I’ve been reading lots of artist bios this year. Often – talent notwithstanding- it’s a thinly veiled story of privilege, with a metric ton of luck thrown in. A whole lot of those starving artists either had “real” jobs or careers to get them started in life, or came from families of influence enough to be able to go not just to Uni but to art school. To then be a starving artist in London with a multi-room flat AND a studio space.
That is not to detract from the beauty of their art, and from their achievements and the countless people they still inspire. It’s hard, it always is. Art (if done right) has a way of permeating your entire way of being, and society doesn’t always appreciate that, nor the outcomes this generates. And we only hear of those who got documented enough in a time where media access was reserved for the few, and where most people would have been too poor to afford having anything photographed (and any photographs would have been black and white), let alone filmed. Work gets lost over the decades, or doesn’t get stored properly and then gets damaged. And it’s hard to tell sometimes what that stack of watercolours in your distant auntie’s/uncle’s attic really merits as you get tasked with clearing out the house.
Now of course it is different.
I have a few 10Ks of pictures on my phone that sit “somewhere in the cloud”, and make videos on youtube because that is a part of one has to do these days. One of my previous careers was in journalism so in the olden days there would have been articles in a newspaper archive, and a few reels of what I did for radio (long time ago, different country, different language). Now there’s podcasts, blogs, online articles, books, a TEDx talk and all the other usual artefacts that come with trying to share and engage people around a topic or an artistic body of work, and to run a business.
And yes, the online world is crowded. That’s because we are all here.
I am here. You are here. So is everyone else with online access and a point to make or a thing to try. It’s crowded because we are all here.
In terms of access, that is a good thing. Let’s face it, 99% of us would not be here in a different time. And so many folks could be here and aren’t yet.
And you don’t have to go back to the 1920s. Where I grew up, girls (or people in a female-presenting body, nobody got those finer points back then) didn’t do A-levels. They stopped school at 16, did an apprenticeship so they would be employable in case of an emergency with the husband (no other options available there and then), then got married, had children and stayed at home.
There was a lot of pushback when I did A-levels and went to the school enabling that after the 4 years of primary school. I lost all of my friends, and my parents had to defend their support over and over again. It was the hardest, loneliest thing I ever did in my life. I was 10. It was brutal. Yet my A-levels will seem so banal to most people now in my urban knowledge-ish-economy surroundings that it barely registers.
If not for a lot of hard work, some support, people taking a chance with me, and plenty of luck, I wouldn’t be here. Not in this life, in this country, not in any career to speak of. I probably wouldn’t write (and certainly not in English), and I probably wouldn’t make art. I just got 5 paintings accepted into a poetry magazine in the US. My alternative self might have never known poetry magazines, nor would they have known me.
No matter how I feel about social media and specific platforms, I recognize the immense power of the internet to level the playing field. I had a part time job in a think tank~ish environment in the late 90s that predicted that, and – for me – it has come true. Chances are, depending on what your father did/does for a living and where you were born, most of you wouldn’t be where you are now either.
I was excited by those possibilities, I wanted to be a part of that. I had no relevant skills when starting out. Just grit. But I sensed that space was onto something and was moving enough and diverse enough that if I stuck around there’d be something in there. I was also too fat and not well-dressed/cool enough for a career in Marketing and too broke for Journalism; so I needed a plan B where someone like me had half a chance. In many rounds of my weird and wonderful portfolio over 20+ years, staying close to that tech space and its possibilities has kept me going (and for whoever needs to hear that: Yes, transferrable skills are a thing).
Yes, there are of course plenty of other factors at play here around expanding education in previous decades and different governments and countries have invested back in the day, and it has paid off for large parts of the population. We need more of that. Apprenticeships done well are the backbone of a healthy economy and society and a lot of countries now try and emulate the German model, so this isn’t against apprenticeships. I’m also aware not everyone wants to live in a city, and that in a lot of places there is now finally a bit more openness towards LGBTQ+ folks so people have more of a chance to be safe and thrive where they were born (and some of that is getting worse again).
And just because some of us have now made it “in” (whatever that “in” is), doesn’t mean access is open and equal and the work is far far far from done. We aren’t hearing all voices out there yet. This is a reminder that people start at very different starting points. It’s also for me a point of appreciation of my own journey. And – no matter how annoyed I might be at whatever just happened on whatever online platform or how annoyed I am with that tech thing I’m trying to make happen, and no matter how much I wish it was less crowded so it was easier to stand out and find the right folks, I’m glad to be here. I really am. I want everyone to have those opportunities.