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The Value of Art - Capitalism and a rant

I wasn't sure how to start this article until I read in The Guardian about The Royal Academy's Cruel Dilemma. This was a few months back and it haunted me. If the Academy were to sell Michaelangelo's Taddei Tondo, which has been with them since 1829, when they received it as a gift following Lady Margaret Beaumont's death, they could make as much as £100million and save 150 jobs. The sculpture's proper name is "The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John" and was sculpted by Michaelangelo during the early 16th century.

The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John Michaelangelo Taddei Tondo
Virgin and Child with the Infant St John by Michaelangelo

One would think it wasn't a dilemma so much as an obvious choice - sell the work of art, protect people's jobs. Especially in times of a pandemic, people are relying on job stability and being able to afford basic necessities, pay their bills, buy food... And yet, the idea has been met with resistance by their president, Rebecca Salter, executives and some academicians. The reluctance to part with such a historic piece, and Michaelangelo's only sculpture in the country, is understandable. But is it acceptable? Art over people's livelihoods?

Now, in this case, Michelangelo is dead and will never benefit from the sale. It isn't as if he depended on it to eat, or pay his bills. In present times, it is extremely hard to keep track of how many artists are trying to make a living out there, and not only who actually graduate from art school, but also the countless self-taught artists who realised they not only enjoyed art, but wanted to sell it too. Unfortunately, I can't find any worldwide statistics regarding art graduates who becomes working artists, and the one I found is for the United States in 2014, so it is 6 years old. The research was conducted by the BFAMFAPhD collective and they make arts, reports and advocate for cultural equity in the United States. Now, before I reveal the statistics, let's see what BFAMFAPhD considered an artist in their report:

We looked at people with bachelors degrees in music, drama and theater arts, film, video and photographic arts, art history and criticism, studio arts, and visual and performing arts, living in the United States in 2012.
We defined working artists as people whose primary earnings come from working as writers, authors, artists, actors, photographers, musicians, singers, producers, directors, performers, choreographers, dancers, and entertainers. (...) We understand that “working artists” are often identified by their level of commitment, and not remuneration

According to the report (<-- link opens a pdf document) they created in 2014, only 10% of the 2,000,000 art graduates become working artists. And of the 1,200,000 working artists, only 16% of those are art graduates, which creates a very damning picture for anyone considering an education in the arts if they which to become an artist. In addition to going to university, not only might they not follow their dream career, they will be inundated with a huge debt at the very start of their adult life. A data that would be very difficult to collect is how many of these artists have a second job to be able to support their dream and eventually, how many give up on becoming an artists because they can no longer pay their bills.

My main interest, however, is in the fine arts. And the more I immerse myself in it, the more I want to simply give away my art to the people who love it because it is meant to be an act of joy, not a commercial endeavor. On the other hand, we all have bills to pay and we need money to buy art materials, very expensive art materials. It's a fine balancing act. Yet the art world interprets art pricing as:

  • Clearly not good enough, if it's too cheap

  • It will not go up in value (for investors who buy a future known name), like branded art

  • Why so cheap?

  • Why so expensive?

  • Will it match my curtains/wall colour/furniture

  • Does it come in a different colour?

Sometimes I wonder if potential buyers ever ask themselves other questions. Questions that I usually find come from other artists, the people who actually understand you, which is probably why so many artists like to exchange artwork. Questions such as:

  • How does it make me feel?

  • Does it move me?

  • Does it make me think?

  • I understand the technique used and understand the complexity and difficulty to achieve a certain appearance.

  • How many hours did it take?

  • How many hours did you think about this piece, research the topic, build it up in your head, before committing it to the canvas?

  • Is it true that you leave a piece of your soul in each and every piece created?

Okay, you get the gist. And yes, I usually want to keep everything I paint because I leave a piece of my soul in every painting, but there's plenty to around, so don't worry, I will not end up a bitter soulless person. Buy away! Commission away!

Another thing that really bothers me are auctions. People who invest in art hoping it will be worth millions. Of course, it seems to be common knowledge that it's all a scam, for instance, an article in The New Republic has this quote which really put a finger on something that also bothers me:

Adam (as in Georgina Adam, a longtime editor at the Art Newspaper and contributor to the Financial Times) sees artworks often used as a vehicle to hide or launder money, and artists encouraged to churn out works in market-approved styles, bringing about a decline in quality.

Have you seen the amount of abstract art, or pouring art, all looking exactly the same, but done by thousand so people because (a) it's easy, (b) choose pleasing colours and it's basically colour porn, and (c) it sells well. A soulless piece of colourful art to match your decor. Perfect. Is it though? I have mentioned before, but do you really want art that's inconspicuous? That your eyes glide off without a second notice? Don't you want to spend money on something that excites you?

I finally bought Augustus John's Woman Smiling. She now hangs on the wall facing the stairs landing so that whenever I wake up and go down, I can high-five that splendidly cheeky woman and her secrets. Taste in art is, of course, subjective, but seriously, I hope you at least have taste and buy something more clever.

"Woman Smiling" by Augustus John (1908-09)
"Woman Smiling" by Augustus John (1908-09)


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