Archive for June, 2009

The Myth of The Artist: Gifting

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on June 30, 2009 by artbizness

This is the second post in an ongoing series of thoughts sparked by the brilliant book “Why Are Artists Poor?” by Hans Abbing. You can read the first part here.

One of the notions that Abbing explores is the idea of “gift” or “gifting”. I think he’s spot on when he suggests that the art economy is a mixed economy.
By that, I mean that a certain amount of “normal” market transaction goes on (I pay for this work, you sell it to me) but in a very veiled way. the dirty business of money is seen as just that – dirty. A necessary evil. Art doesn’t sully itself with Mammon, because it’s aims, subject matter and reason for existing is supposed to be loftier than that. It is supposed to reside in the “gift-giving” sphere.

Consider this excerpt from Abbing:

“…when artists and art lovers resist money, this seldom means money in a literal sense. After all, the arts welcome large sums of money received in the forms of subsidies and donations. Therefore, money (or the world of money) represents a type of measurement in the market, and is not directly associated with donations and subsidies.
It is obvious that art is bought and sold and thus measured in monetary terms. But because art is considered sacred and because the sacred doesn’t rhyme with commerce, one would expect commerce in art – like other “evils ” in art – to be relatively unimportant.”

So to be clear, free market trade does go on in the arts, but in a veiled way, out of sight, and with the dealer’s assistant – long after the dealer has left the studio. It’s worth noting that in the big name galleries, you never see a “red dot” sticker to denote a sold work. It’s considered amatuerish and un-professional.

Gift giving is supposed to promote “…other virtues like sharing, generosity, selflessness, social justice, personal contact and respect for monetary values.” (Abbing). It extends to collectors, dealers and benefactors donating cash and works through the back-channels of the art world.

Abbing again:

“The value system in the arts is two-faced and asymmetrical. Although in general the market is oriented towards money and profit, the arts cannot openly reveal this kind of orientation when they operate in the market. This approach would certainly harm artistic careers and therefore, long-term incomes as well. It specifically harms the profitable affiliation of the arts with the gift sphere, and is therefore punished by the art world. Thus, profit motives are not absent, they are merely veiled, and publicly the economic aspect of the arts is denied…. (the gift sphere)…emphasises selfless devotion to art and condemns the pursuit of monetary gain.

….In this respect, it is noteworthy that it is often commercial to be a-commercial. Expressing anti-market values can add to one’s success in the market. Artists, dealers, or editors who exhibits a lack of concern for money may well enhance their market value. This implies that the economic sphere and the gift sphere are related.”

I’ve simplified his argument for brevity somewhat, but having worked for a fine art removals firm (a big one – not MoMart, but the main rival), I met pretty much every big player that you could think of. Coupled with my own experience of trying to get gallerists interested in my own work, I can tell you that his assessment is pretty much spot on. In practice what actually happens is that the notion of gift-giving props up the most disfunctional set of relationships I’ve ever seen, from gallery owners playing the benevolent parent to the artists they represent, to all sorts of dubious tax-evading shenanigans, all passed over in the name of donations or gifts to the arts. Eric Berne would have had a field day. And don’t get me started on the 50% commission that a gallery dealer takes on every work sold (and no, that is not a typo, 50% is standard).

I appreciate that every industry has it’s fair share of disfunctional politics and people management, but I don’t think this is enshrined and legitimised as an internalised value to the extent that it is in the art world.

This gives the lie to the idea that the arts are somehow “liberated” – art is not an exciting alternative career that is somehow better than the drudgery of a “normal” (sic) rat-race job, it’s just different. Of course, many artists have no idea that this nonsense goes on, and the British art system singularly fails to educate its students that the gift economy exists, let alone that it’s a much abused notion. It’s mostly dismissed as irrelevant, or at least “something you can worry about when you get into the big wide world.”

However, it doesn’t end there. It kind of goes hand-in-hand with the idea that the artists is a “gifted” individual, and I’ll talk about this in the next part of the series.

in the meantime, I’d be interested to know whether anyone else has a take on this and whether it’s something that rings true, either from art professionals, or outside observers.

Another new painting: Oh God

Posted in art with tags , , , , on June 29, 2009 by artbizness

I finished another painting today.

It’s made again with Japanese endpapers, and with acrylic paint, spray paint, felt marker, varnish and dirt.

The figure is based on some random photos I took from the window of the bus, as I passed through Brixton on my way home. There was something about the way he was looking that seemed to work really well with defacing of the paper. The defacement could be graffiti, but it also fits with the whimsical marks of abstract expressionism (with a nod to Cy Twombly’s mark-making).

If there is a recurring theme in this series of paintings, it’s the contrasts along with the surprise of the incongruity of things.

The Myth of The Artist

Posted in art, books, general with tags , , , , , , on June 27, 2009 by artbizness

I’ve just finished an extraordinary book called “Why are Artists Poor” by Hans Abbing. It was recommended to me by my Twitter buddy Ivan Pope. Although I think the book has an awful title, it has been so enlightening for me and has lead to a series of “lightbulb moments” about my profession. So much so that I’m going to write a series of blog posts that I hope will be useful for both artists and art-audiences alike.

I’d go so far as to say that this book should be required reading on all arts courses (especially the UK degree courses), as it’s a real wake-up call containing many home truths that all wanna-be artists would do well to take heed of.

The book argues that the economy of the arts is an exceptional one, and that it systematically keeps artists (of all types – painters, musicians, writers, etc.) poor, and that it is a cruel economy with no one culprit, but a series of relationships and values that maintain the situation as it is.

Abbing suggests that central to this economy is a series of myths that are so universally internalised, that they aren’t even consciously acknowledged. Have a little think about them. Do they stack up? Are they really myths or truths? Do you find that you think about artists this way?

I’ll write later about which of these myths I think need debunking, and which I think are not actually myths but reality. Some of these are contradictory, all thought provoking, but for now, here they are. If you want to add your thoughts in the comments box below, I’ll happily engage in discussion with you.

1. Art is sacred
2. Through art, artists and consumers relate to a sacred world
3. Art is remote and superfluous.
4. Art is a gift.
5. Artists are gifted.
6. Art serves the general interest.
7. Art is good for people
8. Artists are autonomous; other professionals are not autonomous.
9. There is freedom of expression in the arts
10. The work of art is authentic, and the artist is the unique creator of it; in other professions such authenticity does not exist.
11. Creating authentic work gives one endless private satisfaction.
12. Artists are selflessly devoted to art.
13. Artists are only intrinsically motivated.
14. Money and commerce devalue art.
15. Artistic quality can only exist if it is independent of costs and demand.
16. Artists have to suffer.
17. Talent is natural or God-given.
18. Everybody has the same chance of being gifted or talented.
19. Certain talents in the arts only appear later in someone’s career.
20. Because extraordinary talent is rare, only a large pool of artists can provide society with a few extremely talented artists.
21. Success in the arts depends on talent and commitment exclusively.
22. The arts are free. The barriers that exist in other professions are absent in the arts.
23. Successful artists are often self-taught.
24. Given talent and commitment, equal chances exist in the arts; the best is victorious.
25. Because the best win, the arts are democratic and righteous.
26. The high incomes earned by some artists are fair.

Via Dolorosa

Posted in art, work-in-progress on June 15, 2009 by artbizness


I finished another work in the series of paintings I’ve been doing with Japanese endpapers today. Very pleased with it too.

The work is called “Via Dolorosa”, it’s acrylic paint and spray paint on board, and it’s 26cms x 34 cms x 5cms.

The figure is from a photo I took of one of the kids who play outside my window on the South London estate where I live. One day, one of their games took a particularly violent turn (more so than usual), and the lad in the photo fell badly on his wrist. I couldn’t tell if it was genuinely serious, or if he was playing it up to gain sympathy. Either way, he seemed to be ok after a while.

As an image though, I thought it was quite poignant, in that it could be about vulnerability, brutality, school memories, survival, and so on.
The image also works really well as a contrast with the leafy pattern, the soft focus – I don’t have much time for romanticised notions of either childhood or socio-economic dis-advantage, and art has a way of backing you into a corner and forcing you to think about such things. Especially when you’re making it yourself.

The flash from the camera has washed out some of the colour in the picture, so some of the detail is lost. If you come along to the show I’m exhibiting in next month, you’ll be able to see it a bit better in the flesh.