Alexander Adams: Why are artists poor?

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 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 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 explains why a carpet tycoon in China buys an Andy Warhol as a symbol of his improved social status and great wealth, while 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 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 are distinctive to the arts. This comes from the peculiarities of the special economy of high-status luxuries and the 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 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 paradoxical.

Abbing notes that denial of economic value (or sabotaging of marketability) is used to maintain/emphasise material’s high-art status, in contrast to low art, which is popular and 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 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 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 artist is inclined to overestimate his or her skills” and “the average artist is less well informed [about his profession] than other professionals”. Considering the way adolescents form an attachment to art (due to emotional rather than pragmatic considerations without even the vaguest of overviews of the career prospects available to artists), it is hardly surprising that future artists are often ignorant of the factors that will determine their likely income and success. In a time when most of the standard aesthetic/skill measurements are no longer indicators of potential success, how can any art student assess his career prospects? In such circumstances, the decision to enter the profession cannot be anything other than a hopeful gamble made by 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


A large number of artists earn nothing at all from their art; in fact a significant number incur overall debts to pay for material 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 apparent.  

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


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 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 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 other demographic groups. Government 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 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 it would be unthinkable that a White Supremacist play would be subsidised even though the latter might be more artistically provocative, more politically challenging and more in need of financial support. In the arts, “diversity” never means true diversity.

Without state sponsorship fully staged ballet and opera with live orchestras would likely become extinct, but a reduction in grants which caused the closure of Turner Contemporary, The Baltic and some other venues, would result in Wolfgang Tillmans and Gillian Wearing exhibiting slightly 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 art it perceives as worthy of subsidy and – 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 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 proportion to consumers in the applied-art field is much closer to a normal economy than the singular fine-art economy, an intelligent distinction. Abbing states “in practice the distinction [between amateur and professional] is socially constructed”. Perhaps the emphasis could be not upon the status of the producer but the status of the economic activity.

Abbing’s approach does not deal with art that is produced for (relatively) private consumption and which has negligible monetary value. Is this amateur art also part of the same economy as art produced professionally or semi-professionally? Just because material has no measurable financial value, does not mean it has no economic worth; economics embraces non-monetary transactions, as Abbing notes. Amateur art fulfils some of the criteria of (professional) fine art yet also does not fulfil other criteria. Amateur producers are often not professionally trained/qualified, tend to avoid risk, produce erratically, do not seek/receive income for producing, do not need the approval of venues/collectors, do not interact with the public, are ineligible for subsidies, prizes and public gifts, etc. Yet, in purely material terms, amateur producers can produce items identical to those made by professionals, albeit lacking the cachet and monetary value. Abbing suggests that low, amateur and poorly regarded fine art actually has greater aesthetic qualities than high – or what our editor would call “state” – art. High-art producers are marked by their disregard for – or spurning of – aesthetic qualities, whereas low-art producers strive to create beautiful or attractive art involving the use of craft skills.

The most obvious answer to this conundrum is that the art economy is a spectrum rather than distinct field, with amateur art falling between fine and applied arts (with artists periodically moving between amateur and professional statuses). This raises the difficulty of definition and whether or not Abbing’s fine-art economic criteria apply in a binary fashion or in variable degrees. Abbing’s thesis is that the fine-art economy is distinctly different because of a) the extreme degree of inequality, barriers to entry, the consumption and production, etc. in that field and b) the unique paradigms that apply to that field and not to others. In various ways, amateur art seems to contradict both distinctions of Abbing’s posited economic model.  




Abbing seeks to overturn many of our assumptions about the relationship between money and art. This book raises two questions: 1. How true/accurate are Abbing’s conclusions (some of which he admits are in need of further data)? 2. Would interested parties be willing to accept his conclusions? The findings go against many of our common cultural assumptions, vested interests and current socio-economic structures. It is quite possible that Abbing is right on many points – and logic, evidence and intuition suggest that most of the economic observations are correct – but that we simply refuse to accept them or act upon them.

Do not think that Abbing is pushing a political agenda in favour of free-market capitalism or abandonment of artistic subsidy. Abbing admits that there are many legitimate reasons why the arts are subsidised but he suggests that the many common justifications for art subsidies are spurious. The true reasons for art subsidies are rather too self-interested and elitist to be made plain.

Why Are Artists Poor? should be required reading for everyone in arts administration and planning, and it is recommended reading for any serious-minded person thinking of becoming an artist.

Alexander Adams
The Jackdaw Jul/Aug 2017