Art is dead

Published on October 3, 2023 by Noah Bradley

Artists are struggling. Artists are usually struggling, but they are struggling more and in different ways than before.

I’ve been hearing these refrains:

“I’m not growing my following any more.”
“It’s harder to sell my art/courses/products.”
“I get fewer likes/comments than I used to.”
“I don’t know why I make art any more.”

Are these the workings of the Algorithm Gods? Has AI already destroyed the online art world? Do we, collectively, just suck? Are we each just failing in our own special ways?

As with all things, it’s a complicated trend and I don’t think anyone can answer it completely. But I’d like to propose a few reasons and even a few solutions.

How to build a pyramid

Artists usually like looking at art. Many people who follow artists are themselves artists. One by one, we build the hierarchies of the art world. Those at the top reap the greatest rewards and are further bolstered by the most attention, an upward spiral for a lucky few.

It has been possible for newcomers to climb that pyramid. A new, exceptional artist can enter the scene, other artists share their work, and the algorithms bless them with attention and praise. A star is born.

But I think this is getting harder as the top solidifies. The same artists occupy the most attention and success on all of the social media platforms. Sure, sometimes artists fade into obscurity or disrepute (hi), but that seems rare. The rich get richer and those at the top of the social hierarchy continue to dominate.

I worry, though, for those succeeding on social media platforms. I have seen the rise and fall of many platforms and I see how rickety the foundations appear for many of those artists. Moving an audience off of Twitter, for instance, is incredibly difficult. If the algorithm changes or the platform crumbles, will your career endure?

There’s too much art

There’s never too much art, but there is absolutely too much art online for most of us to properly consume.

99.999% of drawings or paintings will not be looked at for longer than a second. Artists pour dozens of hours into creating work that is glimpsed, once, for mere seconds. If it garners a double-tap, that’s an achievement. Most work is scrolled past, unremarked.

If ten thousand people are making a new painting every month, that’s still a tremendous amount of art to consume. I like art, but that’s pushing it.

When we’re presented with the fire-hose of artistic content, we value it less, we scroll faster, we care less. With so many options, it’s all that much more likely that we will consume the art that everyone else is looking at—better to let the crowd tell us what’s good so we don’t have to sort through the thousands of artists ourselves.

Algorithms are a bitch

Algorithms love engagement and drama. Pretty paintings are not usually very controversial.

So artists engage in more drama and less art. They see their following grow. But then they post their work and watch engagement drop. So back to drama.

Pretty soon, these artists have cultivated an audience obsessed with drama and only vaguely interested in art. Do not succumb to the siren call of audience capture.

Further, algorithms love to arbitrarily change. A rising star can suddenly run into a brick wall—where they found success before, now they only find underwhelming responses. Left without the gold stars of validation, they are likely to make less work, further solidifying their decline.

We’re encouraged to make boring art

The most successful art is not necessarily the best art. The most successful art is simply the art that is most successful. The art that wins the game of social media attention.

I already complained about this, but I’m going to rant again, briefly.

Art that does well is usually work that is easily consumed. Easily grasped, enjoyed, and moved on from. Social media is not a museum for contemplation.

Further, we are apparently encouraged to both produce consistent work and homogeneous work. Followers want to see the same general sort of work—experimentation usually flops. And they want to see a lot of work. Frequent posts. Daily is best.

What’s an artist to do? Churn out same-y work that can be executed in a few hours.

There are definitely exceptions

There are artists who are doing great and making slow work. I think most of them, though, grew their following before the current influx of artists. There are exceptions, but I don’t think that disproves all of this stuff I’m writing about. But as with all things, exceptions will exist and there’s always a chance that I’m glimpsing just an insular bubble that’s struggling right now.

Video is more popular now

Unfortunately, we all decided to make paintings and not videos. Aside from process videos, there are only so many video options a painter has. Shit.

Thankfully not everyone prefers video. And thankfully we do not need everyone if we hope to make art. We just need enough people who appreciate what we do and want to see us continue. Technically we don’t even need that, but it’s nice to have.

We are in an art recession

Recessions are a loss of hope and I think artists lack hope right now.

Faced with all of the problems above, I think a lot of artists are withdrawing from the art world. They see the insurmountable obstacles and give up. Some aspiring artists, tragically, are giving up before they’ve even begun. Only the most foolhardy/brave carry on.

AI hasn’t helped. I have a lot of thoughts about AI—I think it could end up being a good thing for artists—but I think we can all agree that it has sparked a lot of fear in the art world.

Artists are afraid of being replaced. Of their work being fed into an uncaring and unremitting machine which will spew forth endless imitations of their art. Artists are afraid of losing their livelihood and their meaning. They’re even afraid that all of the years they have invested in learning to make art will be for nothing.

I’m not sure if all of these fears will come to pass, nor does anyone else. But the fears are very real, which is all that matter for what I’m talking about here.

Because artists are afraid, we are creating our own art recession.

Artists are afraid, so they’re making less work. Artists are afraid, so they’re not trying as hard. Artists are afraid, so they’re not learning as much, nor are they spending as much money to learn—fearing that in a few years that will be wasted money and time.

Thus we create our own self-fulfilling spiral into recession. We see our engagement declining and assume our fears our valid, that doom is here. We see our income falling and confirm that AI is surely destroying our lives.

I don’t think the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—but we should all be very afraid of fear. Fear is not a conducive environment for art making. Fear, without hope & bravery to face it, is perhaps the worst precondition for art.

An actual recession is probably exacerbating everything

We, in the western world in particular, are probably in a recession right now. Inflation is hitting hard.

Many times, the art world rides out a recession just fine. People want escapism and they want to learn a fun skill when times are hard.

But this time seems different. Perhaps it is a perfect storm of fear that has effected art. Maybe AI really is destroying everything. But whatever it is, I think that the financial world’s recession is effecting the art world’s recession. When we’re all struggling to buy groceries, buying art and art education seems a bit hard to justify.

What to do about all of this

Lay down and die.

Ok, maybe that’s not the best option, as much as we might enjoy that.

None of us, individually, can solve this problem. But we can do the best things possible for ourselves, which coincidentally are the things that will lead us, collectively, out of the hole we’re occupying.

1. Enjoy the decline.

I will not fault any artists who capitalize on the current demands of social media. If you want to make easily-consumable art and videos and TikTok dances and drama to please the algorithm, get famous, and make a lot of money, go for it. The demands of life are real and I will never judge someone for trying to do what they can to make it in this world.

2. Create the best work you can.

If you want to make the highest impact work in the shortest amount of time: photobash & use AI to make some crossover fan-art with cute animals.

But I would encourage you to go the opposite way. Create great work. Refine your skills, grow to be an incredible artist, and paint meaningful work.

Blow us all away. Elevate art to the next level. It may take time, but I still think that excellent work is the best way to stand out in the art world. It is not all it takes to succeed commercially, but it’s damn important.

Further, I think that excellent, original, meaningful work is the greatest hedge that you can create against the AI uprising. If there’s anything that will keep you secure, it’s probably great work.

3. Invest for the long term.

If things are shit right now, you’re not growing your following, engagement is down, and your income sucks: invest in the long term. Invest your time in the projects that will take you years to complete. Don’t fight over the scraps right now, if you can avoid it.

Instead, aim to have something to astonish the internet in a few years when things are doing well again and people have money to spend.

4. Hope.

Hopelessness will ruin you.

If you lose hope, you cannot recover.

Even when things get better in general, you will lag behind the wave. You will be the last to ride the rising tide and the least rewarded.

Those who are hopeful when all is hopeless are the ones who often end up on top.

It’s easy to say that you should hope and much harder to actually do it, particularly when all of the evidence around you is telling you to give up. I am well aware. I often wonder when the best time to give up is. But none of us can really know.

I will say this: humans have been making art for tens of thousands of years. It is exceedingly unlikely that we live in the generation where that tradition ends. It is perfectly possible, but I’m willing to bet that it’s not going to happen. Are you?

5. Build a strong foundation.

It’s easy to assume that a given social media platform is permanent. Surely nothing could topple these institutions.

But they can fall. They can vanish. And if your career vanishes in conjunction, then you have a shaky foundation.

Strengthen your foundation.

An email mailing list is the most durable form of following on the internet. Easiest to transfer and to keep, hardest to destroy (though with more email clients filtering out mailing lists, even that’s not guaranteed to last forever).

Create your own website and keep your content there. Host it yourself, if you can. It’s not that hard. At least own your own domain name. You are gambling with your future if you do not have a permanent home for your art that you own. An ArtStation portfolio doesn’t count.

6. Diversify your skills.

Sometimes the best way to stand out is to diversify.

Learn some new skills and become more than just an artist. Even tacking on a few adjacent skills (graphic design, video editing, writing) can help you rise above the heap.

7. Do more traditional work.

It will be a long time before Midjourney creates oil paintings. It could happen and I’m sure eventually it will. But it will be a long time. And even then, there will be collectors who greatly value traditional work made by human hands.

Now is the time to get out the pencils and paints and create originals.

8. Connect locally.

When the internet is going mad, you can often find sanity in the real world.

Find artists and friends locally. Meet up and sketch. Go to life drawing. Check out some local galleries.

Remind yourself what art is all about. You are probably far too wrapped up in your own head, unable to see everything wonderful around you.