The art market's preference for young artists has been a recent topic on a couple of other art blogs. Edward Winkleman has an open thread, Hatin' how they love them Youngins and Lisa Hunter has picked the theme up on The Intrepid Art Collector blog with Deja vu all over again.
I started to respond to Lisa's remark "... doesn't anyone besides me remember the 80s? It was the same when we were 20. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Jeff Koons -- they were all in their 20s when they got famous…" but my thoughts rambled on to long for a comment.
(Lisa) You're right with the personalities, this was true also in the 60's Johns, Rauschenberg, Stella, Poons were all young as well. It might be generational. Typically artists near the age of 30 are the ones making the waves, setting the new stylistic trends. There are some big differences in how the art educational system and the business of art itself has changed over the last 40 years.
In the 1960's, the idea of being an artist as a "career" didn't really exist. By "career" I mean something akin to being a engineer at IBM, or an accountant, where if you got a college degree, you would get a job and a rung somewhere on the corporate ladder. By contrast, art schools, including the few universities which even had an MFA program, primarily taught art fundamentals and art history, the techniques of the trade, any mention of survival after graduation was anecdotal.
In the 1980's, partly as a result of the success of Minimalism, POP Art and Conceptual art, along with the appearance of new magazines like ArtForum, young artists came out of art schools with some idea that being an artist was a career. I think that in the mid 70's some of the art schools at least made an informal attempt to educate their students on what they should do to enter the system. That if you did the "right things" and made decent work, you could get a job (gallery) or even dream of being on the cover of ArtForum.
Fast forward, at the present, in addition to art fundamentals, the art schools also cover, either directly or indirectly, topics more directly related to establishing an art career including "art theory". The MFA has become a variant of the MBA and the "best students" from the "best schools" will get the "best jobs" This appears to be currently true.
The second major difference concerns the art business itself.
In the post WWII period, starting in the 1950's, with the shift in focus from Paris to the US (New York), the art business has grown substantially. Each of the three periods I outlined above, was marked by an increasing amount of capital purchasing "new art" As this trend developed, it became apparent that there could be a substantial return on investment if a collector purchased the early work of an artist who later became prominent. (hot)
This may seem like an obvious conclusion but it is not quite the case. In Los Angeles in the 1960's, the Irving Blum Gallery gave Andy Warhol his first exhibition of the Soup Cans. I think a few were slated to be sold (at around a $100 each but I could be wrong about that) when Mr. Blum decided that the set of 30 (??) paintings should be kept together and bought them himself. In essence he became a collector rather than a dealer. A collector, not a speculator, for he held the paintings for at least 30 years (I vaguely recall they may have finally been donated to a museum, I'm not sure)
The 1980's saw the birth of the art speculator, as a class of clientele, and the use of the "auction" as a method of establishing or raising prices. Prices of "emerging artists" were "augmented" through the auction market. Artworks were bought from an artist or dealer, sometimes by 2-3 people who each owned a "share", put up for auction and bought back by another collector who wanted the "unavailable" work, obviously pricing took a big jump and the "art speculator" was born.
A rising price has an interesting psychological affect, it creates demand. In the late 1970's, Phillip Guston's dealer could not sell his late new paintings (the ones people today love) at a price of $10,000. Even though they were great paintings, it seems that there was not much interest, collectors wanted paintings in his "established style". On day, his dealer told him over the phone, "Phillip, I've just doubled the value of your inventory" and doubled the asking (retail) prices, the rest is history.
At the present, none of the above observations have been lost on either side. Young artists are taught/encouraged to develop "a body of work" and the means of marketing it as a product. (there is a wide ranging definition for the word "product") As long as the art market stays firm, the speculators are prepared to take advantage of the situation by snapping up the work presumably with the intent of selling it later.
The fact that artists have become careerist, in the corporate sense, helps reduce the purchase risk. I suspect that, in a hot market for an artist, access to the work becomes somewhat constrained and is afforded to the "best clients". Again this is not unusual, with the exception that the speculators have a decided interest in seeing prices appreciate and may help things along where possible.
I suppose one should view this as a win-win situation for all concerned, the gallery, the collector, the speculator and of course the artist. On the consumer end, I believe this is true a good art market and appreciating prices is beneficial. For the artist, I suspect it may be a double edge sword. On the one hand, for artists with a degree of emotional maturity, the financial success may allow them more time to develop their artwork, more time to experiment and confidence, which should not to be underestimated as a developmental force. On the other hand, the pressures of financial success may weigh on the young artist by creating constraints, stylistic and otherwise, for which they are not prepared.
Whatever, it is what it is. As long as the art market stays firm, good or bad, I suspect the situation will continue. Further, an historical precedent has been set, and even if the art market crashed, the situation will be the same when it arises from the ashes again.
Today is some young persons "good old days"