Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts

By Hans Abbing | Go to book overview
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Chapter 3
Economic Value Versus Aesthetic Value Is There Any Financial Reward for Quality?

Market Success Demonstrates Low Quality, But not if the Artist's own Work is Successful

When Alex goes to the local pub with his artist friends, a recurrent theme in
their conversations is the question of whether the prices of artworks reflect
their artistic quality. The other day the work of a colleague who has recently
become successful in the market was being discussed. They scolded him
for accepting such high prices for such dreadful paintings. (This particular
colleague frequents a different bar.) They are angry at the stupid art world,
which buys all this crap literally and figuratively. They question the existing
order, in what it does to sales and reputations, but mostly regarding its criti
cal judgment.

Alex and his colleagues can be expected to think this way. Within their
group, they have developed a specific notion about aesthetics. As artists, it
is essential to them to offer, through artistic means, critical commentaries
on society, including the market. Because people cannot be expected to
purchase painful commentary, society should furnish a sanctuary for art
outside the realm of the market. For them this is the raison d'être for subsi
dies. Thus, it's fairly obvious that their notions about aesthetics means that
art with a low market value has a high aesthetic value and vice versa.

Later on, that evening something strange happens. Alex's colleagues ask
him whether he has sold anything during his present exhibition. They con
gratulate Alex when he tells them he has sold several drawings. They say
he deserves it. One colleague says she thinks Alex's work has improved a
lot over the past two years. Alex suddenly realizes that they often berate the
market when it favors artists who are not their friends, and conversely, if
one of their own suddenly tastes success, they tend to attach almost too
much significance to it. The market suddenly goes from being something
coincidental to something righteous. And so they have to justify its right
eousness by concluding that Alex has worked hard and that his work has
improved. But Alex wonders: maybe his work did not improve at all. Is it
possible that his colleagues look at his work afresh because it is selling and
that they suddenly see qualities they did not see before?


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