The Trouble With Being an Artist: Value

Last week, I reflected on how certain material innovations, over the last 200 or so years, have changed what it means to be an artist and expanded how many people can partake in creative enterprises. I ended the diatribe with the hypothesis that the proliferation of artists spurred by increased access to paint, brushes, canvases, cameras, etc., could not satisfactorily explain why so many talented voices have never been heard. I contended that the primary culprit behind the systematic inaccessibility of fine art is a planned fiction of scarcity employed by art world elites to retain a monopoly on visibility and value. If you missed it, you can back and read it first, here. In this article, I would like to dive into "value."

The value of any commodity is subject to fluctuation and manipulation. Global events (like a war in Ukraine, for example) can reduce the availability of necessary materials for human life and thus drive up prices. A shortage of indispensable goods affects everyone in an immediate and often dire fashion. We need food, fuel, and housing, and when vast portions of the population are deprived of these essentials, history can happen very quickly and very dramatically. As a result, access to the material foundations of modern life is prioritized to the extent that the powerful can profit without the fear of revolution (history has proven over and over again that unchecked greed will be checked one way or another). However, what happens to non-essential commodities?

The point where the scarcity of indispensable resources becomes unbearable is nebulous, but the inevitability of widespread upheaval if the shortage continues, is inevitable. From the Roman empire to the divine right of kings, there has never been a system of power that can withstand a starving populace. It may take a while, but people’s patience will wear thin, and nothing quite chips away at patience like an empty belly and a barren hearth. But, many of the most monetarily valuable products (for lack of a better word) are not crucial for day-to-day life. These non-essential but fortune-making objects are the wild west of market manipulation because they have immense financial value without universal material value. We do not need works of art to feed our children or heat our homes, so we will not pick up pitchforks to stop the exploitive insanity of the art market (I am not suggesting we do, but merely pointing out why it is such a safe and lucrative avenue for unfettered greed).

Furthermore, a market with the possibility of enormous capital appreciation that can be manipulated with minimal risk of popular reaction is beneficial for anyone wishing to make or hide a surreptitious buck (if you are curious why I needed the qualifier “minimal”, look no further than The Affair of the Diamond Necklace which definitely incited anger at the soon-to-be headless King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette). Ever since the first painting was sold for over a million dollars (according to legend, this was a Picasso sold to Madonna in the 1980s, but don't tell anyone you heard it from me), art has been increasingly overshaded by a rapidly growing dollar sign. With all this in mind, it makes sense that the lie of creative scarcity has been so studiously nurtured by those who profit from the sweat of artists’ brows.

As I assume most people know, and I know artists know, there are exponentially more talented and soul-enrichening artists in the world than the few who make it into the spotlight. Sure, perhaps the spotlight cannot illuminate everyone, but there is no way the limitations of its light are as small as the few it presently encompasses. We are told that the exponential growth of artists and mediums is to blame for the pitiful rarity of public recognition, but what we should be asking is how does more translate into less? To return to essential commodities, how do you think people would respond if they were told oil is more expensive and less available because there is more of it than there used to be? Obviously, if there are more artists, there will be more bad art, and good art can get lost in the shuffle, but this does not negate the fact that there is more good art and the stage on which it is shown has not grown to reflect the increase in production Certainly, a select few artists who would and have been previously scorned now breathe the rarified air of the stage, but this is only because the façade of inclusion has become profitable and not because the movers and shakers of the art world give a damn about inclusion.

If the gates of the art world were not so preciously guarded, Picasso's would go down in value (don't worry, they would still bring huge profits), but the surplus value would be ecumenically distributed between a far more expansive and diverse range of creative voices. Next week, I will return with part three, The Trouble With Being an Artist: The Market, and dive into the art market's intricacies that enable and incentivize this contrived and inequitable system.

Responses (1)

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Barry Adamson
Barry Adamson Artist

September 06, 2022

I think you're onto something here... roll on part 3! #artmonopoly

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John Crowther
John Crowther Author

September 08, 2022

I'm so happy it resonates with you, Barry! I think the subject should be more widely talked about as silence only benefits the art world's gatekeepers! Can't wait to hear what you think about part 3!

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