The elephant in the art world is often the art related marketplace. Ultimately, someone has to buy the art to support its makers. This raises the question, is art judged to be “good” because it sells or does it sell because it’s good?
According to a joint study of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), arts and culture related sectors contributed $763.6 billion to the U.S. economy in 2015. Bear in mind that the study defined those sectors very broadly, so movies and TV, plus such items as art related printing and movie making are included.
Narrowing the economic focus a bit brings me to the visual art market, where a few artists seem to command extraordinarily huge prices. Hyperallergic’s review of the documentary The Price of Everything concludes:
“The Price of Everything is not about the love of art, but its exploitation, and that may cause some sincere aesthetes to cringe. Laymen, meanwhile, will likely remain baffled as to why big sculptures of metal balloon animals are selling for millions. The art market lays bare the absurdity of capitalism as a whole, in which value is not tied to anything tangible but to gambles based on trends.”
Contrast the subject of that documentary with an article about how much money artists make. The takeaway is don’t quit your day job, as the majority of visual artists make less than $30,000 annually from their art.The economic aspect of art has been on my mind as I read Nell Painter’s memoir Old In Art School. Painter, a distinguished and award winning historian, decided to return to her first love, art, at age 64. She obtained an undergraduate degree in art, then went on to the Rhode Island School of Design’s MFA program. Her success at developing artistically seems to come in spite of, not because of, art school. She’s old, black, and decidedly out of step with the contemporary culture that inspires the work of her much younger and hipper fellow students. The ability to draw and paint well that Painter aspires to seems to mean little in the emphasis on who you know and “the next big thing.” Judgments by teachers and the all important gallery owners seem arbitrary, and beauty in art and talent are viewed as drawbacks. After a miserable first year at RISD, Painter decides to buckle down and follow the path of pedagogy and hard work that led to her success as a historian.