Netherlands based economist and visual artist Hans Abbing argues that we should not strive for more individual subsidies for artists…….

In our society art, artworks and artists are put on a pedestal, while at the same time artists are poor, very poor. This appears to be a contradiction, but it is not.  As I explained in my book, the poverty of artists is the consequence of the high symbolic value of art.

The exceptional position of artists shows, among other things, in the exemptions we make for artists.  For instance, in many countries poor artists receive more public support than other poor people. Artists receive public support to ensure that in their work they can be as autonomous as possible, while other creative workers do not.  The present trend in Australia towards more individual subsidies for artists reinforces both types of exemptions with an emphasis on the latter, i.e. art and artists need autonomy and society must make this possible.

I think that such exemptions are bad for art and artists, and for society.  This is not to say, that temporarily giving people much freedom in their work is no good. Universities and other creative industries give their scientists and creative staff sabbaticals, often on a regular basis.  These institutions pay for the sabbaticals, because they know that during this period most workers will spend this time in a way which is also beneficial for them.  At the same time self employed creative workers organize and finance their own ‘sabbaticals’, that is, an occasional ‘free-wheeling’ or time for research.  Because they have sufficient commissions or sell enough, they can afford to do so.  Or sometimes they do research by occasionally accepting less well paid but interesting commissions or by making interesting work which sells less well.  As a matter of fact quite a few artists who manage to make a living from their artwork do the same.

However, when workers make a strong division between their official or commissioned work and their research or autonomous or free work — their ‘own work’— this usually does not lead to good results. (As always, there are exceptions).  The more so if, as in the case of artists, the preference for one’s own autonomous work follows from a strongly rooted art-for-art’s-sake ideology, which forbids the making of  ‘compromises’.  Such single mindedness seldom works well.  Nevertheless, wanting to maximize only one goal, that is being as autonomous as possible, is not only what artists want and sets them apart from other professionals, it is also what they are ‘supposed’ to do.  Society not only supports this attitude morally, but often also in a material way by giving artists financial support, which allows them to work as autonomously as possible.

There are many examples of artists whose creativity was stimulated by sometimes severe constraints.  But I think that it not so much constraints, but rather another mindset, which contributes to creativity.  That is a mindset in which there is an orientation on not only autonomy, but simultaneously also on others goals, like serving an audience, pleasing a commissioner, earning money, becoming well-known, criticising wrongs in society or promoting revolution.  A proof of my point is music.  Almost all major musical innovations, that is, renewal with real diffusion, of the last fifty years occurred in the area of popular music, most of all pop and dance music.  That is in areas in which autonomy matters, but seldom comes first.  In these areas there is also considerable research or ‘free-wheeling’, but it is usually self-financed by avant-gardes of young musicians who have a mindset in which there is space for a future career with other goals than just autonomy.

In the context of our topic it is interesting to see that at the moment the established music (and by the way, also visual art) world try to drag in avant-garde or ‘serious’ pop music and musicians and, in a manner of speaking, force their own exemption to be allowed and enabled by public money to be as autonomous as possible upon them. (For instance, some pop groups in Belgium now receive public subsidies.)  If such actions would become wide spread, this would certainly go at the cost of creativity and real innovation — but, no worry, the attempt is too late anyway.  What is most telling is, that evidently art worlds are by now doing everything possible to safeguard their exceptional position and to maintain the still high symbolic value of art.

But the ‘maximizing autonomy’ ethos of artists and the maintenance of official exemptions for artists, like individual public support for artists instead of (more) public commissions, are not in the interest of the average artist.  They contribute to the maintenance of the exceptional and high status of art and artists and this way promote the inflow of artists, who will mainly be poor, because there is little work for them.  This is not to say that the number of artists is necessarily too high.  On the contrary, I strongly believe that as soon as artists stop regarding (what they presently call) ‘making compromises’ as bad, but instead as exciting challenges which are fulfilling in themselves,  there will be plenty of work for artists next to that of other creative workers.  The arts would lose some of its mystery.  There is a loss, but the benefits exceed the costs.

Hans Abbing

Hans Abbing is an economist and visual artist. He is a professor emeritus in art sociology. He is best known for his book ‘Why are Artists Poor? The exceptional economy of the arts’ published by Amsterdam University Press 2002 (four reprints and translations in Japanese, Chinese and Korean). On other texts and artworks by Hans Abbing can be found.

Want to read related posts?  See Diane Ragsdale’s ‘Are arts groups creating too much of a good thing or not enough?  Can we answer the question?’ and Aleem Ali’s ‘Don’t get bitter – get better’

Photo:  ‘Straight from the heart’ by Microboy, Stock.xchng.