings and you can see me fuck. I don’t care.
As an artist, I see this as a logical extension of my commitment to the open-ness of the web. I am not just exposing myself physically, I am inserting myself directly and visibly into the ideas I’m interrogating in my art in order to understand them – and to help my collectors and audience understand them – more directly. I’m also creating a narrative derived from real rather than imagined experience and if the responses I get are anything to go by, the narrative is important to peoples’ personal engagement with the art.
As I’ve said, nothing is hidden, even if, at times, it provides grist for the gossip mill of the old-school art world, because it conveys a sense of reality, of truth, of flawed human-ness that encourages a more direct relationship with my work.
Which brings me to one more of the ideas that were first mooted in the ’90s, one that I see as increasingly operative in all the arts: the gradual but inexorable shift in the locus of value from the individual creative product – the artwork, book, musical composition, or performance – to the producer. In other words, whether we like it or not, the public perception of the individual, the persona they concoct for us, is worth more than any individual work they create.
We all understand these days that awareness is a form of currency but the art world still clings to the idea that it is the artwork that is the most powerful attractor of that awareness: this encourages critics and curators to continue to argue for their role as the ultimate arbiters of what most deserves our attention, what can be called ‘great’ art.
But in what is now a deeply networked, deeply informed culture, the resources are everywhere to enable us to decide for ourselves. Increasingly impotent, the arbiters wail about the death of a higher culture but in the end, what they’re really mourning is their loss of power. They envy bitterly the artists’ reclamation of a respect that owes nothing to their approval or imprimatur.
Fortunately, the visual artist is probably better positioned to exploit this than others such as writers, composers and performers who rely on the eroded protection of copyright and the collection of royalties and license fees to make a living. Over time, I suspect we can test a new range of possibilities and come up with innovations and initiatives that might illuminate a different path. And who knows, maybe we might, at last, remove the intermediary, the middle man, from between the artist and the audience and begin to work out – directly, collaboratively – just how each might get what they want or need from the encounter.
Thank you for listening.