Artistic Endeavors – Art & $

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.



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6 responses to “Artistic Endeavors – Art & $

  1. Interesting post, I for one cannot understand why the most ridiculous things are worth thousands and other art worth nothing. It’s all hype. I mean an unmade bed?

    • As the articles point out, what sells is often about trends, name artists, contacts, and the prestige of the gallery. Since the definition of art is subjective, if someone says an unmade bed is art then . . .

  2. Just had an interesting talk with a nationally-known craftsman, confirming my thought that making any money at all requires what I call “tireless self-promotion “

    • Abby Glassenberg recently interviewed a free lance designer who found the demands of putting herself out there all the time just barely kept her family above water financially. She finally took a job with health insurance benefits.

      • It’s a shame that “art” isn’t a job that provides a living wage, except for a few rare beings. I think that’s part of why quilts aren’t valued appropriately. Because those of us who make quilts mostly don’t sell them but give them away, because we can’t make a living at it anyway, they are seen as valueless. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

        Also the memoir of Painter returning to art feeds into something I’ve been thinking about for a while, how things that seem to be related to a moment in time (a decision to return to school, for instance,) actually have much longer roots. Um, mixing metaphors, something about icebergs… 🙂

      • I hear you. I don’t know what to make of prices given at a recent art quilt exhibit, with a range of $450 to $14,000. I suspect some of the difference has to do with name recognition. Also, I think quilt artists tend to under price their work. At a library painting exhibition I noticed the lowest prices were about $350, and almost all the work looked like student work at best.

        As to returning to earlier passions, here I am trying to make original quilts decades after I majored in art in high school, and then didn’t touch it for years.

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