Updated: Jun 14, 2021
By Freek Wallagh
As Art Basel and UBS today reported, 2019 was a disastrous year for the international art market. All throughout New York one could hear the whining and wailing of a befuddled upper class. The reason for collectors and sellers’ privileged tears? A shrinkage of 5% in total value: leaving them with a meagre $64.1 billion in overall sales.
Indeed, the art market is now one of billions and billionaires. Collectors, curators and speculators are making fortunes in this new, global marketspace. Prices paid for individual pieces are higher than ever, and seemingly every month record prices are shattered. Sure, Picasso might have been a millionaire by the end of his life, but his fortune pales in comparison to those of successful sellers today.
The creative elite is more powerful and wealthy than ever before, yet they still paddle us with the same old ideotype: the worship of the “starving artist”. With unjust working conditions and rampant levels of financial despair still plaguing the artistic communities, one can’t help but wonder: why are we still idealising poverty?
As economist Hans Abbing put forward in his book “Why are artists poor?”, the unjust art market is dependent on a couple of deeply founded myths within the industry. In this respect, this microcosm within in the economy can be seen to operate according to the same laws as society at large. The base of the art industry, with all its relations of production, is in a mutually influencing relationship with the superstructure: the sum total of myths and cultural norms that have acquired dominance in the field. This base and superstructure are mutually reinforcing, and the extreme economical discrepancies within the industry cannot be tackled while ignoring the underlying set of beliefs that dictate them.
After all, as discussed before, the artistic world is certainly not one of scarcity. With its glitz and glamour, royal galas and extravagant sums of money, it often feels reminiscent of an F. Scott Fitzgerald trope.
Ironically, a normalisation of poverty is required to support this frippery. This is because the justification of this perverse discrepancy in standard of living ought to be twofold. On the one hand, those at the top should be able to justify their own obscene level of wealth (estimates of “street” artist Banksy’s net worth range from 50 to a whopping 60 million dollars). In a society long dictated by the idiosyncrasies of the morally corrupt neo-lib economy, this is not a hard thing to do. The challenge however, is in justifying the dangerous levels of rampant poverty that allow this accumulation of wealth. This is where the myth of the “suffering artist” comes in to play. ‘Cause let there be no ambiguity: the starving artist is a capitalist scam.
Like the car salesman telling you the rattle and rust of the engine are signs of “character”, so have devious minds with billions in their pockets been able to persuade you that starvation is a virtue.
Pointing to masterminds like Van Gogh and Schubert, their message is clear: your poverty and despair is all the creative potential you have.
However, we artists are often willing recipients of this message. Like opioid pacifiers, the thought of being in the same boat as the greats of yesteryear offers us great comfort. Sure, we might not be able to pay our rent this month, but at least we are filled with just as much righteous creativity as them!
This is of course not only an irrelevant exegesis of our own poverty; it is also a positively masochistic approach, hurting our communities. Since we are not only accepting economic despair as a prerequisite for pursuing an artistic profession, but also the various societal illnesses that come with this. Ask around in artistic communities close to you: a sure-fire way to get your heart broken is to inquire how many comrades they’ve lost due to addiction, mental illness and suicide. All of which have complex, but clear, relations to poverty and financial despair.
The final leg on which the justification of the starving artist rests is the idea that (financial) suffering feeds creativity and inspiration. While the many examples to the contrary alone should be enough to persuade you otherwise, research also suggests inspiration comes from our environment and prior experiences (Marsh et al: 1999). Having the lion’s share of artists suffer throughout their professional careers, this inadvertently leads to a monoculture in their output. Similar experiences, similar qualms, similar results. Moreover, a lot of creative potential is lost in the mere practise of surviving day to day: meagre jobs with ridiculous hours, all in order to sustain your creative exploits, drain valuable time that could have otherwise gone to the creation of beauty.
So what’s the socialist alternative to this capitalist atrocity? This industry should share the values we uphold to other facets of the economy: worker security, economic justice and the celebration of radical thought. To supply us with an art market that lives up to these standards, we should transform the industry into a public system of the arts.
Artists, regardless of status or stylistic approach, ought to be able to rely on public funding to survive. Their works of art, whether it be poetry, sculpting or theatre, should be put to use in the aestheticisation of the public space. Beauty as a common value and societal benefit; not a disposable commodity or plaything for the rich and powerful. This would not just provide the wordsmiths and artisans with a base level of respect and economic security, it would enrich society as whole. Art as a public good would not only revitalise and ameliorate our often hideous urban centres, but also enrich the cultural lives of the working- and middle classes. All the while, a newfound independence from bourgeois doctrine would allow our artists to fully explore their creative potential, and tap into a new vein of truly radical, transformative art.
For this to happen we should not only aim to tackle the economic circumstances within our industry. Base and superstructure are caught in a mutually reinforcing tradition, benefiting those at the very top. As the brilliant Robert Hughes put forth over thirty years ago: “The idea that one benefits from cold water, crusts, and debt collectors is now almost extinct, like belief in the reformatory power of flogging”. Now, with the knowledge of today can we state he might have been overoptimistic on the matter. Therefore we should be adamant in attacking the morally corrupt belief system that dictates the prerequisites of artistic aspirations. To dismantle the norms and doctrines of creative suffering. And to once and for all bury the idea that poverty is an artistic virtue. The starving artist is a capitalist scam, and it’s withholding from us a world of beauty.
My name is Freek Wallagh, and I’m an Amsterdam-based poet, cultural organiser and activist. My work is mostly concerned with urban life, artistic communities and contemporary mythology. I try to find connections between age-old tales and issues of today, celebrating those who make our cities worth-while.