On the Crazy-as-Kim-Jong-Il Economics of the Art World – part one

Morley Safer’s 60 Minutes report was out of touch, superficial, and made up of as much opinion as ignorance.  However, he was correct about one thing:  on good days the economics of the art world are utterly surreal.

Hardly anyone needs to be told about the ultra-rich or art changing hands like futures commodities – sorry, Morley.  Anyhow, the bulk of the economic weirdness (and the short end of the stick) is at the base of the art world: the artists.  It all starts with a question – Should artists be treated like workers?

Is there any other multi-billion dollar-a-year industry in which this question would be rational?  Hardly.  Yet artists are somehow exempt from the many benefits enjoyed by other workers, specifically a steady and reasonable income.  There are a few reasons why many (including me) have given this nary a thought.

One reason is that few people consider art making “work”.  For a considerable portion of art history, extending down to 2012, art making has been considered a leisure activity – an avocation as opposed to a valid vocation.  The 19th century’s Romantic singularly brilliant artist appeared to have more in common with a prophet than a proletariat.  Still today, with the exception of taste-panderers such as Thomas Kinkade or Jeff Koons, artists are thought to be (near pathologically) compelled to make art independent of market demands.  While there may be some truth in this regarding many artists, while many artists would be happy to make and display their work sans pay, it doesn’t mean the world should demand it.

Another reason artists aren’t often thought of as (and thereby not treated like) workers is related to what art is.  The market treats art as if it were only a commodity.  That is, a thing to be bought, sold, and traded – a thing in which all of the value resides in owning it.  This is the reason artists are generally paid only when they sell a work of art.  It’s clear to see how this situation is becoming increasingly absurd, especially as trends shift art work from being objects to becoming experiences.

Additionally, unless you’re of the ultra-rich mentioned earlier, little to no value you see in art comes from actually owning it.  For the 99% of us, nearly all of the value of art is gotten from seeing it in a gallery, encountering it in a museum, or interacting with it in a non-profit space.  If most art lovers enjoy most of the value of art before it is even sold, while it’s still on display, why isn’t the artist being compensated for it?

While it is generally accepted that the role of artists is to fulfill a profound civic need, this is not what they’re paid to provide.  Rather, the market obligates them to become salespeople hawking their wares.  Considering this warped view of art and its value, the way artists and audiences suffer comes into focus.

But lo! exceptions exist.  There are places and people who pay artists living wages.  There are institutions that compensate artists for what they do rather than what they sell.  These and future solutions is what will be considered in part 2.

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