Young artists navigating the 21st century

For young artists, it may feel as though art is useless to pursue. Those studying the arts are familiar with the cracks made around the dinner table about never making money or the jokes by peers about never finding employment. These seemingly harmless jokes contribute to the looming feeling that an artist’s contributions to society are lesser than those pursuing careers in science, math or business. In a fast-paced world driven by technology and fierce competition, where do young artists fall?

For Generation Zs (Gen Z), producing art of any sort in the 21st century is a daunting task. There is a stigma around being an artist. From the stereotype of being a penniless hipster to misconceptions about the value of artistic expression, artists face many discouraging barriers. On top of the stereotypes artists face in real life, the increasing digitalization of the world around them poses both positives and negatives to their craft and career. The majority of people are aware of the argument that artists are not as hard-working, as valuable or as worthy of praise than other members of Gen Z pursuing law, business or medical degrees. Yet, young artists rarely get to offer a defence of their career path. It is time to consider an artist’s defence of why art is valuable and look into first hand accounts of the unique struggles young artists face today.

For young artists at Brock, art is much more than a career choice. It is a way to navigate the emotions Gen Z feels towards the pressing issues of the 21st century. Among the community of young artists, art is a healthy way to unpack and express emotion, as well as find peers with similar feelings.

“Mental illness [among young people] has never been higher, I feel as though art is a great way to communicate feelings that we as a generation have such a hard time verbally saying,” said Angelina Turner, who is in her fourth year of Concurrent Education, majoring in Visual Arts.  “It is really hard to express yourself and communicate how you are feeling. Art is an excellent way to help people visually show other people how they feel and who they are.”

According to the American Psychological Society, Gen Z as a whole are more likely to report mental health concerns than other generations. In addition to reporting more mental health concerns, Gen Z also has a higher stake in present day issues, like immigrant deportation or school shootings. Gen Z artists find solace in their respective forms of expression and use art as a way to navigate the seemingly harsh world around them.

“Art is important because without it things would be dull,” said Devin Brzozowski-Greenwood, who is studying Studio Arts. “Without art how would we be able to see new ideas or express ourselves? Art is important because we connect with each other through it. It has always been one of the major means of expression, I feel like if we didn’t have that the world would not be as colourful.”

Literally and figuratively art brings colour to the world by allowing young artists to express themselves and interact with others.

Artists like Turner and Brzozowski-Greenwood use art not only as a medium to navigate their own feelings towards the pressing issues of the 21st century, but as a way to connect with each other. Brzozowski-Greenwood says art is a balance between self-fulfillment and networking among artists and viewers.

“Art to me is an enjoyable way to express yourself while connecting with others. It is a great way to get yourself out there while also allowing people to relate to themselves through your art,” said Brzozowski-Greenwood.

Rea Kelly, an artist who focuses on architecture and figure work using graphite and oil sticks, agrees that art makes life more fulfilling.

“Art is important because you don’t live to see your doctor, even though [they] can help you stay alive. You live for the music you want to listen to, or the shows and movies you want to see. Art is what makes life worth living,” said Kelly.

For Kelly, art is much more than an academic discipline or hobby, it is her livelihood and where she pours her passion into.

“For me, it is what I want to do as a career. In terms of [pursuing art] as a career, […] if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. I am ready to face the hardships of going into a career in the arts, but at the same time, I wouldn’t want to do anything else,” said Kelly. “I have always had to [create art], it is one of the things that make life worth living.”

Despite the passion and commitment of young artists, the backlash they face for pursuing a career in the arts is undeniable. One of the most popular misconceptions about artists is that their career choice is going to be fruitless and they are destined to be financially dependant on their family or a significant other.

“I get a lot of backlash,” said Turner. “Everybody jokes about ‘how are you going to make money?’ but honestly, for me, it is not about making money. For me, it is about doing something that is worthwhile and fulfilling, then the money will follow. I am currently pursuing my teaching degree so that I can teach art.”

The misconceptions that pursuing art as a career are partially rooted in the treatment of artists from a young age. In addition to the long-standing stereotype of the penniless artists, there is the stigma around the low value of arts programs in comparison to other school programs. From elementary school to post-secondary education, art usually falls to the bottom of the pecking order in regard to merit and funding.

“Think of what is funded in schools, like STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] programs,” said Kelly.  “A lot of the time arts programs get underfunded or they get cut, which has been happening for so long. People do not value the arts and humanities, because they are seen as not needed, unlike STEM or business programs.”

According to the 2018 arts education report from People for Education, arts program funding can range from just $500 dollars to $100,000 per school based on how much the community can fundraise. Arts programs in schools are fighting for space and support in schools, perpetuating the constant financial and resource barriers artists are faced with.

“I started getting into art around grade nine, I had always doodled, but it when I started high school everything clicked,” said Brzozowski-Greenwood. “It was a rough patch in my life and I found solace in my art. I used to want to go into medical stuff, but I found this was a way to help me and if I could help others through my art, then why not [pursue art]?”

Students like Brzozowski-Greenwood demonstrate the importance of art programs in schools, this young artist found his passion and career path because he had access to art classes in high school.

The Canadian school system neglects artists and their needs, setting many up for failure, yet somehow, Gen Z artists continue to be optimistic towards their career paths.

Locally, Brock has a large arts building that provides studio and show space to artists. Despite the Marilyn I. Walker building being an asset to the arts community, it is separate from the main Brock campus. Kelly points to how artists at Brock are othered by being segregated onto the downtown campus, which contributes to the divide between how onlookers view artists and university art programs. The separation may play a part in how others view artists’ place in society.

“I think about the stigma of being the starving, lazy artist,” said Kelly, “‘you can draw, but can’t contribute to society’.”

Artists place in society is usually in question, even at Brock. Kelly points to the passion found at the Marilyn I. Walker campus among young artists.

“Being in the art program at Brock, I have never been around more hard-working people. They [artists] get a creative idea and they execute it passionately,” said Kelly.

Kelly claims that those in Gen Z pursuing an arts degree are aware of the stigma and barriers they face, but still strive for success.

“In my age group of artists, we know what we are up against but we are also thinking ‘we are going to do it’,” said Kelly.

For those who persevere against systemic barriers of arts education, the real world is equally gruelling for artists in the 21st century. In terms of pursuing a career in art, artists are required to possess many skills outside of their artistic talent, revealing just how hard being a young artist is.

“You can’t just be an artist,” said Kelly. “You have to be a business person. You have to manage the shows you get into, you have to sell yourself and be charismatic. You have to be all these sorts of things. […] You have to curate your own work before a curator takes over for you. It is like you are jumping into a big sea without water-wings. It is difficult in that sense because the industry is hard, but at the same time, it is doable.”

Artists anticipate the significant struggles in their careers, namely the stigma and assumptions made towards the financial viability, and longevity of being a young artist.

Brzozowski-Greenwood offers a strong defence as to why art is a viable career option, an argument that is usually pushed into the shadows by the dominant belief that art more fit for a hobby than a career.

“I completely, 100 per cent think that creativity will be one of the surviving jobs in the future. Ideas are original to humans and as of now, we haven’t found a way to get machines to think or create art as we can. I feel like that is impossible,” said Brzozowski-Greenwood.

This points to the uniqueness of art as an academic discipline and career choice, it is a space where human creation is valued in a world that gravitates towards technological interaction. Human expression and connections are expressed through art in a world of digital interactions, which is a hugely overlooked feat of 21st century artists.

In a world dominated by likes, comments and shares, technology poses both barriers and advancements for artists. Aside from the discouraging stigmas artists face, one of the newest and most prominent barriers for artists is the dilution of artistic content on social media. Technology controls most aspects of life, from how people shop, how they eat, exercise, interact with others and for many, technology is an everyday necessity. In a world dominated by technology, how do young artists fit in?

Turner argues that contemporary art, hugely advertised on social media, has its faults, like devaluing the meaning of art.

“I have a problem with certain things in contemporary art, because I don’t believe anything can be art. I believe that art is made to express emotion or a narrative, so some of the ‘work’ I see is really hard because I think ‘that isn’t art, that’s someone pouring glitter on the floor or that is someone duct taping a banana to the wall’,” said Turner.

Social media is challenging traditional expectations of art, which poses a variety of challenges for young artists.

Kelly notes that contemporary art may be embracing the use of technology, but the founding pillars of art, like drawing, will never face extinction at the hands of technology.

“Digital art could become the new contemporary art, whereas painting and drawing are ancient ways of making art. I do not think they will ever die, because all artists start by drawing,” said Kelly. “It will be interesting to see what will be made digitally. Looking at art through our screens, like on Instagram, we see so many pictures and images during the day it becomes almost white noise. But there is also the experience of seeing art in person and that gets devalued when we think ‘I can look at [art] in a book or online’. Seeing art in person is different and experiencing it, instead of glancing at it and moving on.”

Kelly also says that increased access to art results in a new perception of what constitutes artwork, she claims that the saturation of art results in “white noise”. In this sense, “white noise” is the sheer amount of art on the internet, which makes it hard to decipher what art really is.

“There is a devaluing of art because it is so easily accessed, which it should be,” said Kelly. “I really believe that art should be easily accessed but it becomes more like a part of the Instagram conversation, as opposed to art for the sake of art. We have to be likable and have something [art] worth commenting on, instead of just being [art]. That is what Instagram is for, for liking and sharing. There are positives and negatives.”

In relation to the idea of “white noise” diluting art, Brzozowski-Greenwood claims that intimidation is the most significant downside to the intersection of social media and art in the 21st century.

“It is so tough being a starting artist and going up against these more trained people, with so much more experience, [the competition for young artists] can be disheartening sometimes. When you are a beginning artist, you see all the things you might like to do but just can’t. For example, if you see all these extremely talented people, ‘hey that looks like something I might like to do’ but then when you get home, lo and behold, it doesn’t hold up to your standards,” said Brzozowski-Greenwood.

Increased standards and ever-present competition can be detrimental to an artist’s confidence.  Brzozowski-Greenwood himself has experienced the negative side of using social media as an artistic platform.

“It was difficult trying to post my art online because it was getting overwritten by so many other artists,” said Brzozowski-Greenwood.

Despite the evident difficulties of young artists competing for space on Instagram explore pages, Brzozowski-Greenwood notes that there are also positives to using social media as a Gen Z artist.

“There is no way to have the negatives without the positives, it is a great way to get your name out there, and to connect with more people easily,” said Brzozowski-Greenwood.

In a world run by social media, young artists have begun to utilize different platforms to advertise their work and gain inspiration. Turner agreed with this statement and also noted the importance of utilizing social media as a young artist to be successful.

“The rise of technology is assisting art because it is making it more and more accessible for people to see and hopefully more and more people become inspired,” said Turner.

Not only can social media be used for networking, but it can be a source of inspiration.

“Instagram is really great because you get exposed to a lot [of artists]. Instagram is such a quick and easy way to do it [find artists and inspiration],” said Kelly. “My peers will look at Instagram to find something they connect with and then they find inspirations, so there are definitely positives [to social media].”

Another role that social media plays in forming a 21st century perspective on art is the normalization of art. Turner points to the destigmatizing of art that is achieved through easy access via social media.

“It is really complicated [the relationship between art and social media], social media makes art so much more accessible,” said Turner. “Now you can just tap on Instagram and look up ‘famous artists’, ‘art history’ or ‘contemporary art’. It is destigmatizing that art is something only for people who are rich or privileged.”

Similar to Turner, Brzozowski-Greenwood believes in the power of normalizing art as a way to combat the negative stigmas around artists.

“People need to try art. Do not regard it as throwing paint on a canvas. You see people criticizing artists all the time because art can be viewed as just paint thrown on a board,” said Brzozowski-Greenwood. “It means something and it means something to others and people need to understand that or try to understand it.”

Gen Z artists utilize social media and technology to influence contemporary art. Sharing art on public social media platforms is a great way to destigmatize art as exclusively high class, build community among artists and gain inspiration. Despite the downsides, like intimidation, social media is molding what art means in the twenty-first century.

One lasting thought from Turner to encourage young artists is that art is fluid and societal opinions of art are constantly changing.

“Please remember that no artist was ever appreciated during his time, he was only appreciated after the fact. We study Van Gogh and Da Vinci, who were considered crazy [during their time]. Now we study the cubist movement that everyone thought was so ugly and now it is a staple in our education,” said Turner.“As an artist, it is really important not to be discouraged by other people’s opinions. Make art because that is what is right for you. I know we need to make money, I know we need to contribute to society, but you also have to do some things for yourself and making art is a great way to practice self-care.”

The value of artists cannot be measured by Instagram likes, but rather lays in their ability to connect with others and navigate the world around them through their work. Young artists are navigating the uncharted waters of 21st century art, complete with digitalization and huge competition on social media. Despite stereotypes surrounding young artists, they have a strong case as to why art is important today.

“You have to tune people out and do what you want anyway,” said Kelly.

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