BY Graham T. Beck in Opinion | 01 NOV 11
Featured in
Issue 143

Down with the Kids!

The contradictions of a youth-obsessed art world

BY Graham T. Beck in Opinion | 01 NOV 11

The T.A.G. (Teen Art Gallery) team: Daniel Ramos, Sam Williams, director Audrey Banks, Sophie Donlon and Noa Briclin at the New York Open Center, 2011. Photograph: Cooper Ray

At some point during the crush of autumn gallery openings, a voice in my head starts to channel the words of Matthew McConaughey’s character David Wooderson in Richard Linklater’s 1993 film Dazed and Confused. ‘That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age,’ he says in a tone perfectly matched to his predatorily sparse moustache. I substitute ‘artists’ for ‘high school girls’ and think it rather than say it. Still, we share some ground, standing and watching people, basking in the newest youth – because every season there’s always more.

What’s struck me lately, though, is that the new youth are getting older and younger at the same time. As chronologically impossible as that sounds, there’s plenty of evidence. Take Aelita Andre. At four years old, this child of PR-savvy artists has already had her first New York solo show, ‘The Prodigy of Color’, at the Agora Gallery earlier this year. Forget that it was at a pay-to-play vanity gallery: her name was in newspapers around the world and on cheques made out for tens of thousands of dollars. If her press clippings are to be believed, she’s an AbEx Surrealist with a style reminiscent of Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock or Marc Chagall. Regardless, Andre is the latest in a long line of media-hyped children to trigger the ‘my kid could do that’ comments. Last year it was an eight-year-old landscape painter named Kieron Williamson who made the rounds of TV news magazines. On the other side of the paradoxical formulation is an affable swarm of impeccably credentialed MFAs who have spent the better part of a decade in art school and a few years assisting and studying social strata and politely climbing said formations before being plugged as enfant terribles. Somehow, both four and 34 are the new 20-something.

That we’re youth-obsessed is as obvious as bad plastic surgery. How that obsession functions and manifests itself in the day-to-day dealings of the art world is a bit more complicated. As a critic, I’ll often lean on the ‘young’ crutch in reviews. It’s an easy piece of quasi-objectivity that can steer a narrative or structure a sentence, and it’s usually offered up research-free in the accompanying press materials. I’m not necessarily proud of the habit, but I’m also not alone in my indulgence. Thumb through the published responses to a group show or biennial and see for yourself: ‘young’ – or, better, ‘youngest’ – will almost certainly shine for a moment in the writer’s light, because we’re magpies for that kind of sparkly fact. They make our lives easier, a story fuller; they presume the newness that helps make and sell the news.

Why galleries and museums publicize the relative age of artists is another issue entirely. When, last year, New York’s Guggenheim Museum billed 35-year-old Tino Sehgal as ‘the youngest artist to present a solo exhibition in the museum rotunda’, they reinforced both the rigour and the freshness of the institution’s curatorial programme. ‘We’ve got our finger on the pulse,’ that little fact says, ‘and with Tino it’s beating canonically’ – which reminds me of nothing so much as a Sunday supplement’s feature on skinny jeans or a spray-tanned record executive assuring a decades-younger companion that LCD Soundsystem will be the next big thing.

littlewhitehead, It Happened in the Corner... (2007), included in 'Newspeak: British Art Now' at the Saatchi Gallery, London, 2010-11, installation view at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Courtesy Saatchi Gallery, London © littlewhitehead, 2011

Overtly youth-focused exhibitions, like the New Museum’s ‘The Generational: Younger than Jesus’ (2009) or the Saatchi Gallery’s ‘Newspeak: British Art Now’ (2010), borrow a little of that endorsement jujitsu, but add some marketing strategy to the mix. Young people, as Thomas Frank details in The Conquest of Cool (1997), don’t actually respond well to the idea of youth: they know they’re young and tuned in and don’t need the affirmation. Instead, it’s young-thinking older people who react strongly to campaigns targeting a younger generation. So by launching an exhibition with an age of 33 or less as its organizing principle, or by doubling down with both ‘new’ and ‘now’ in a six-syllable title, institutions can favourably position themselves for an older crowd eager to know what’s what, and a younger one anticipating the efforts of their cohort. They eat their cake and food fight, too. 

Amongst artists – the ones I know well enough to casually poll over cocktails anyway – it seems that the idea of youth prompts two distinct responses: you’re either for it or against it. That’s not to say anyone – despite his or her vitamins – is actually anti-ageing, but that the celebration of youth is seen as either good or bad. The argument made by those in favour centres on the notion of plenty. More is better: more artists, more ideas, more viewers, morethinking. And for those people the majority of that ‘more’ comes from youth.It’s easier to live that way or work that way or care so much when you’re young, apparently. Those opposed to the way the art world venerates youth tend towards a theory of scarcity. Underpinning most of their opinions is the assumption of finite resources. Roster slots, exhibition dates, press attention and institutional support are fuel for a career; the constant acquisition of what’s new burns off so much that there’s little left for sustained development of anyone who can’t be packaged as young, or so their thinking goes. I had a feeling these would be the sides of the debate when I started asking, but I didn’t expect the data to skew the way it did. My younger artist friends were every bit as likely to resent the privileging of youth as my older ones, and vice versa, and though most people acknowledged each side, it was remarkably clear that every one had a particular allegiance. 

Generational antipathy is nothing new. The anxiety of influence is at least as old as influence itself, and the celebration of youth as an engine for art (as opposed to merely an object of it) dates back to before the Romantics. By the first two decades of the 20th century, when Die Brücke, the Futurists, the Vorticists and the Dadaists allpenned founding documents privileging and pronouncing the power of the young, it was clear that, as Jon Savage puts it in his book Teenage (2007),‘Youth embodied the headlong flight into the future.’ Well, the future is here, the flight was bumpy, and the time change has me questioning the essential differences between a four-year-old and a grown-up, which is all fine and goodfor all the reasons we’ve covered and a bunch more, I’m sure, but haven’t we obliterated a useful idea along the way? This summer, I went to an exhibition put on by actual youths. A handful of high-school-age kids in New York held a show under the acronym T.A.G. (Teen Art Gallery). For the most part, it wasn’t very good. The work – photographs, a few oil paintings, clay sculptures – ranged from boring to fawning to brash, and nearly all of it looked hastily made, but my pitted two cents weren’t the currency that evening. Only theirs was, which made walking around wonderful. McConaughey’s Wooderson was nowhere to be heard. There wasn’t the faintest sense that these kids wanted to stay the same age or, more importantly, that the world desperately needed them to. They had made things they believed in, and they wanted to show them to one another, flirt and duck outside for a quick cigarette. Ah, youth.

Graham T. Beck is a writer and critic based in New York, USA.