Art Communities in the Age of Information

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In a 2010 article for The New Yorker, the popular nonfiction writer Malcolm Gladwell introduced the term “weak ties” to describe the dominant character of relationships in the Internet age. Rather than societies composed of kinship relations and close friendships, the Internet made it possible for people to share information instantaneously, to escape the cultural limitations of their immediate locales and to gather “friends” from across the globe.  But this hyperconnectivity came with a downside, de-emphasizing the relationships of the lifespace, those strong ties formed in the space of day-to-day actions and interactions necessary for bodily survival.  Now, friends don’t share our childhood memories or swing by on a Saturday morning to help fix our leaky faucet; instead, they exist in virtual space, as one-time acquaintances, distant business contacts, and interesting people we may never meet. Gladwell surmised that a society built on weak ties was not capable of fostering strong social movements. His comments sparked controversy across the web and many critics refuted his claims in the wake of grassroots uprisings aided by social networking.

Traveling for opportunities to make, exhibit or speak about their work, artists are often confronted by a disjointed and diasporic existence.  The genius, the seeker, the malcontent—long before the rise of the internet and the global artworld, these familiar archetypes provided the philosophical justifications for the artist’s de-centered lifestyle, positing the creative individual as a true original, the loner, destined to be misunderstood and cast aside by the world. But just as no woman ever gave birth to herself, no artist exists entirely alone. The existence of any great artist and any great artwork is always, in some sense, the outcome of a collective act.  And while solitude can be an important part of creativity, that solitude is always folded within an envelope of care. Whether an artwork is made collectively or the outcome of an individual vision, every artist relies on a network of family, friends, institutions, gallerists, collectors, laborers, writers, manufacturers, intellectuals and other artists to pursue his or her work.

Back in the halcyon days of the internet – the late 90’s – artists, critics and curators declared the coming of a new artworld based on multidisciplinary discourses and hybrid practices, decentralized from Europe and North America and spread across the globe. By the 2000’s, however, the dream had soured. The optimism of the 90’s gave way to an unending war on terror, and for all their benefits, the global social networks seemed to enable further concentrations of power and wealth. Once again, humans had placed their faith in a mechanical God and once again, that mechanical God had failed them (see Adam Curtis’s BBC miniseries All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace for a wildly entertaining overview of the 20th Century love affair between humans and technology.)

In the 90’s and 2000’s, as the art market grew at an unprecedented rate, the artworld became increasingly professionalized; large institutions took the place of the informal art “schools” and inexpensive bohemian enclaves gave way to lifestyle neighborhoods for the new creative class.

And yet, artists resist. Artists are nothing if not sensitive to their own environments and, as a result, realize that no matter how globalized the artworld becomes, the conditions of art production remain inevitably tied to the social relationships of the lifespace. From ingénues to art stars, artists are constantly finding ways to articulate the centers, the boundaries, and the makeup of their own artistic communities.  Lending their resources to other artists and supporting networks of mutual aid, they generate meaningful grounds for aesthetic dialogue.

In his study of indigenous Bolivians’ resistance to disastrous global economic policies, Raúl Zibechi defines community as a set of human relationships and agreements woven at base on subjective relationships in which the ends are the people” in contrast to associations, which bring people together for the purpose of achieving a specific goal. Through a series of interviews with and profiles of contemporary artists, as well as reflections on the larger issues related to collectivity and collective art making, I intend to highlight the ways that artists are finding to strengthen the strong ties of the lifespace and to define their own creative communities even in the dispersed, immaterial spaces that constitute art in the age of information.

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