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The making of the artist, from 'genius' to 'professional': social value and individualisation in UK visual artists, 1980–2010

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posted on 24.11.2021, 12:10 by Emilia TeleseEmilia Telese
The purpose of this thesis is to identify the main characteristics of the perceived relationship between a group of individual visual artists and the fabric of the economy and society in the UK from 1980 to 2010. The study draws upon primary sources using interviews with 27 artists who were practising in the UK at early or mid-career level in 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010. It also makes use of the archive of A-N magazine, a national magazine aimed at visual artists, funded in 1980 by what is now A-N The Artists’ Information Company.
Anthropology, art history and art economy have traditionally associated visual artists with the idea of the “genius” separated from mainstream society and relatively uninterested in material achievements such as making a living. My literature review highlights a lack of longitudinal studies in the careers of UK visual artists, as well as a dearth of studies in how artists are trusted or not by society.
The thesis asks how a group of artists saw themselves in relationship to the UK’s society and economy in 1980 - 2010 and compares it to their current perception of their profession. Through a series of 27 qualitative interviews, the study highlights the interviewees’ relationship with society and identifies a series of constraints they felt, as well a set of prejudices regarding the value and respectability of their profession, as well as gender and social class bias, and the artists’ place in the community. My research also shows a progressive individualisation of the artist in the UK economy caused by a number of causes, including cultural policy choices ramifications, changes in the public perception of the artist’s profession and inherent technical and philosophical shifts in the way visual art has been made in the past century. My findings also identify dichotomies between the interviewed artists’ perceived need to make a living and the problematic/conflictual relationship they have with the idea of being an artist and making it into a career, linked to the dynamics of the UK art world.
The relevance of this study is that it informs our understanding of visual artists and their relation to the UK economy and society by introducing an oral history approach and a focus on trust and stereotypes.


The Artist As Entrepreneur

Arts and Humanities Research Council

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Loughborough University

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© Emilia Telese

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A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.




Eleonora Belfiore ; Allan Watson

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