In 1896, Leo Tolstoy demanded that we cease viewing “l’art pour l’art” and instead consider it a method of communication between humans about the conditions of life itself. By freeing art from its traditional and often religious boundaries, Tolstoy sought to forge a space for the avant-garde.

For almost a century, his vision for the arts was realised. As a channel of expressive freedom, art was defined by rebellion. Countercultural movements emerged – the Dadaists challenged bourgeois capitalist society by embracing chaos, the surrealists rejected the rational and unleashed the subconscious.

From the politically-fuelled paintings of Picasso to the shock tactics of the YBAs, each movement has traditionally spawned a generation of outspoken artists. However, in this generation an avant-garde movement has yet to materialise, so where could the next revolutionary artist possibly come from?

The financially-motivated art market suppresses creative freedom

Spaces that once nurtured creativity are disappearing. In London, studio spaces for artists are being shut down and redeveloped to ease the housing crisis, meaning rents on the studios that remain have risen to often unaffordable prices.

The art market is equally cruel. It has become a realm exclusive to the echelons of the ultrarich. Wealthy investors are primarily interested in high profile art that will either gain value over time or emphasise their financial prestige. For emerging artists, it can be difficult to capture the attention of the value-oriented market. It can be just as difficult to garner the support of art dealers or to sweet talk the elite into sponsorship.

Contemporary art

With little financial reward, it is difficult for artists to make a living. Many creative individuals are instead becoming founders of startups, channeling their ideas into creative businesses. While this route provides a more stable financial platform for artists, it complies with the corporate culture of today’s world and rejects the idea of art being a form of rebellion.

Gregor Muir, director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, recently made a plea for unknown artists to be allowed to create a true subculture away from the riches of the art market. He believes creative talent should be able to develop ideas without catering to the tastes of exclusive dealers and wealthy collectors.

Is identity the defining issue of 21st century art?

An identity crisis could also be preventing artists from finding their voice. The globalised society permits people of different cultures to coexist and, as they do so, they begin to have a profound influence on each other. This results in homogenisation, where individuals of one culture begin to adopt elements of another culture and form a dual identity.

Social media is also fuelling an identity crisis. In the offline world, identities are formed from attributes, personality and heritage. In the online world, we are able to present our ideal selves by portraying hyper-realistic identities. Many of us are driven by competition, achievement and status, and create online personas that eliminate many of our true traits.

Nonconformity has been at the epicentre of most art rebellions, but in an increasingly homogenised society where authenticity is lost via social media, it is becoming increasingly difficult for artists to find their individual identity.

Multimedia artist Owais Husain explores identity in his work, examining how migration and cultural integration affects our sense of self. He describes modern society as “driftwood in a ceaselessly dysfunctional world, where a flux of identity in the nuclear and larger domains are elements of human nature.”

Digital art is shaping the future of creativity

A growing movement of artists are infiltrating the art market by creating work that is freely accessible online. It makes economic sense for artists to move beyond traditional spaces and avoid the hefty costs of acquiring studio space. This has given rise to “post-studio practice”, where artists work from their laptops and outsource major practical aspects of their work.

Creatives are also using online platforms to explore the murky waters of digital identity. For instance, critics decried Amalia Ulman’s “Excellences & Perfections” performance as genius. Ulman used Instagram to explore how young women present themselves online. She created the persona of a Los Angeles woman in desperate pursuit of perfection, sharing everything from cosmetic enhancement to nervous breakdowns. The performance continued for more than a year before Ulman announced that the work was entirely staged.

The work confronted Instagram audiences with fabrications and personas they had unconsciously adopted on social media. Ulman said: “People became internet trolls without realising. They hated the character but would still follow, comment and share with their friends. It forced them to think about why the suffering of a girl they didn’t even know provided entertainment.”

In some ways, Ulman’s work is typical of the new generation of digitally-literate artists, for whom social media represents a platform for self-expression. The intangible nature of this art makes it difficult to define. It doesn’t have a snappy name like the YBAs or the Surrealists, and it’s highly conceptual nature teeters precariously close to the emperor’s new clothes effect.

However, digital artists are perhaps the most avant-garde of all. They recognise that digital is not a medium, but a context in which new social forms arise. Using technology as a muse, these artists engender emotional response by exploring human nature in the digital world. They question identity and attempt to influence its evolution with works that give even the most provocative artists a run for their money.


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