No, Artists Aren’t the Winners of the New Gilded Age

How to respond to the debate about art and money.

Gustave Courbet
Gustave Courbet—stooge of inequality? Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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New York’s art scene is currently undergoing one of its regular, very public seizures of fairs and auctions. This is art at its most self-satisfied and secure in its importance. After all, doesn’t all this money prove that art is important, and worth paying attention to?

Yes—but it proves it’s important in exactly the wrong way, and puts the wrong kind of attention on it. Consider this: the relationship of art to money has become a hot topic lately, and in realms outside of the usual art press. In fact, this arcane subject is fast on its way to joining BitCoin and twerking as minor media obsessions. A quick rundown of lowlights from just the last few weeks:

* In the New York Times op-ed page, avuncular conservative David Brooks is concerned to minimize the significance of the ongoing sensation that is Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. His strategy includes dismissing inequality as the obsession of an educated elite dreaming about “how much more affordable fine art would be” if only the One Percent didn’t live so large.

* In Foreign Affairs, intransigent libertarian pundit Tyler Cowen, also responding to Piketty, exhorts readers to remember what a positive effect inequality had on art in the 19th century: “[C]onsider Piketty’s native France, where the scores of artists who relied on bequests or family support to further their careers included painters such as Corot, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, and Toulouse-Lautrec and writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Verlaine, and Proust, among others.” (Corey Robin does a good job taking this one apart.)

* In Vox, econo-blogger and professional contrarian Matthew Yglesias continued the thread, weighing in last week with a short post headlined, “One Winner from Inequality—Artists.” He asks cheekily, “Does wealth inequality have its upsides?,” waggles his eyebrows suggestively (OK, that’s in my imagination), and then concludes that economics confirms Cowen’s “the rich get richer = artists rejoice” equation. “[T]he evidence that inequality boosts the financial returns to the fine arts—largely by diverting financial resources away from middle class consumption of normal stuff—seems compelling,” he decides.

Did you see what happened there? In a magic trick worthy of Gob Bluth, Yglesias starts out talking about artists, and ends up talking about the art market. And yet “the financial returns to the fine arts” tell you little about life for most artists, since these returns are by no means shared equally; it may even be that these financial returns, endlessly touted, send false signals about what a great career art might be. Here is Pierre-Michel Menger, in an article on “Artistic Labor Markets” from The Handbook of the Economics of Art and Culture:

Numerous studies have shown that an increase in the number of artists may be far from corresponding to a similar increase in the level of activity. If there is more work but an ever more rapidly growing number of individuals, a fiercer competition takes place that implies higher inequalities in access to employment, more variability in the level and schedule of activity and on the whole work rationing for those who share the labor pie and cycle more often from work to unemployment or from arts work to arts-related or non-arts work. (768)

It’s never been easy to be an artist. But this passage would suggest that the present age has accentuated, not alleviated, the traditional precariousness of artists’ lives, as the number of people chasing the prize increases faster than the opportunities available.

Menger, of course, is painting a general picture of “the arts,” and not specifically of visual art, which is a very particular beast (though he adds that, “The pattern of change may vary across the different artistic occupations, but the trend is almost everywhere the same”). One of the things that makes visual art particular is precisely that it has such an ostentatious market attached to it—you don’t hear too many people talking about how great the current economy is for poetry or dance—which is exactly why it serves as such a useful example to people who want to claim, as Yglesias does claim, that the “upside” of wealth inequality is that it helps fine artists.

Here it’s worth really demystifying what a contemporary artist actually does with his or her life, and talking about a fact that everyone knows but is easy to forget amid the party coverage, which only ever presents people at their blandly smiling professional best: Hardly anyone is an “artist” in the sense that they make their living off of their artwork. The idea of being an “artist” is something people identify with aspirationally, while actually working at a day job (or, alternatively, living off of a trust fund). Consequently, if we focus only on artists as artists, we can’t actually know how inequality has affected artists as people.

An example: Teaching has long been one of the most significant sources of income for artists. But work conditions for academics have been eroding for some time, as adjunct labor has become the default within the academy—in effect, the professoriat is being proletarianized. This too is an aspect of rising inequality. Inasmuch as teaching is what a substantial number of artists actually do to survive, it is something that affects them a little more intimately than the fact that gala season now comes twice a year instead of once. Just this week, as New York was gearing up for this latest round of money-madness, the adjuncts at Maryland Institute College of Art voted to unionize. The issues were job security and pay.

MICA

Maryland Institute College of Art’s Part Time Faculty Committee
Photo: micaadjuncts.org.

Over the weekend, New York Times film scribe A.O. Scott published a good essay called “The Paradox of Art as Work.” In a way, it’s a welcome riposte to the “artists benefit from inequality” line of argument, and a sign of just how far the anxieties of “creative laborers” have worked their way up the food chain (as a footnote, I’d add that my own work has been to show that there is, in fact, no “paradox of art as work”—but that’s a longer discussion). An awful lot of people, even those whom we count as successful “artists,” think that there has to be a better way to organize things than the current system, which often seems to amount to a very expensive lottery, where people are asked to work for free out of the love of art in exchange for a shot at an audience with the king. Scott concludes that, while appreciating all the eccentricities of artists, “we also need to remember, with all the political consequences that this understanding entails, that they are just doing their jobs.”

I agree with the sentiment. Artists do get ripped off. I’d only add that drawing “all the political consequences” means also acknowledging that, even in the best-case scenario within our present world, the number of people who will make a living off their art will be small compared to those who don’t. And that doesn’t mean that the latter are necessarily any worse as artists—if art history teaches anything, it’s that fortune and success don’t have that much to do with good art. What it does mean is that any focus on “artists’ issues” needs to be supplemented by thinking about the work issues artists confront in their non-art lives. In the end, tackling inequality and injustice within the art world has to be connected to supporting the fight against inequality and injustice outside of it as well. This may seem like a distraction, but I actually think it’s part of what might save the art scene from its own irrelevance.


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