Alexander Adams: Why are artists poor? – July 2017

Imagine the most absurd and outrageous provocations about art that you can. For example: there is no such thing as a pure work of art; artists are unusually ill-informed; there is no market reward for good art; government subsidies make artists poor. Both defensive supporters of

not function like any other. In Why Are Artists Poor? Abbing seeks to understand how this singular market operates, drawing on
academic research and statistics and demonstrating through anecdotal examples. Some of Abbing’s findings make profoundly uncomfortable reading for people who accept many common assumptions about the arts. Here are Abbing’s main findings:


Art is used as a social marker


Abbing states that class largely determines one’s attitude to high and low art. “As long as there

is social stratification and as long as art products

people who consider themselves unfit for “normal” jobs (even though numerous artists actually have second jobs which


they perform competently). Artists cleave to a life in the arts not despite the poverty but partly because of poverty which acts as a //--> badge of
authenticity and a demonstration of unwillingness to compromise. The lack of reward in a perverse way validates a financially unsuccessful career: it shows how selfless and dedicated an artist has been,
when in reality it might just indicate that this artist is no good. Entrants to art schools are also ill-informed about the many hidden, informal and unspoken barriers that exist in the art world, with its web of gatekeepers, conventions, rules and social contacts.  

I would add that artists think they are more in control of their careers than they actually are. Changing taste, external market conditions and luck are all beyond an individual’s control.


Subsidies create poverty


style="font-weight: 400;">A large //--> number of artists earn nothing at all from their art; in fact a significant number incur overall debts

to pay for material

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costs while failing to sell art (admittedly, some may not be offering art for sale). Artists are much more impoverished today than in previous eras because many function in a market detached from selling. In terms of income from gifts/subsidies (private and public) compared to income from the market, artists rely on the former to a degree unparalleled in any other profession with the exception of the clergy – another example of low-earning professionals being subsidised for the public good. Thus the exceptionality of the art economy is again


The arts is a paradoxical economy because for a long period (at least since 1945) the majority of artists have had low incomes from art; according to economic theory this commonly known information should cause a contraction in the number of people entering the profession, which would lead the overall consumption of art being spread between a smaller number of producers, thereby raising the average income. Yet, clearly, this has never happened. In fact, the reverse: there are evermore art graduates at a time when incomes from art are at an all-time low. Apparently, the social cachet, personal satisfaction and tiny possibility of great wealth outweigh the statistics.  

Due to the general esteem in which the high

arts are held, it is deemed socially beneficial to subsidise art and artists, partly in order to alleviate poverty. This is a contributory factor in establishing and maintaining a web of government support, patronage and material advantage afforded the arts.

Abbing writes: “The total amount of financial assistance for artists has no effect on artists’ incomes. […] Irrespective of developments in spending, donations, subsidies and social benefits, the incomes of artists have remained relatively low throughout the West for more than a century now, and most pronouncedly since the Second World War. If there is a trend in the second half of the twentieth century, it is a downward one. […] In countries like the Netherlands where there is extensive subsidisation of the arts, the artist’s average income is the same or

guild membership – which restricted the number of producers and google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; set certain standards and conditions and kept prices relatively high – no longer apply. Educational artistic qualification in terms of BA and MA degrees is abundant and easily obtained. Government policy is to encourage the provision of ever-wider art education.

The public subsidisation of the arts – insofar as it reaches artists directly – encourages people to join the art profession and contributes to commercially unsuccessful artists staying in their careers, which artificially sustains a high number of producers and perpetuates the impoverishment of artists in general. Income from the state allows artists to cut back on their second jobs to devote more time to artistic production. Although society as a whole

considers sponsorship (direct and indirect) of artists a social benefit, it may actually be harming artists by swelling the production of art there is no market for. Increased state funding increases the number of artists and art google_ad_width = 970; production.


Art funding goes to the middle class


The common goal of expanding the reach of the arts to

groups which under-consume
them is not efficiently met through public subsidy (such as support for artists, venues, ticket discounts, tax relief, etc.). Subsidies tend to disproportionately reach the middle-class white producers and consumers who are already engaged by the arts, thus sustaining the status quo rather than bringing in consumers from

Process Overview:

other demographic groups. Government /* xin2 */ arts policy may be explicitly oriented towards social outreach but its effects channel money into the arts consumed by policy administrators and their milieu.


The state has artistic preferences


The patronage system of local and central government and public arts bodies replaced the patronage of monarchy, nobility and church; nowadays the arts serve their state patrons in an indirect manner. When a king won a battle he would commission depictions to commemorate his triumph and impress visiting ambassadors; the British Council does not commission propagandist art but it does select art that conforms google_ad_slot = "7160667483"; to certain expectations, which it uses in a form of soft power in its cultural diplomacy. This art indirectly says “Britain is a liberal, tolerant, multi-cultural nation exploding with technical and artistic innovation (and is a great holiday destination and good place to trade with)”. The art is made independently but is often chosen because it conforms to – or at least, does not contradict – the establishment consensus. State-supported art is national and political marketing, directly both domestically and internationally. We could imagine the Arts Council funding a theatre production excoriating white patriarchal hegemony but