dictionary > Contemporary Artist

During the Soviet period artists from Eastern European countries were divided into “official" and "unofficial.” This dichotomy, drawn along sharp ideological lines, ghettoized the intelligentsia into enclaves that lived according to their distinct laws and values. The first term in this opposition set remained for the most part constant, whereas its opposite “unofficial” tended to change in accordance with the political circumstances, or it varied from one socialist country to another. In the Soviet Union the term “unofficial artist” went through a series of transformations. During the late 1950s and 1960s the artists who refused to collaborate with the official culture were called “underground” (podpolinye) – which translated literally means “under the floor,” or as some artists ironically called it, zashkafnye (literally “behind the dresser).[1] With the progress of liberalization new terms were adopted to express the political processes. After the infamous Moscow “Bulldozer Exhibition” sanctioned by the state in 1974 artists adopted the term neofitsial’nyi (unofficial), and after the Helsinki Human Rights accord of 1975 artists began to call themselves “nonconformists,” “dissidents,” or resorted to more ironic metaphors, such as ‘un-hang-able’ (nevyveshivaemye)”.[2]

This dichotomy also differed from country to country. If in Moscow artists in the opposition were called “unofficial” or “nonconformist,” in Hungary critics and artists used the term “neo-avant-garde,” and in other socialist countries and republics of the former USSR the unofficial scene was sometimes termed “retro-avant-garde” (Yugoslavia), or “repro-avant-garde” (Estonia). Of course the two-fold dichotomous division under socialism was not always straightforward and clear, for many artists and poets worked during the day for the state and during the night for themselves, or for the Western diplomatic missions, as did, for instance, many Moscow conceptualists. There was thus a blurred category of “semi-official” or “semi-unofficial” artists.

During the transition of the 1990s the classification of Eastern European artists also began to change. With the arrival of a new liberal-democratic order came also the promise to get rid of hard-edged dichotomies. This could not however have happened overnight. During the 1990s, despite the promise of democratic equalitarianism, a sharp division still remained. The relatively compact groups of artists who endorsed new artistic media and more liberal ideals were called “Soros artists” – in some countries “Soroshites,” or even nephews of “Uncle Soros”[3] – because they collaborated with the local Soros Centers for Contemporary Art. On the opposite side stood the anti-democratic conservatives of various types, the most common among them being the “nationalists.” These were members of the local Artists Unions (many of them former “official” artists) who after 1989 switched from embellishing and maintaining the heroic ethos of advanced socialism to illustrating ethno-nationalistic themes using often an outdated pictorial language of post-impressionism. It was this category of artists, the Soroshites which will became known in many of these countries as “contemporary artists.”

Today “contemporary artist” is a global category. There are “contemporary artists” in France and Algeria, in Russia and in Ukraine, in United States and Afghanistan. This section takes a broad and rather quick look at the category “contemporary artists.” In Eastern Europe the new liberal-democratic and market regime did not fulfill the promise to erase the social division between artists. The substitution of the language of ideology by the market only changed a few words leaving the distinction between groups for the most part unaltered. This page looks primarily on how some authors perceive today the term contemporary artist, as well as provides a short montaged or cut-and-paste view on those sub-groups that exists today in the contemporary art world. The depicted situation is more adequate for the West, although this distinction in sub-groups begins gradually to become manifest also in the post-socialist lands.

Contemporary artists are like Switzerland. They are like a country that wishes to remain neutral in the game, while siding with the winning team no matter who that is. (Ivan Mečl “Editorial” Umělec 1/2008)

Like Switzerland, the global landscape of contemporary art world can also be differentiated according to its cantons, or groups of artists that populate it. This division will largely depend on the methodology that one employs. The economic, political, institutional, geographical, or aesthetic perspectives will render different configurations and territories of the contemporary art world. In his “Manual of Contemporary Style” the contemporary artist Pablo Helguera resorts to a more sociological topology of various contemporary artist groups. Here are some quotes from Helguera's Manual of Style. The reader may find a more elaborate version of this cartography here (html) and here (pdf).

The Pablo Helguera “Manual of con-tem-po-ra-ry art Style. Jorge Pinto Books Inc., New York 2007

There is a general, if unspoken, hierarchy for artists that is based on their international and institutional recognition. Although it is never used publicly, it is a useful reference for those who may wish to get a sense of the location of certain artists (including, perhaps, themselves) amidst the professional landscape of the AW [art world].[4]

Helguera divides contemporary artists in four levels (A, B, C, and D), according to the niche or subclass that they occupy in the hierarchy of the contemporary art world.

A-level (also known as “blue-chip”) artists are generally seen as those who regularly participate in the main international biennials, whose work is owned by major museum collections, and who are regularly written about in Artforum. A-level status is very hard to maintain on a long-term basis, and even less on a permanent basis. All artists claim to be A-level artists. A-level status can be held for as little as one week in the AW. A-level artists constitute the top three percent of the market.

B-level artists are those who occasionally exhibit in international biennials and do have works in some significant collections, but whose exhibition and review record is spotty and uneven. Approximately 15 percent of the AW is comprised of B-level artists.

C-level artists, usually known as “emerging,” can be identified as follows: a) their career is in its very early stages, b) never managed to quite take off despite several attempts; c) were previously A or B-level artists and, after a decline in their careers, refused to give up making art. C- level artists can have a handful of significant exhibitions on record, but not enough to justify a B-level rating. Around 32 percent of the artists involved in the AW belong to this group.

D-level artists are generally amateurs with naïve awareness about the AW and little critical judgment about their own work, and generally regarded as hopeless. They constitute 50 percent of the market. (Pablo Helguera “Art World” Umělec 1/2008 (http: accessed)

Drawing on Helguera’s statistics, the mass of contemporary artists that move in or around art world may look something like this:

Helguera’s topology is helpful, although sometimes it may be also misleading. He conceives of these categories of artists in terms of “temporary” niches in which artists are moving in and out like in hotels. He maintains, for instance, that the A-level status [blue-chip] can be held for as little as one week in the Art World, which I doubt. From the point of view of the market, which creates and regulates these niches, to have a blue-chip artist only for one week would be unprofitable and even self-destructive. It seems to me that the A-category or the blue-chip group is a more stable market category than what Helguera presents. Generally his A, B, C, and D, typology slightly differs from the ones offered by other sources.

The number of artists in the visual arts has been increasing (as it has in the other arts disciplines), and their backgrounds have become more diverse. At the same time, however, the hierarchy among artists, always evident, appears to have become increasingly stratified, as has their earnings prospects. At the top are the few “superstar” artists whose work is sold internationally for hundreds of thousands and occasionally millions of dollars. In the next tier are the “bestsellers” whose work is represented and promoted by galleries, dealers, and auction houses and sold for substantial prices. In the third tier are the majority of visual artists who often struggle to make a living from the sale of their work. This increasing stratification is largely due to changes in the size and operation of the arts market. (McCarthy xvi) McCarthy, Kevin F. A Portrait of the Visual Arts: Meeting the Challenges of a New Era. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp., 2005.

Most of the time critics and commentators divide contemporary artists into three main groups. The “blue-chip” artists, which are also called “stars,” “superstars” or simply “hot artists” are those who work for the “elite” or the “primary art market” dominated by the major Auction Houses. The compact “blue-chip” segment of the art world, which is constituted of the most elaborate and expensive brands, resembles in its organization of labor, promotion and sale of artworks the corporate model of production and distribution.

Eleven o’clock.  And the collectors are off, slipping through the turnstiles and past the Swiss security as quickly as their dignity will allow. From behind me an avid collector half jokes, “You’re not showing enough!” Those interested in blue-chip art vanish around the corners at ground level, while those in pursuit of emergent swarm up the escalators. Thornton, Sarah. Seven Days in the Art World. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), 84.

The second more numerous group is called “emerging,” “emergent” and sometimes “bestsellers.” These artists, whose work sells for less than that of blue-chip artists, constitutes the second largest group of professionals. The last and the most numerous type is that of “struggling” artist, which – at least in the United States – is also known sometimes as “losers.” The latter category is constituted of those individuals who had received an art education but do not earn a living from practicing art; they ceased making art on a regular basis altogether. This category is also the least represented or spoken about, for who would dare to write today a book called “How to Be a Struggling Artist” or “Becoming a Loser.” It must be kept however in mind that this three-fold division into “blue-chip” (or “superstar”), “emerging” (or “bestsellers”) and “struggling” is most representative of countries such as the United States.


 

Blue-chip
adjective [ attrib. ]
denoting companies or their shares considered
to be a reliable investment, though less secure
than gilt-edged stock.
• of the highest quality : blue-chip art.
Oxford English Dictionary

 

Much of what happens on Wall Street has nothing to do with facilitating investment in the productive activities. It is purely speculative (hence the description of it as “casino” or even “vulture” capitalism. But this activity has deep impacts upon the overall dynamics of capital accumulation, and most particularly on the recentring of economic-political power primarily in the United States but also within the financial markets of other core countries (Tokyo, London, Frankfurt). Harvey, David. The New Imperialism. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 132.

The same logic governs the contemporary art world. The term “blue-chip artist” comes from the stock exchange market vocabulary, which in turn was derived from casinos, where the blue-colored chips represent the greatest value. This relatively new term in the vocabulary of contemporary art can be traced back to the beginning of Reaganomics when radical neoliberal deregulatory policies submitted the banking industry, the capital markets and later everything else including art and culture to the logic of the casino. From this casino perspective the numerical proportion of contemporary artists – struggling, emerging, and blue-chip – can be represented in the following way.

When the three groups are regarded from the point of view of income and amount of generated capital the proportion reverses.



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[The blue-chip artist X ] is the perfect product of an art system in which the market controls nearly everything, including much of what gets said about art. Robert Hughes “That’s Showbusiness” in The Guardian Wed. 30 June, 2004.

“A rule of thumb” says one dealer, “is that in periods of belt-tightening, blue chip artists are the ones that make the market move.” (source Art MagazineVolume 48, 1973, 73.)

The exorbitant prices for blue-chip artists are such that only very few companies have the resources to play with such high stakes. Wu, Chin-Tao.Privatising Culture: Corporate Art Intervention since the 1980s. (London; New York: Verso, 2002), 254-55.

 

 

 

 


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The term “emerging” may also suggest that those who fall under this category are on the way to become “blue-chip.” If this ever happen then collectors and dealers who bought this artist cheap – when he or she were still “emerging” or  moving towards the primary market – have the chance to resell the work at a much higher “blue-chip” price.

 


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In Progress


[1] Kabakov Ilya 60-e – 70-e: zapiski o neofitialinoi zhizni v Moskve, Wiener Slawistischer Almanach. Sonderband; 47: (Wien: Gesellschaft zur Forderung slawistischer Studien, 1999), 20 and 153-5.
[2]
Ibid
[3]
“Uncle Soros” was the name used by contemporary artists in some of the former republics of the Soviet Central Asia. See for instance Leeza Ahmady “The Taste of Others” www.aaa.org.hk/downloads/Leezafinalreport.pdf
[4]
The Pablo Helguera “Manual of con-tem-po-ra-ry art Style. The essential guide for artists, curators, and critics.” Jorge Pinto Books Inc., New York 2007
[5]
For a more detailed discussion of these models of distribution see Möntmann, Nina. Art and Its Institutions: Current Conflicts, Critique and Collaborations. London: Black Dog Publishing, 2006.