If you aren’t a darling of the art world by 25 it can feel as though you’ve missed your chance – here’s why you can give yourself time
Being young sucks. Good Morning Britain has decided millennials are ‘useless’, made to care only about avocado toast or bitcoin whilst science tells us we aren’t even fucking as much as our parents used to. Yet there are times when the mood or feeling of a generation is summed up in 140 characters. When a tweet or a thread suddenly encapsulates an unspoken anxiety brewing beneath the surface of everyday life. In a pointed series of tweets, freelance illustrator Samantha Mash gave voice to the harsh truths of being a young creative:
Youth "race to success" culture is wild, the fact that I am 26 and called "older"/"established" or made out to be an "art mom" makes me want to lay down and go to sleep. Y'all have to stop acting like everything you'll ever do will be done in your 20s.— Samantha Mash 🌾 (@anamericanghost) January 25, 2018
It resonated. Within hours the post had gone viral, with artists, students, academics – anyone within the exhaustive ‘creative’ gig economy – speaking out in opposition to the ‘fast track’ mindset inherent in the arts industry. The ‘Anti-Art Mom’ had spoken and with it came the vocalised frustrations of a working culture based on the over-exhaustion, and hyper-productive pressures on young people.
Outside of self-aware mockery, however, is a real underlying fear of not being ‘enough’. A survey commissioned by the Varkey Foundation reports that young people in the UK have the worst mental wellbeing in the world, coming second only to Japan. We are a generation of simultaneously nihilistic and yet perma-anxious ‘not-quite-adults’. In creative terms, where does that leave us?
Compounded by the fact that social media heightens the ability to compare and judge our successes based on those around us, for artists, the speed at which they can find success based off of a single viral post is mitigated by a constant need on the part of brands and gallerists for the ‘fresh’, ‘young’ and ‘innovative’. This accelerated speed of production waits for no one. Whereas in generations prior, the development and stylistic changes of an artist were applauded, such privileges are not offered to today’s artistic cohort.
But times change. Though the YBA’s can be blamed for lots – Damien Hirst’s 2017 Venice show for one – as a DIY collective then within the confines of art school, they have left a legacy upon the psyche of the art world namely in the form of self-promotion. All graduating in their early twenties from Goldsmith’s classes of 1996-99, Emin, Hirst, Gillian Wearing, Sarah Lucas and Matt Collishaw descended upon the art world, taking the chaotic and sexually charged atmosphere of the student work rooms into galleries of the likes of Saatchi and the Royal Academy. Profiting from the rise of the tabloid press, their shock tactics and easily photographed aesthetic made them radical. They encapsulated both the pessimism of post-feminism with the then-optimism of New Labour. Their youth and inexperience was a bonus and the art world loved them for it. This ‘bubble moment’ in art history and certainly in the legacy of British culture has maintained a perverse hangover on the mindset of practising artists and creatives. The emphasis on youth radicalism or the young artist as entrepreneur lingers despite existing in a now vastly different creative landscape.
Whereas self-promotion then existed in the form of DIY art shows and a conscious performance for media outlets, a career is now expected be made in a moment. Likes, follower counts and Instagram feeds are all platforms of success that thrive on immediate virality and a constant competition between the young and up and coming. Is a career really made at 22?
Against the backdrop of gentrification, rising social inequality and Brexit, for many artists the ‘make it or break it’ nature of the youth-orientated creative industries means many are being pushed out. Add an intersectional analysis of this and the situation looks even bleaker.
For creatives, the fear of having a sell-by-date at the age of 26 is a real concern, not an over exaggeration. For art to thrive, time is a significant component of the creative process. The age limit of the Turner Prize has been lifted, resulting in the amplification of already widespread acclaim of Lubaina Himid, an artist who didn't land her first solo show til the age of 32. Add to this that the British Pavilion was helmed by the 74-year-old Phyllida Barlow in the 2017 Venice Biennale – her first solo exhibition wasn’t till the age of 44 – and it’s easy to see that artists careers are not ‘made’ in their youth.
Unless the creative industry can recognise the merit in allowing young people time to grow and mature into their artistic practices, an entire generation will lose out. Give artists time to breathe and they will most certainly reward you.