Artists – Dark Matter or Long Tail?

Semiramidin Pes

The art world is an irrational place with strange mutations and distortions. Are the majority of trained contemporary artists part of a huge surplus – whose redundancy is a pre-requisite for the normal functioning of the art market?

We should be concerned. In 2005, the US based Rand Corporation identified a disturbing trend.  Although the number of artists had greatly increased over previous decades, they reported that the obvious  hierarchy among artists “appears to have become increasingly stratified, as has their earnings prospects.

In his book ‘Dark Matter (Pluto Press, London 2010) Gregory Sholette examines this glut of creativity, and its function in relation to the art world establishment. Sholette argues that there are low status and surplus labourers in the art world – studio assistants, interns, insecure part-time teachers, art fabricators and installers. They actually serve a crucial role as ‘dark matter’ – unseen artistic energy and interest – purchasing magazines, going to galleries, and crucially, they are ‘backdrop upon which that smaller zone of successful artists and art institutions are brought into visibility‘. The gravity generated by this unacknowledged interest group stabilizes the five percent of successful and visible artists who are able to make a reasonable living from their work.

Using the metaphor of  ‘dark matter’ – a concept borrowed from theoretical astrophysics, Sholette asks whether this missing cultural mass is a potential  powerful source of resistance to a system that dominates it, a resistance that might ‘reshape the very topography of the contemporary art world‘? By describing this artistic glut, Sholette sees a potentially vibrant energy source already engaged in  non-market gift giving, self-organizing, institutional impersonation – and sometimes political resistance. Organising the Occupy movement of 2011, for example, was a highly creative and engaging use of talent and labour, and preferable to existence in a zombie world of waste. And there is evidence of a huge and growing problem of underemployment affecting many graduates in all disciplines – part of our adaptation to internet and tech based globalisation, perhaps.

But the internet carries opportunities to communicate, meet people, create and distribute images and ideas. Unknown artists who are part of the ‘cultural mass’  can improve their prospects for selling and distributing their work over decades, taking advantage of the ‘Long Tail’. The ‘Long Tail’ suggests that products in low demand or with a low sales volume can collectively make up a market share that exceeds the relatively few bestsellers and blockbusters, if a distribution channel is large enough. Amazon is an example of the Long Tail – an overwhelmingly powerful distribution channel that has attracted much criticism, and is having a profound effect on publishers and authors. We’d there are alternative to Amazon where crowds of customers, users and collaborators can work ‘peer to peer’, crowdsource, crowdcast, and create ‘networks of products’. While the  ‘Long Tail’ and its  impact on  commerce has raised concerns, in some parts of the market, at the end of the long tail, conventional profit-making  ceases to exist; instead, people come up with ideas and products for self expression rather than monetary benefit. The ‘Long Tail’ can open up the possibility of a large space for authentic works of creativity.

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