“If salesmanship is an expression of artistic talent, it would be interesting to analyze how some of the successful artists achieved their recognition. Below, I am going to give some case studies.
In “Time Out Guide to the Saatchi Gallery”, there are a few articles that describe how so-called “YBAs”, Young British Artists, lead by Damien Hirst, achieved their international fame. Their beginning is the most interesting part. Counter to the romantic and idealistic notion commonly held by young artists, Damien Hirst appears to have understood that success cannot be achieved alone or based solely on presumed artistic merits. He enlisted his friends from college, like Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume, to work as a team. He organized a group show called “Freeze” for which he sent taxis to fetch important figures of the British art world. Even his relationship with Saatchi is a collaboration.
I speculate that Saatchi, in order to establish himself as an influential figure in the art world, needed more than just money. Initially he collected New York artists like Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, and Brice Marden. In 1985 when he first opened his gallery, these names were already well-established. For him to earn respect as a collector, he needed to discover artists of his own. Saatchi, being an advertising guru with a deep pocket, found the perfect product in Hirst. Their partnership had all the signs of success. For those in the advertising business, Saatchi’s hit show, “Sensation”, felt oddly familiar and was easy to relate to. Their success reflects their uncanny understanding of how our culture works.
Working as a team to self-promote, like the way Hirst and his friends did, is a common pattern we find in the history of modern art. If you are not familiar with how self-promotion works in the art world, you might find it odd that many famous artists knew each other even before they were famous. If artists were to be famous for presumed artistic merits alone, what are the chances that two genius artists happen to know each other years before they became famous? The reality is the other way around: They became famous because they worked together to be so.
When you read the collection of writings by the 60’s conceptual artists in “Conceptual Art” published by Phaidon, you notice that many of them often wrote about each other before they were successful. This strategy must have worked quite well. If you write how great you are yourself, no one would listen to you. To get around this problem, you write about each other. For the same amount of effort, the latter is far more effective.
We can find many such groups who made self-promotion a team effort in the recent history of art. For instance, the Black Mountain school which included John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg. The New York school of Abstract Expressionists which included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko.
The group strategy makes sense in many ways. You can tap into each other’s resource (studio space, equipment, social connections, etc..). You can share skills and knowledge. Each person can specialize in certain aspects of promotion (writing, socializing, designing, getting publicity, etc..) What you say about each other would have more credibility to outsiders than if you had to talk about yourself. It is easier to organize an event or a show if it is done as a group. If one of them becomes successful, he could direct some of the attention to the rest of the team by frequently talking about them, by trying to introduce them to powerful people, by including them in a group show, and so on. If you work as a team, even if success is a matter of pure luck, the chance of one of the members becoming successful is much greater than you yourself becoming successful. By working as a team, the overall impact would be greater than the sum total of individual contributions, which is a phenomenon called synergy.”