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The Circle of Collectivism

Ask Artblog Advisor, Beth Heinly, answers a question about the ego-fueled art world and whether it will ever be a meritocracy. She answers philosophically and with literary allusions to Dante's Inferno and Shakespeare's The Tempest. Have a question about the Art Life for Ask Artblog? Email Or submit a Google form with your question. There's a link to the Google form at the bottom of the post below. All names kept anonymous.

Eugene Delacroix, Dante and Virgil in Hell, 1822, courtesy of Wikipedia.
Eugene Delacroix, Dante and Virgil in Hell, 1822, courtesy of Wikipedia

Dear Beth,

Will the art world ever be a meritocracy instead of the ego-stroking, sociopath-normalizing, celebrity-worshipping, individualism-coddling, oligarchical cult of personality that it has basically always been? Asking for a friend.

– Hope All These End Right

I found myself in a forest dark, for the straightforward path had been lost.** Also I’m pretty sure like Marxism, meritocracy can never actually exist, both because of social class. (although idk, that Delacroix is pretty good) Let me tell you, HATER***, I have been waiting for-ever (8 mos.) for someone to ask me a question about artist collectives or just collectives as some people like to call them, and finally! I’m going to be coming from my personal experience as an artist living in a satellite city (as Artworlders like to call ’em) who, without an advanced degree from an ivy league school will most likely (note optimism) never be a part of the mainstream arts scene or in the Whitney Biennial. Real artists, like you HATER, do you really want to be a part of it?

Artists collectives. Artists Collectives actually do exist within the mainstream art scene and even originated within the very art realm — pre-gentrified, rent free even, like squatting on land in the good ol’ 1776 days — before they, too, became what they most wanted to be: individual, commercial, museum-show-having, Gordon Matta Clark-stunting, graffiti-loving (your description was better) Artists.

If this is the inevitable outcome, why do artist collectives, excuse me curator friends, collectives, exist? They are essential for art itself to exist because art collectors could give a sh*t, and there’s even lots of government funding, no, ok, not a lot, but more, um, art foundation, er, non profit, uh, charitable trusts…grants for them. Without the collective, the individual artist (and curator lol) cannot survive. Artists begrudgingly join collectives for this reason – to make some art.

If I were a trust fund baby having-inherited-wealth-willing-creative-person I would not need to be in a collective and would not be in one either. I am not making the case for artists whose practices are to work collectively, that’s somewhat different — but, I’m saying I doubt the art collective without the artist as individual would have come into existence without the dire issue of economics under capitalism, that is, social class. Furthermore, artists who work collectively as part of their practice came to that point partly due to their economic status — in most cases it’s clearly defined as such in their work. I want to specifically note that I am not getting into identity politics here – also not entirely sure social politics and identity politics are different.

So, HATER, will the oligarchical cult of personality that is the art world ever end? I doubt it. Enjoy the brief moments of collective activity which exist in art centers across this great country. Not all artists graduate into individualism. Some of them are actually good people. You should donate to your local collective today.

I can assure you as an artist who was in collectives for nine years of their “career” that it’s not about individualism. I left Vox Populi in 2017 and doubt new members know my name. I was a part of Little Berlin when it first collectivized in 2009, and I know current members don’t know my name, and it’s on the website! I’m not being a salty bitch. Ok I am, cause hell-o, artist here, but my point is proof positive — participating in the collective is by its’ literal definition; not about the individual artist; but about the artwork that is made possible by the collective. Nike Desis did a brilliant exhibition/critical survey on the collective entitled “Collect Call” at Vox Populi in 2010 – which no one wrote about (according to the internet). [Ed Note: Actually, Artblog was there in 2010 at Nike Desis’s showRead about it here.]

It’s important to note that collectives like Vox Populi for instance, confuse the collective action by giving collective members solo exhibitions for their artwork, but, cutting some slack here — there is no, NO viable commercial art market for artists in Philadelphia, so the confusion is warranted. In places where people travel from around the world to go buy art? No excuse — you’re gross in my book.

Circle back — the motive of annoying, self-centered, egotistical, most importantly poor, artists is what drives the collective. Hell is empty and all the devils are here.**** I swear, Spring always has me wanting to go see some Shakespeare in Clark Park. Damn. I wish they were doing “The Tempest” this year.

Beth, I’m super proud of my high school literary equivalency.

Ask Artblog is the essential advice column for all your art life questions. Beth Heinly and Dave Kyu, our Advisors-In-Chief, offer solid advice from life experience and mature opinions on issues. Have a question for Dave or Beth? Email Or click here to submit a Google form with your questions.

**   From Dante’s Inferno, Canto 1
***  HATER Hope All These Things End Right
**** From William Shakespeare’s The Tempest