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 state funding and critical traditionalists will be muttering that art should not be viewed as an economic product or an investment. Both sides believe that art and money should be separated; the influence of money in the art market is deleterious to the production/appreciation of art. Yet how many of these assumptions are accurate and where is the economic evidence to back up these views?

Artist and social economist, Professor Hans Abbing has looked at the fine arts (encompassing dance, classical – not pop – music, opera and theatre but primarily concentrating on the visual fine arts) and sees an economy that does not function like any other. In Why Are Artists Poor? Abbing seeks to understand how this singular market google_ad_height = 90; operates, drawing on academic research and statistics and demonstrating through anecdotal examples. Some of Abbing’s google_ad_slot = "7160667483"; 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 are used to mark a person’s position on the social ladder, an asymmetric judgment of art products will exist. People higher on the ladder look down on the art of people lower than them, while the latter do not look down on, but look up to the art of the former.” Those ascending the social
ladder will wish to consume high art while those descending will cling to high art despite straitened circumstances. This google_ad_width = 970; explains why a carpet tycoon in China buys an Andy Warhol as a symbol of his improved social status and great wealth, while google_ad_height = 90; an unemployed professor will still love Mondrian
and Mahler even if deprived of his former position.

The fine/high arts are largely consumed and produced by the middle and upper classes. One could also view it another way: art of amateur and unqualified makers (produced by a constituency with a

greater proportion of lower-class producers) is categorised as low, hobby or folk art not as high art. There seems a consensus that less-educated people believe that
high-brow art is “not for them”; in other words, it src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> is made for the middle and upper classes. It may also be that they feel alienated by contemporary art. We can all think of individual exceptions but data about exhibition attendance bears out Abbing’s thesis.

Abbing admits in an appendix that attitudes towards the high/low divide are

changing and that this lower-class deference and upper-class disdain has altered over recent years.

 

The art economy is self-deceiving

 

The sensitivity, self-deceit and hypocrisy about the connection between aesthetic appreciation and financial value

Process Overview:

are distinctive to the arts. This comes from the peculiarities of the special economy of high-status luxuries and the src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> quasi-sacred status of items which are also commodities. We love and value art because it seems to stand apart from monetary considerations; the more we love particular examples of art, the more valuable they become as commodities. Knowledge of the value of items makes us uneasy and suspicious of their quality as art. Yet we do not
find the enormous value of

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rare gemstones impairs our aesthetic appreciation of them. A fan of gems would not decide to boycott a display of gemstones because they were too famous and valuable, yet art lovers often are swayed by such considerations. In the art economy so much is /* xin2 */ paradoxical.

Abbing notes that denial of economic value (or sabotaging of marketability) is used to maintain/emphasise material’s high-art status, google_ad_width = 970; in contrast to low art, which is popular and

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commercial in nature. Self-abnegating behaviour can drive
up the monetary value of an artist’s products. It is not necessarily (or even primarily) a deliberate economic strategy, though it could be used that way; it is most likely the result of scarcity pricing and the market’s craving for iconic “authenticity”. Greater non-marketability > increased perceived authenticity > elevated status > increased demand > increased price.

 

Winners take all

 

The rewards of the arts are not proportionately distributed. If famous Anish Kapoor has 10 exhibitions, less famous Julian Schnabel does not get

to 9 exhibitions (equivalent to 90% of Kapoor’s recognition). Schnabel gets maybe 2 exhibitions even though his name recognition is perhaps 90% of Kapoor’s. There is a limit to the number of exhibition slots available. Likewise, magazines and newspapers have a limited
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capacity to review exhibitions and averagely educated members of the public may recognise the names of only
10 living artists. The difference in recognition between being 9 and 10 on that list is small; the difference between being number 10 and 11 on that list may be huge. Similarly, a graph of all living artists’ income per annum would be flat at zero and near-zero for almost the entire

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X axis showing the low income of the majority, grow slightly for the small number who make a living income and then reach a sheer wall for the tiny number of super-rich artists. This is a form of winner-take-all situation.

Negative as they may seem, winner-takes-all conditions provide opportunity for great fame and income in contrast to the poverty of most practitioners, which in turn adds to

the excitement and appeal of being an artist. Artists, especially professional ones, are risk-takers. If unionisation or an income-equalising scheme were proposed, neutral risk calculation suggests a way to equalise income disparity should be in most artists’ best interests. However, human instinct being what it is, most artists would conclude that they are talented and lucky enough
to benefit from a win-big economy rather than a share-small one. It is the calculation of every person who ever laid a wager.    

 

Artists are ill-informed gamblers

 

Abbing posits “more than other professionals, the average

style="font-weight:
400;">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

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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 lower than of artists in countries like the US and England, where subsidisation levels are lower.”

This conclusion contradicts most received wisdom. “If the sole aim is to reduce poverty in

the arts then the best policy is to reduce overall subsidisation of the arts”. That sets aside the issue of the social benefits of subsidisation.

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The bare figures suggest that if the purpose of government art subsidies is to benefit artists financially, it is not working.   

 

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400;">The state encourages the oversupply of artists

 

The Dutch BKR plan bought art for local government bodies directly from artists as a form of subsidy; it operated between 1949 and 1987. Spending on the plan escalated to unsustainable levels as the number of participating artists grew. When the plan was cancelled, there was a reduction in the number of students applying for fine-art courses, an increase in the number of artists leaving the profession and a cooling effect on the general increase in the number of artists joining the profession.

The past restrictions of academic and guild membership – which

restricted the number of producers and 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

less often. In some areas subsidies keep an entire art form financially viable, in others they promote art which is already self-sustaining or already saturating the market.

As David Lee has suggested, the Arts Council in itself is not the problem; the problem is the narrowness of the

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art it perceives as worthy of subsidy and –

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even within the State Art range – the disproportionate favouritism shown to a handful of practitioners already well supported by commercial galleries and foreign state sponsorship.

 

The amateur-professional divide

 

There is an important deficiency in Abbing’s analysis, which he admits.

What is the status of the amateur-art economy? All manner of visual art material is made, consumed and circulated – and in quantities that far outweigh the traded google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; art in the professional art world

– which does not obey the economic rules that apply to professional art. That art is children’s art, hobby and recreational art, copying, private sketching, artefacts from art therapy and other types of art which generally go unexamined through
professional channels. Talented amateurs
often produce work as good as – or better than – their professional counterparts and are often more risk-averse, financially savvy and better informed than others who have whole-heartedly committed to making art.

Abbing makes a distinction between the fine arts

and applied arts, noting that the income imbalances, reward range and oversupply of makers in