Self-Destruct: How the Art Industry is Destroying Itself
Published on October 12, 2023 by Noah Bradley
Around seemingly every industry and hobby, online communities form. These used to be nice. Forums were great. But now, we have social media. Yay.
I want to talk about the community of one of my favorite passions: art. Because there is a disease taking hold of that community.
Artists are not nice to other artists.
Some of us are, but too many of us are not. Too many of us have joined what I’m going to refer to as the Art Bubble. They are not a specific social circle, but rather an informal bunch of artists, mostly on Twitter, who have formed around the digital art world. It’s a very specific bubble and if you haven’t ever seen it, you probably can go blissfully on with your life and never think of the problems surrounding these folks.
For those who spend time in or near the Art Bubble, I want to discuss some of the problems I see growing, propose a few reasons for why we’re here, and offer some thoughts on how we might build a better community for all of us.
The past is not golden
Don’t get me wrong: things have never been great.
Whether you look back to the forum-era or centuries earlier, artists being mean to other artists is nothing new. There was plenty of drama on art forums: accusations of copying, of cheating, of scammy business dealings.
But things were pretty good. Not perfect, but good. Certainly better than they are now.
When a tribe becomes a mob
Communities, at a certain scale, no longer become communities. There’s still a group identity of being an “artist,” but there is no central social group any longer. Everyone feels like they’re on the outskirts, because everyone is on the outskirts. There is no inner circle. There are just a lot of smaller circles.
Sometimes this is ok.
Except, this community has become a mob. A small group of the most vocal and opinionated have come to dominate the narrative. We have allowed, in small actions and inactions, some of the most extreme voices in the art world to dictate online discourse.
Mobs are not usually great.
Mobs are erratic and dangerous and uncontrollable.
Mobs are the magnification of the worst qualities in people. They bring out our most spiteful, cruel aspects and suppress all of our inhibitions and charity.
The rise of the mono-culture
In the last few years, the Art Bubble has turned into an echo chamber.
There is one correct opinion. On everything. There is a unified front to all dramas, real and imagined. Every artist, apparently, magically agrees on all social and political debates. When a new and uncertain issues arises (NFTs, AI art, etc.), the community briefly fractures. But soon they come back together, agree on one morally correct opinion, the strays make their apologies and return to the fold or are forever excised from the community.
The echo chamber has strengthened to unimaginable levels. No longer is there merely a unifying narrative, but now there is dictated speech. Failure to conform will be punished. Mass unfollowing campaigns are the norm.
I usually think of artists as an eclectic bunch, full of diverse backgrounds and interests and opinions. But that is not what you will find inside the Art Bubble. Nor will they tolerate it in their spaces.
Uncuriosity is celebrated
The mono-culture has made questions offensive. It’s one thing to have an opinion. It’s quite another to hate someone forever because they question that opinion.
That’s no longer an opinion. That’s a sacred belief.
When questions are banned, curiosity dies. I believe that curiosity is a central tenet of art. Because we are here to be curious. To find thoughts and ideas and opinions fascinating. Maybe I’m naive, but I think artists are at their best when they are always questioning the world.
Against the Anti-anti-establishment
I’ve often thought of the art world as the place where misfits go to fit in. And it usually is. Artists usually welcome the freaks, the weirdos, those living on the fringe of acceptable standards.
Artists used to have a hint of anti-establishment sentiment running through them, but that seems to be vanishing. We used to be the hipsters, the rebels. The ones sticking our fingers up at The Man. But, increasingly, it seems like artists are dictating how corporations should behave—and the corporations are listening.
The Art Bubble no longer exists as the counterbalance to the primary narrative. No, now they are seeking to be the primary narrative. And woe to those who cross them.
The Art Bubble has claimed the moral high ground. Not because they have proven, in any way, to be the best or most just. But merely because they have said they are the most moral, they are.
They have elevated disloyalty to the narrative beyond mere disagreement—now it is outright immoral to question things. You’re not just wrong, you’re bad.
The hypocrisy of participating in mass social shaming of those who are not as caring and empathetic as you are is never addressed. To question that hypocrisy is to ostracize yourself.
Fear & scarcity for all
It’s not easy being an artist and it’s particularly hard right now. It’s a time when we should be especially supportive of one another, and sometimes we are. But the Art Bubble is massive as is, and it’s easy enough to exclude those who don’t seem to belong.
When artists feel like the pie is shrinking, they will cling more viciously to the scraps they’ve claimed.
While claiming to support artists, to nurture community, and to help others, many artists are instead just trying to climb the pyramid of success. And that might be even easier if you can tear down someone who has climbed higher than you. It is easy to find reasons why they don’t deserve their success, when it’s in your own best interest to bring them low.
It’s the tall poppy problem. The nail that sticks out. Standing out from the group is dangerous. Becoming too successful, too popular, too outspoken in the wrong direction is a risk. The higher you climb, the more people who may seek to bring you back down.
Without forgiveness, secrets thrive
If you are caught having a contradictory opinion, you will be shunned. If you are sufficiently apologetic and self-hating for long enough, you might be allowed back. But if you, you know, stick to what you believe? Unforgivable.
If you do anything or have ever done anything that meets the ever-lowering and arbitrary bar of immorality, you will be shunned. Unlike prison, you will never be released. Your sentence is eternity.
In this environment, vulnerability dies.
True expression, curiosity, and being human are all essential to making great art. We are, all of us, admittedly or not, very messy people. We have all screwed up, held dumb opinions, hurt people.
But now, you can’t admit that.
Doing something dumb, even decades ago, is enough to ruin a career. Why would you bother chancing that?
So the higher people rise, the more cautious they tend to be. They recede within, clinging desperately to their daily tightrope walk. In being more cautious, their art loses the rawness, the reality, the truth it may have once had. The most popular artists are increasingly encouraged to create the most inoffensive work.
Silence is not progress
Silencing voices does not change minds. It might seem like it is, because those voices are no longer visible. But often, you are simply stuffing down the opposition. And with enough pressure, things blow up.
Progress comes, if it comes at all, by the painfully slow changing of minds. Enough minds change, very slowly, and things appear to suddenly shift. Public opinion changes, but it hasn’t happened overnight.
Instead of calling someone out who has a different opinion from you: consider sharing your opinion with them, including some evidence to support your side, and trying to respect that they probably have a reason to believe the way they do. Remember that it is exceedingly unlikely that you have everything in the world figured out perfectly.
When you begin these discussions, practice empathy. Real empathy. Lazy empathy is just saying “well they believe X because they’re clearly a terrible person who hates the world.” Real empathy is saying “I think I understand why they feel that way and that X is how they think we should solve this.” Then, further step into their shoes. How would you like someone to speak with you? When was the last time you changed your mind and how did someone help you to make that leap?
Questioning an opinion and having ours questioned is how we develop better ideas. Untested theories may be great. Or they might be trash. We can’t truly know if we’re right if we’re busy silencing the opposition.
Small actions create large waves
Those participating in the problems with the Art Bubble are rarely doing anything that bad on their own. These are not terrorists we’re talking about, these are just a bunch of artists on Twitter.
But small actions, even subconsciously taken, can have enormous effects.
Ten thousand people who choose to click retweet on one artist’s posts will cause them to soar into the stratosphere. Those same ten thousand simultaneously refusing to engage with another artist can often suffocate their career.
Unfollowing, not liking, not sharing, scrolling past something are all normal behaviors, not damaging in the slightest. But when those actions are multiplied by the scale of the internet, they can begin to devastate real lives.
Good intentions on the road to hell
I hope and believe that the Art Bubble had good intentions in nearly everything that has happened so far.
In their fumbling attempts to nurture an accepting, encouraging, healthy world of artists, they have stumbled too far. They have become everything they were trying to fight against.
In fighting exclusion, they have become exclusive.
None of this is (hopefully) the work of an evil mastermind. It’s the accidental hole we’ve collectively stumbled into. Artists are neither the first nor the last community that has gone down a similar path.
All of us, I hope, are trying to achieve a more perfect community. One that enables more people to make more and greater art and even be happier and more fulfilled while doing so. The difference lies in how we create that community and what qualities we’re even aiming for.
The Art Bubble is stifling art
Making art is hard.
If everything is going well, we have the ideal conditions, and we want to make art, it’s still really fucking hard to make art. Much less great art.
But everything is not ideal right now, particularly online.
In removing curiosity, alternate narratives, and forgiveness from the Art Bubble, we have sucked all of the air out of the room. Art is… tame. It is radical only within accepted bounds.
Art should be free to go where it wants to go. To be funny or offensive (often both). To be opinionated. And not always in ways we agree with.
The perfect art community: digging ourselves out of the hole
Ok, things aren’t great. But identifying a problem is about 10% of the way to a solution. So I’d like to propose a few things that we can do about all of this.
I’m not going to pretend like all of this can change tomorrow. Nor am I certain that any of this will actually fix the trajectory we’re on. But I think doing these things has a good chance of giving us all a better chance at making a better online art world.
Stop participating in the downfall
You’re not “supposed” to follow that person. You’re not “supposed” to like their art. You’re not “supposed” to share their work.
Do it anyway.
You may be one of the thousand cuts that destroys a career. So stop. Stop letting the masses dictate what you do and don’t do. Don’t let them choose the media you consume, the people you support, the things you believe.
Stop saying things that you don’t believe. If you don’t want to share a political opinion about the issue of the day, then don’t. You’re an artist, after all. You’re free to post art, talk about art, and ignore the rest. Or not. But whatever you do, be sure that you’re not allowing others to enforce rules upon you.
Do you have doubts about a popular opinion? Do you, actually, not agree at all? Do you have questions?
Be brave: share those opinions, share those questions.
You will probably be burned. But bravery is the only way to fight against the tide. Slowly, eventually, with luck and fortune and enough of us, we can begin to balance the scales.
The current environment is dictated by a small and vocal minority—the new environment can be sculpted by a similarly small and vocal minority: you. And other brave souls like you.
Make great art
Cowardly art is not great art. Restrained art is not great art.
Make great art, because the world needs more great art.
Not everything needs to be great. Fun art is still fun. But if you care about the world of art, try your best to move us all forward. Tell your truth with raw vulnerability. Create the things that you fear might offend people. Create work that paints a true image of your life, not a flattering one.
The world needs more great art, not more tame art.
Talk with other artists
Silence is easy. Silence is safe.
Begin having conversations with other artists about this. You may not be ready to burn down your career, but you may be able to talk, directly, with one of your peers. You can share your thoughts, your doubts, your questions. And, hopefully, you will be met with similar vulnerability. Or maybe they’ll share your conversation and ruin your career, who knows.
Underground support builds slowly. In private conversations and between trusted peers. In the end, a groundswell can disrupt the status quo.
Stop destroying lives
I cannot imagine a world where mass public shaming is a good idea. Especially when their primary tool is not only utterly devastating to a life, but practically permanent.
I understand the impulse: seeking justice in an unjust world. But the result is not justice, it’s uncaring retribution at best. At worst it’s misplaced annihilation.
I absolutely understand and support the urge to enforce accountability on others. People should be accountable for their actions. But we cannot find accountability in mass shaming. It is not the correct tool to make our world a better place. It is not creating the changes we want to see. Mass shaming to improve society is a bit like performing brain surgery with a meat cleaver.
Refuse to participate. Whether you believe someone is “guilty” or not, deplorable or not, simply refuse to be one of the voices tearing them down.
Get off the fucking internet
There is a real possibility that the entire social media experiment is a failure.
We might’ve all screwed up. There’s a chance none of us should be on social media. Perhaps society would be better, more sane, more connected, if social media vanished tomorrow. There have been pros and cons and I can’t say for sure, but it’s possible.
Whether that’s the case or not, you should still get off of the internet more. For the sake of your sanity, well being, and art, connect with the real world. Start a sketch group locally. Hang out with artists. Go to some local gallery openings. Attend events.
If all we see is the internet, it’s easy to assume that the world is burning. But step outside, take a look around, spend time with some real people, and see if you might be able to restore a little hope in humanity.