Writing on photography

Art in the Age of Individualism

Towards the end of last year I read an interesting piece by Caroline Douglas which considers the relationship between art and the resurrection (or perhaps just the continuation) of the sort of aggressive neo-liberal individualism that came to the fore in the United Kingdom during the era of Margaret Thatcher. Douglas’s piece illustrates that it’s worthwhile to consider the ways that these attitudes might continue to influence our lives, not only in the obvious domains of politics and economics, but also in realms traditionally considered antithetical to it, like education, or the art world. By recognising how this might be occurring, we might start to also recognise ways that we can do things to combat or counter it. In this short piece I specifically want to discuss two aspects of the culture of individualism in the United Kingdom, first in relation to some of the material realities of working as an artist in such a climate, and second in terms of it’s possible effect on the public perception of artists and their role in society.

First to clarify, by ‘the art world’ I don’t here only mean the rarefied white walled galleries frequented by those with significant disposable income, in other words the sort of place this ideology might be expected to find a natural home. It often seems that neo-liberal thinking permeates British society so totally now that it seeps into areas one might have considered naturally hostile to it, and it has a significant influence even at the very distant level at which the real majority of artists and other creative people exist. As Douglas points out this is a place of economic uncertainties and precarious existences, where the need to make and create often subsists in awkward balance with need to secure the material essentials of life. I choose the word ‘need’ in relationship to creating art quite pointedly, because the denigration of the practice of making art, it’s popular characterisation as some sort of self-indulgent distraction from life as a properly productive citizen, and the common suggestion that artists ought to ‘get a real job’ are all very much connected to this world view.

The difficult reality of trying to make a living and make art has many affects which entwine with an emphasis on the individual. As Douglas suggests, the economic instability that runs alongside creative freedom often involves a level of dishonesty. That can be dishonesty about the true precariousness of one’s position, a precariousness which in turn often precludes honesty about the wider state of an industry, or society. “Fake it ‘till you make it” is a common and rather questionable piece of advice dispensed by tutors on creative courses and by people who position themselves as experts in getting ahead in a notoriously challenging set of practices (in my experience the most lucrative position to occupy in the arts is that of an alleged expert). Photographers who have both commercial and artistic practices are often cagey about admitting to the former, concerned perhaps that the necessity of dirtying their hands by making an honest living or relying on others to give them work will impinge on their artistic credibility, and by association saleability. It seems fairly typical for art courses to shun the responsibility of equipping their students with any sense of how they might make a living outside of art, and I think at least a small part of that must be because of the low regard working artists are held in.

I’ve also noticed that the struggle to make a living from one’s art can lead to an aggressive competition between artists, a sort of cancerous careerism which can lead people to trample over friends and colleagues in the pursuit of opportunities, contacts, and so forth. It’s something I became acutely aware of at the Arles Festival last summer where I saw it happen repeatedly, although it took me a while to figure out what I was witnessing, when people would sidle away from conversations to seek the ear of someone influential without wanting to risk bringing friends (read: competition) along for those conversations. Douglas also identifies this tendency in relation to social media, which certainly runs the risk of becoming a platform for tediously individualistic self-promotion. I would dissent here however and suggest social media can just as well be used to promote the activities of others, and indeed is often most effective when it is used like this. It does certainly generate other problems though, for example the prevailing view of artists as producers, content creators and the like, with the attached expectation to endlessly generate and post new material, and the erosion of the idea that not producing is just as valid a part of being an artist (more on that in a future post).

Individualism also seems to influence mainstream narratives around what art and artists are. Aside from the previously mentioned tendency to view ‘unsuccessful’ i.e. unprofitable artists as social drop outs or parasites, mainstream discussions about art and artists which have a positive tone often emphasise individual achievement and the idea of the artist as a visionary creator apart from society, at the expense of the idea that art is in many senses a communal project which involves myriad influences, influencers and collaborators. Exposed to scrutiny, the myth of the solitary genius artist rarely holds up and much more often falls away to reveal a web of collaboration, influence and exchange. The recent Turner Prize win by the architecture group Assemble is maybe an interesting example of collaboration being for once recognised, but it was interesting also to see this win being characterised as a celebration of art as utility at the cost of the idea of art for it’s own sake.

Popular histories of important artists often seem to be less successful at recognizing the myriad ways that even really great artists are dependent on others for everything from ideas to physical and emotional support, nor do they seem very good at recognising (let alone celebrating) those who provide this support. There have been attempts to reclaim this idea, the Whitechapel Gallery’s recent Hannah Hoch retrospective made much of how she was essentially relied on to play the part of a mother to the largely male circle of Dadaists she was a part of. At the same time these narratives can easily get twisted to emphasizing the achievement of the individual despite the demands of the group, rather than celebrating someone for being generous with their time and energy. Instead artists like Hoch are almost implied to have been naïve or gullible for having not been more ruthless about keeping their time and energy to themselves. In short the narrative of the artist as visionary outsider is an attractive one, and one on which a great deal of myths about art have been built, but it’s also one I think artists, photographers and anyone who occupies these creative territories should take efforts to resist, in favour of a view of the work of making art that recognise shared influences, ideas and efforts. No man or woman is an island, and art never exists in a vacuum.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.


  • “a sort of cancerous careerism which can lead people to trample over friends and colleagues in the pursuit of opportunities, contacts, and so forth.”

    And then one reads the artist statements of said people and see things like “questioning hegemonic capitalist values” and “pointing the finger at power structures”. The irony…

  • With respect, I read Caroline’s piece carefully, and she’s actually not saying anything. She’s throwing tropes against the wall to see what sticks.

    Gender issues! Capital! Thatcherism! And now I will interrogate something or other with my process of picking up other people’s cast off photographic paper and re-photographing them! (ok, I cheated, the use of “interrogate” occurs elsewhere, but it’s such a great tell!)

    What? It’s just a jumble of hip artistic references, stitched together with International Art English, and lumped together into a vaguely hand-wringing statement that might be trying to say “gosh it’s tough being an artist” It has the general shape and flavor of an essay, but it there’s no thesis, no conclusion, no argument. Hell, there doesn’t seem to be any connection whatsoever between several of the bits.

Writing on photography