Middle Ground #5: Is Age Just a Number? – The Art World’s Obsession with Young Artists

Essay / March 2022

Middle Ground #5: Is Age Just a Number? – The Art World’s Obsession with Young Artists
By Jacob Barnes

          I’m an entire week late. This is the first time I haven’t managed to get Middle Ground off on time, and I feel pretty comfortable saying it won’t be the last — now that Grove Collective is firmly into its program, install weeks, as last week was, leave little time for thinking, let alone writing. With that said, better late than never.

After weeks of putting off writing about young artists in order to do further research, I — rather predictably — have yet to find the time to find the facts and figures, but coming off the recent auctions, as well as some studio visits with shockingly young practitioners, I feel better positioned than ever to gesture towards observable truths. With that said, I will try to cite sources wherever applicable, and as always, if you thoroughly disagree with my version of events, feel free to reach out.

In short, my thesis can be summarized as follows: Artists are getting their break younger, and it’s not really about the art. Of course, it’s glib to suggest this is an entirely new phenomenon — Basquiat broke onto the scene at the ripe age of 20, with Rene Ricard writing about him in Artforum’s December 1981 Issue, on the eve of his 21st birthday. Indeed, the other subject of the Ricard essay, Keith Haring, was not much older. Further, this presages the rise of Ryan McGinley and co. a decade-plus later, barely out of their teens. In years past, successful artists absolutely could be young, and there were certainly avenues for those artists to become mainstream successes. But while I was but a twinkle in my parents’ eyes (or more likely, an errant sud in their Solo cups) in Basquiat’s time, it seems that something has changed. There appears to be not a premium on youth, but a demand for it; an insistence on being “new” in the most literal sense of the word.

Here, the names I think of are predictable, if not almost exclusively of a British context: Jadé Fadojutimi was born in 1993 and is already asserting herself on the secondary market, as was Issy Wood, who shot past the upper end of her £150,000-pound estimate to a hammer price of £441,000 at Phillips’ March 3rd Evening Auction in London. But this is not an exclusively British phenomenon: looking at Phillips’ New Now Auction in New York on March 9th, Caleb Hahne (making what I think is his auction debut) was also born in 1993, as was Shaina McCoy, of the same auction. (Either 1993 was an exceptional year or next year all 1994 artists are going to come out of the woodwork — as a 1996 baby, 2025 is going to be a big year.)

But the why is more is important here: I don’t think that we’ve come across the next great generation of artists, but instead, this is the bringing to bear a the results of a fetishization of emerging art, equating ultra-young artists with the opportunity to make big bucks on the secondary market. Indeed, as an increasing amount of capital sloshes around in the contemporary art world, it makes the possibility of buying low and selling high all the more plausible, even for those that are not explicitly out to make themselves a self-styled Simco.

But what happens at the margins of this paradigm is damning. Emerging, after all, is a relative term, and this hunt for the next big thing drives galleries and collectors to artists that are younger and younger. Those that know me know that I’m always quick to make sports analogies, but here the comparison to college football appears obvious; it is the same logic that drives galleries to artists still in school that pushes Division I programs to offer 10 year-old kids sports scholarships. But unlike college athletes, these artists become bonafide participants in a commercial industry. What this amounts to is an ugly extraction of value from those that often lack the wherewithal or bargaining chips to buck the advances of gallerists. Business is business, yes, but I’m still an asshole if I crush a child at Monopoly, let alone with real money.

But, to offer a counterpoint, is there any alternative? If the industry is moving younger and younger, on a personal level, does any gallerist have any other choice but to move with the tide, holding themselves to their own ethical standards? Honestly, I don’t think so — the harsh truth of industry is that there’s money to be made, and if you’re not going to make it (and handle it in a way that you see fit), someone else will, and they may not be so kind. But still, the onus remains on galleries to look beyond age, and to champion artists who make good work — regardless of the age that work came at.

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