By: Taylor Wang
When it comes to the art world, sometimes all you can do is stare and gawk at how erratic paint splotches and unassuming household objects sell for millions of dollars as “fine art”. This industry presents itself as inaccessible, only for those with refined taste. To many, this exclusivity is bogus. Why is some art deemed more worthy than others, and who decides what goes in museums and galleries? As a young artist myself, I don’t have all the answers. However, I do know that a staggering percentage of the art industry is dominated by white male artists–as it always has been.
Although people are slowly waking up to the need for greater diversity in creative fields, we have a long way to go. Eurocentric art norms still prevail, and male artists are rewarded for misogynistic behavior. It’s hard to deny that art is an elitist industry when so many people feel misplaced in this realm. This is especially true for minorities–people from marginalized backgrounds are deterred from becoming an artist, an actress, a musician, a chef, or anything that requires risk. From an early age, we are instilled with the idea that this isn’t for us. That this world is not something we can have success in.
This truth becomes even more apparent when you take away the role models and the mentors. Simply put, we need more representation in the arts for the next generation. If I knew of a Chinese American girl succeeding in the arts when I was little, I could have had the courage to feel fearless in my pursuit of creativity. When I was that young girl aspiring to become an artist, I was often chastised by my parents for pursuing such a ridiculous passion (bear in mind, the trend at the time for most of our family friends’ children was dentists or lawyers).
I still remember the second week of kindergarten, when a bright-eyed 7 year old me told my teacher about dreams of artistry and design, which were promptly shut down by my more traditional mother. Fast forward to middle school and high school, I continued to feel this distinctly Asian American pressure to attain a “reputable” career. I realized that there is this cultural taboo around the idea of paving your own way in life and pursuing something because it’s your passion, not because of money or honor.
Regardless, I often rebelled against what my community expected of me. I had made my decision, and I would not stop until I reached my career goal. However, there was always this little voice in my head nagging me about doubts, fears, and catastrophes. What if I truly wasn’t qualified to sustain myself through art? After all, there did not seem to be anyone who looked like me doing well in the arts. Who was I to say that I could do it?
To be honest, this little voice still resurfaces from time to time. No matter how many commissions I get, how many awards I have or publications I am in, it will continue telling me that this is not worth it and I should just get a more stable job like everyone else. These implications do not go away; they only get worse as we grow older. Without support from the Asian community around us, we begin to fear that perhaps we did make the wrong decision. Maybe we should have just listened to our parents and gone into medical school.
This parental pressure is, of course, with good intention. Moms and dads simply want to see their children be able to take care of themselves after they are no longer able to. According to Chinese standards, the best way to ensure this is to push your kids toward the highest grades, the best test scores, and a financially stable career in a commendable field of study. By trying to fit their child into this plastic mold of a person, parents fail to nurture their unique talents and non-academic interests. This leads to collective disdain toward these areas, and an overall lack of representation in supposedly “easy way out” jobs like entertainment, arts, and music.
In our increasingly interconnected, socially conscious world, representation means everything. If museums and galleries are only showcasing one, heterogenous narrative, then that is what will be perceived as American art. It’s 2020 and there’s more diversity and different cultural groups in America than anywhere else in the world arguably–why does our art still not reflect that? It’s about time we started engaging diverse narratives at museums and galleries, and this change begins with giving youth artists the confidence they need to succeed.
By giving a platform to artists when they are still young, we build up encouragement that they may not be getting from their families and communities. We are able to show that art is a viable career choice, and artists need support just like doctors and lawyers and scientists do. That feeling of pride when you see other people looking at your work on a museum wall or reading about it in a magazine is incomparable, and it means everything to a young artist.
I will continue advocating for more funding for arts education, equal opportunity for underserved artists, and an end to the cultural stigma around creative careers. To many people, arts education seems like a waste of money. This inaccurate viewpoint generates stigma that art cannot lead to secure jobs or smart adults. Along with the lack of truth in this claim, art has many other benefits such as fostering emotional maturity and developing out-of-the-box thinking skills. Through my advocacy, I want to break down the elitism of the art industry and give every creative teen a chance to share their work with pride.
Contemporary art may be confusing and hard to navigate at times, but representation doesn’t have to be.
Taylor Wang is a Seattle-based high school junior, artist, and activist. Her involvement with community organizing began when she co-founded Student Art Spaces, a youth-driven platform amplifying the voices of young artists in professional spaces through gallery events and education. Since its establishment in 2018, Taylor and her team have raised over $5,000 for youth arts equity, showcasing 80 teen artists free of cost.
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