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.

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

Why Bad Art is More than Just Boring

With the death of Thomas Kinkade still being recent news I’m reluctant to disparage his work…reluctant, but not entirely unwilling.  The “Painter of Light”, a moniker he snatched and trademarked from J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851), is admittedly very technically proficient in a style that would have been relevant about 200 years ago.  Retreading conceptual ground a couple of centuries late, the paintings are as heavy on sentimentality as they are light on substance and use Christianity as a marketing tool more than a religion.

What may be most troubling about Kinkade’s work, though, is the type of culture that it condones and promotes.  Bad art, boring art values saleability over substance.  Art enthusiasts become “target audience” and prefer a feeling of  pseudo-populism over work that challenges held beliefs.  Rather than advancing the dialectic,  the ongoing conversation of art, the culture of boring art lets the discussion regress and degenerate into a pool of verbal and visual clichés.  Bad art creates a bad art culture; bad art culture, in turn, demands bad art.  I believe experts call this a “Kinkadian feed-back loop” or a “crap maelstrom”.

Florida has been dealt more than its fair share of kitsch – it’s the nature of being a tourist destination.   And Tampa Bay in particularly is susceptible to succumbing to the tug of the crap maelstrom.  It isn’t difficult to imagine an art scene that deals only in bucolic pastel seascapes.  Bad and/or boring art is a lot like pollution: it looks bad but that’s the least of the trouble it causes.  Bad art stops the visual conversation and kills a scene’s momentum.  A conservative art scene teaches its audience to settle for the results its given and expect more of the same.

Breaking the Kinkadian feed-back loop as an arts audience is surprisingly easy, though.  Visiting an exhibition, praising an artist, purchasing a work of art – these are all active endorsements.  And endorsements are the stuff that an art scene is made of.  So…who and what are you endorsing?  Graphic design pretending to be art?  Home decor disguised as art?  Easy to read, pretty to look at, collect ’em all art?

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t trying to influence your taste in art.  The fact is, if you’re an active member of the art scene your taste in art is relatively important – it plays a part in steering the art conversation.  To keep the conversation progressive everyone needs to challenge themselves.  However, if you’re pleased with a good quaint cottage painting or your photograph of a sleeping baby, just order it from QVC – no need to steer the conversation backwards.

Why Bad Art is More than Just Boring