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15 July 2019
This month's topic: Amateurism
Success Resides in Exiting

To speak of precariousness is a cliché in the world of contemporary art. We usually accuse cultural institutions of bad practices, such as commissioning projects without foreseeing any remuneration other than the visibility that those projects may generate, or the speculative workings of the market that appears to function according to the logic of winner-takes-all. In Spain, where the art sector was never half as independent as it can be in other places, poorly planned or poorly directed cultural polices, the lack of market dynamism and the economic crisis of 2008 have all been blamed for the present situation. Antonio Ortega focuses on the first reason, more specifically, on institutional calls for professional agents in the art sector, which were happily accepted by artists.

Professionalisation meant leaving behind the bohemian ideals of a poor artist utterly devoted to his work, of asceticism and of creation (seemingly) disinterested in material questions. By considering art just another job, cultural agents were legitimately demanding decent conditions, fair payment and a tax and social security system adapted to their needs. Especially artists, who weren’t only those most affected by the precariousness of the sector but were also the most inventive when it came to designing strategies for overcoming it. Pluriactivity, associationism and the sharing of resources were the most common approaches, although not the only ones. — Antonio Ortega defends amateurism, but we also have exiting, going somewhere else where artistic activity is encouraged by more favourable conditions.

Artistic migrations are neither new nor specific to Spain, although they are usually explained in different terms. On the one hand, from an adventurous angle they may promote the idea of travelling as a way of learning indebted to the Grand Tour, or as encounters with an alterity that could be stimulating; on the other, they may praise the virtues of the destination as a particularly exciting place that can be inspirational and beneficial though not necessarily in economic terms. I was surprised by the fact that in the interview with artists published in the catalogue of a specific group show, some said they’d moved to Berlin because they felt that art was closer to life in the German capital. In the context of that exhibition and catalogue, I took it that it was easier in Berlin than other places to make art their main (or sole) professional activity, a bit like relocating a business in order to optimise investments and profits.

If Berlin in the nineties had become one of the world capitals of contemporary art, this was precisely due to the concentration of artists from different countries who had settled in the city, making it an unavoidable place for curators, critics, dealers and other artistic agents in search of innovative trends. One of the reasons for the mass emigration to Berlin was the amount of available space: physical space, in the form of cheap and large apartments and studios, and symbolic space that allowed immigrants to fulfil the dreams that seemed impossible to accomplish elsewhere. Things have now changed of course — rent today isn’t as cheap as it was back in 2001, and the range of possibilities isn’t as open as it was then either. Although the city still draws art professionals from around the world, other places dubbed ‘the new Berlin’ have also begun to attract increasing numbers of people.

Berlin isn’t by far the only place to which artists move when they leave Spain: Paris, London, New York, Amsterdam, Brussels and Mexico City are other common destinations for Spain’s artistic expats. So besides cheap rent, what are those who decide to move to London or Paris actually looking for? The first explanation is still of a material nature: a greater concentration of artistic agents, more institutions and a more dynamic market — in short, greater opportunities for their work to be displayed and for them to meet curators, critics or dealers who can help publicise and sell it, larger audiences, etc. Within these parameters, each city has its strong and its weak points, and potential expats choose as best they please. Another possible explanation is that those who move are determined to leave their native art scene behind and choose their destination in the light of other factors such as the presence of friends or acquaintances in a given city, a grant offered by a specific organisation or the chance to take part in an artists’ residency at the onset of their migratory project.

At a distance, they can find the space they need to experiment and create freely, without the pressure exerted on their own turf, but the symbolic space I mentioned apropos Berlin can also be found in the journey itself, in the act of leaving. We could consider emigration as a form of emancipation on a par with the amateurism or de-professionalisation championed by Antonio Ortega, a customised way for artists to manage and promote their work which proves liberating, given that the rules governing the art scene in their place of origin no longer apply. Even so, we could say that it’s impossible to control how their work is received and how this affects their reputation. In other words, moving away and showing nonchalance doesn’t necessarily ensure being left alone.

There is a wealth of symbolic capital at stake in the worlds of art. We’ve already seen that showing nonchalance can end up having the opposite effect to what was expected, i.e., it can lead to an accumulation of the symbolic capital at stake and help change the rules of the game. Katherine Giuffre came up with an alternative to the metaphor of the process of artistic acknowledgement as a climb to the top of the mountain of success, describing critical recognition as a pile of sand that changes shape according to artists’ attempts to reach the top.[1] In his turn, Pierre Bourdieu spoke of ‘interest in disinterest’ as a typical feature of cultural capital. So, is there no way at all of escaping the system?

If the idea is to escape the precariousness of the world of contemporary art, the exit strategy appears as a feasible alternative to amateurism. Unlike Spain, some countries take the exceptionality of the art economy into consideration and legislate in favour of artists, offering specific tax and social security regimes and setting aside a part of their budgets to making professional art work viable through scholarships and grants, sometimes even letting studio dwellings to professional artists at reasonable prices. If the symbolic capital accumulated by the artists who decide to leave Spain doesn’t lie in distance, couldn’t we say that better working conditions may also lead to better work?


[1]Katherine Giuffre, ‘Sandpiles of Opportunity: Success in the Art World,’ Social Forces No. 77(3), 1999.

(Highlighted image: Still from the film The Artist (2011), directed by Michel Hazanavicius and starring  Jean Dujardin)

Glòria Guso is an art historian and a researcher in the social sciences. She was born in the periphery of Barcelona but lives in Paris and her second home is Germany. For her PhD thesis in sociology she studies the international mobility of the visual arts professionals. She writes, coordinates, edits, documents and criticizes.

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