Where Do Important Artists Come From?

In a recent article, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett argued that it is difficult to predict where centers for the production of art will emerge. Citing the rise of Soho and Chelsea in New York from the '70s through the '90s, and of London's East End in the '90s, she cautioned that "The evolution of these districts shows that using art as a development tool is like working with quicksilver: it's hard to know which path it might take."

If the goal is to identify specific neighborhoods where artistic centers will grow, Currid-Halkett is undoubtedly correct. There are many idiosyncratic and contingent variables that have determined the specific locations where groups of artists have chosen to live and work. But if the goal is to predict at the broader level of the city, Currid-Halkett's examples actually highlight a systematic force influencing artists' decisions in choosing their locations. And it is one that might appear paradoxical. For in a world celebrated for rapid shifts in technique and style, and for the iconoclasm of its young geniuses, the geography of artistic innovation is profoundly conservative.

Simply put, important new artists are most likely to emerge in the same cities where important artists have emerged in the recent past. And even more narrowly, in recent decades important new artists have been most likely to emerge from the same academic institutions that have produced important artists in the past.

Examples can be drawn from the episodes Currid-Halkett described. Since the 1960s, the Yale School of Art has functioned as an artistic suburb of New York City, hiring established New York artists to teach aspiring artists who then tend to locate in New York. Robert Mangold, Nancy Graves, Richard Serra, Chuck Close, and Brice Marden all graduated from Yale in the '60s. They were followed by Martin Puryear and Peter Halley in the '70s, Ann Hamilton, John Currin, Jessica Stockholder, Lisa Yuskavage, Matthew Barney, and Maya Lin in the '80s, and Hilary Harkness, Ahmed Alsoudani, Kehinde Wiley, and Rosson Crow in the past two decades.

London's rolls of artistic scholars are no less impressive. Although he has been called a "hooligan genius" for his careful cultivation of the persona of a punk rock musician, during the '80s Damien Hirst--along with Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume, Matt Collishaw, Fiona Rae, Sam Taylor-Wood, and many others of the original Young British Artists--famously attended Goldsmiths College, where Lucian Freud and Bridget Riley had studied decades earlier. The similarly transgressive YBAs Jake and Dinos Chapman, Tracey Emin, Chris Ofili, and Gavin Turk all attended the Royal College of Art, which had earlier been the training ground for Peter Blake, David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj, Patrick Caulfield, Malcolm Morley, and Tony Cragg. Rachel Whiteread and Martin Creed attended London's Slade School of Fine Art, where they followed such earlier graduates as Richard Hamilton and Paula Rego.

Although the choices of these iconoclastic and irreverent young artists to attend these venerable and ancient institutions might appear odd, in reality they reflect the calculating pragmatism of ambitious young professionals who clearly understand the nature of contemporary advanced art. Today's young artists may appear to have no respect for the art of their predecessors, but in fact their highly conceptual innovations are based on careful academic study of art history. So for example Damien Hirst, who pretends to be an ignorant and irreverent enfant terrible, acknowledged that his breakthrough sculpture owed a direct debt to an earlier generation: "in my fly-killer piece [A Thousand Years, 1990], the lights were like Dan Flavin and the box was like Sol LeWitt." More generally, he explained that he and his peers all borrowed liberally from earlier art: "at a certain point everyone at Goldsmiths believed that rather than avoid taking directly, we could take from everybody... It was just getting all these influences and piling them together into our own thing."

The persistence of young artists in following the paths of their predecessors does not represent blind adherence to tradition, but rather a basic feature of the process by which artistic creativity occurs. Significant innovations in advanced art can only be made by artists who understand the practices they are changing or replacing. Apprenticeship with an established older artist is the surest route to this understanding. And the second key in the training of aspiring artistic innovators is the availability of talented like-minded artists of their own cohort with whom they can work to develop their art--collaborating, competing, and challenging each other. These relationships--between teacher and student, and among students--continue to occur face to face. It is these relationships that successful, established art schools promise to ambitious students. The critical role of these relationships in talented artists' careers appears to explain why, even in an era in which conceptual innovations diffuse rapidly over wide geographic areas, important artistic centers have continued to be few in number. And this is why the geography of artistic innovation has been a strong element of continuity in a world otherwise characterized by rapid and radical change.