In Part 9 of this series we looked at the differences between fine art photography and contemporary art photography. Now it is time to look at strategies if contemporary art photography is your passion.
Success in contemporary art photography requires that you be, first and foremost, an artist. Let's be upfront here: the contemporary art scene can be a pretentious, intellectual, academic and self-referential business. However, it is very definitely a business: commercial galleries are businesses. Successful artists are business people or have business people managing their business for them. Art institutions are big money organisations that depend on donations, philanthropy, government grants and successful blockbuster shows.
When I call the contemporary art world self-referential, I mean is that it is a closed ecosystem, and you must understand how it works. Viewed as an ocean metaphor, the artists are the surface and near-surface creatures, dependent on the light of inspiration and creativity to do their stuff. The commercial and institutional galleries occupy the middle zone, where their krill of dollars and exhibition space sustain the whole ecosystem. The galleries act as the circulatory ocean flows that connect all levels together. The bottom feeders are the art critics, art historians and academics, who, hidden from the real light, feed off what flows down from above. Yet their role is critical (sic), because somehow they control the flows in the upper layers of the art ocean.
Now I had some fun writing the above paragraph, but it does illustrate the unholy trinity of the contemporary art world: creators, displayers and commentators. Photographers who create with no regard for or recognition from the other two will never sell or exhibit. Amazing work that is out of fashion with the commentators will never see the light of day. And strange intellectual currents in the writings of the commentators will dictate the work that can be successful, and thus influences what is produced.
To pick two examples to illustrate this we only need to look at spirituality and beauty. Probably as an art-world reaction to art of previous times, overly religious art (unless critical of religion or treating it purely as a social phenomenon) went completely out of fashion in the contemporary art scene and has sat on the fringe for the last 50 years. Likewise beauty. Beauty for the sake of beauty was also out of fashion for a long time.
The currency of the contemporary art world is ideas, not imagery. The resulting art piece is how you communicate the ideas, rather than an end product in itself.
Read the artist statements of many artists and you find a mélange of intellectual nonsense that tells you nothing about the real reasons why most artists make their art. They have a drive that cannot be explained. Artists are only happy, whole and balanced people when making art. They have a love affair with the materials they work with and a passion and love for making the art that cannot be denied. Yet, to be accepted in the art world, they feel compelled to produce the intellectual mumbo jumbo that makes it sound as if their work is intellectually driven.
So, basically to stand a chance of succeeding in the work for contemporary art photography, you need to be willing to learn and play its game. This means understanding that beautiful art without an edgy, critical and analytical raison d'etre will get nowhere.
You also need to learn and cultivate the language of artspeak. Usually this means using a high number of words to communicate a low amount of real meaning. View it as one of the rules of a game you just need to know to be allowed to play. While there is an organized resistance to artspeak, it or at least softer forms of it is an established form of discourse.
You will need to educate yourself in contemporary art thought and practice. This means doing extensive personally directed reading or taking courses.
Plus, you need to exhibit in the 'right' places. Some galleries and exhibitions are valued by the contemporary art world and others are not. Group shows are fine, as long as they are ‘serious’ ones and not regarded as merely community art activities. Solo shows are critical, but they must also be in the right galleries.
Let’s be blunt. Commercial galleries are not looking for great work; they are looking for great work they can sell to their existing clients for a handsome profit.
The conventional career path is group (usually student group) shows, then solo shows in good quality rental spaces, followed by shows in commercial galleries. And, it helps greatly to have an art degree from a well-regarded art school. Not only are the qualifications helpful on the CV, but also in terms of gaining the contacts that can be critical to gaining access to the right sort of group shows.
Your goal is to come to the attention of art critics and historians. As in entertainment (which you could argue the art world is part of), any publicity is good publicity. So having an exhibition banned, boycotted or even better picketed or vandalised can be a license to print money. This is one reason why so much contemporary art tends to be quite shocking, rude, crude, or vulgar.
The other path is a sound intellectual rationale for the work, offering a depth and substance to both the work itself and any manifesto or artist statements you produce that will intrigue and interest. This means immersing yourself in the currents of thought and discussion, analysing it and finding your own unique voice and speaking loudly and sincerely through your work.
Don't get me wrong: The contemporary art scene, whilst containing a lot of rubbish, also contains truly amazing, stunning art. Many artists are working with all sincerity and producing work of lasting significance. The same is true of art critics and historians. Eventually great work always rises to the top.
Part 12 looks at the way tablet computers are changing the way photographers do business.
The previous posts in this series are as follows: