Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Poor Artists

Our friend Highlowandinbetween, a terrific painter himself, has been discussing the effect of the recession on artists, who already suffer from a constant effort to avoid poverty.
If you’ve been an artist for any amount of time you must have come to the cynical observation that the economics feel more like a pyramid scheme than a means to earn a living. A very small number at the top seem to hold almost all of the wealth. The tens of thousands of practitioners who keep missing the booms and bubbles are often waiting for the trickle down affect. It’s an ugly reality that contrasts sharply with general assumptions that the Arts represent progressive values and open mindedness. The Artworld likes the idea that it is a platform for societal critique, boundary breaking and intellectual rigor but often these aspirations appear to be nothing more than window dressing for an economic structure that creates more destruction than anyone wants to admit to.
HLB points to a review of a recent book by Hans Abbing titled Why Are Artists Poor? The myth of the starving artist remains a potent one and it might be easy to settle into the assumption that the poverty of an artist is a function of his/her own self-romanticization. But the book finds artist poverty to be more multi-layered and in tension with common economic assumptions:
...the poverty of artists is a recent phenomenon, with numbers increasing dramatically since WWII. A study of Holland indicates that the vast majority of artists (77%) are living at or below subsistence levels, and cannot make a living from art alone. A second job is necessary, and it typically generates twice the income of the art job. A graph of total income distribution of the artists in Abbing’s study resembles an asymptotic curve, with fewer than 1% at the top who are extraordinarily well off. Paradoxically, with the increase of prosperity in the industrialized nations, the number of impoverished artists has increased as well. Abbing argues that these developments are, in fact, connected.

In economic terms, this suggests an oversupply of artists, but unlike other sectors of the economy, artists do not quit. That they seemingly “cannot do otherwise”, leads Abbing to his first claim: the economy of the arts is exceptional. The usual mechanisms of supply and demand do not function. The question is: why not? Why do people become artists, knowing their compensation will be poor, and why don’t they quit when they have trouble surviving?

A dizzying number of reasons are interrogated and, unsurprisingly, money, fame, and recognition are not decisive factors. The most fundamental explanation for Abbing turns upon a sense that “art is special”, i.e., that to be involved in the art world with a capital-A is a special activity, that artists are driven not merely by their urge to create, but almost by a sense of social obligation. Since the nineteenth century, the practice of art has become a mode of authenticity. Many non-artists tend to see artists as somehow more authentic than themselves. This desire to give expression to an “authentic self” seems to be one of the main forces that attract young people into the arts.
I had a conversation with a friend last night about this very issue. Anecdotally-speaking, from my own time living in artland, many artists seemed to me to be driven by the art itself. They'd speak passionately about the importance of the arts in society, but their art was less a matter of producing some social good and more a matter of doing something because it is inherently valuable to do. What they do requires an audience as an integral part of the production of art. But in the end, it was all about the practice/performance of the art.


C.M. Mayo said...

This WHY ARE ARTISTS POOR? is a very intriguing book. Another is Lewis Hyde's THE GIFT, and as for why so few earn so mammoth a chunk of the pie, there's a fascinating paper by U of Chicago economist Sherwin Rosen, "The Economics of Superstars". As for my own experience as a (literary) artist, all I can conclude about the economics of it all is that it's roaringly complicated. Maybe it has more to do with the quality of one's aura than anything else. I am not kidding.

MT said...

Some poor artists must believe that making art is valuable in itself, because they'd be throwing in the towel otherwise. Maybe some are hedonists who get off on creating, or who are content in their own assessment of their art's success relative to what they see in books or museums, but I personally would need money or prestige or the expectation of at least one of them to go on. Plus the expectation of getting laid and an amp that goes up to 11.