Archive for hans abbing

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.

Advertisements