Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts

By Hans Abbing | Go to book overview

Preface

Why is the average income of artists low? Why do so many people still become artists despite the prospects of a low income? And why is it that the arts rely so heavily on gifts like subsidies and donations? Are these three phenomena related? Is it because most artists earn so little that the arts receive so many subsidies and donations? Or is the abundance of artists and their low incomes due to the fact that the arts receive donations and subsidies? Do artists who earn low incomes sacrifice themselves for their art, or are they being sacrificed by a system that pretends to support them?

In this book I will study the causes and consequences of the pervasive gift sphere in the arts, as well as low incomes and a large quantity of artists. I reject the argument that people do not care enough about art and that, consequently, an artist's income remains low and thus donors eventually get involved. (Regardless of one's definition of art, the expenditure on art products has never been large. Nevertheless, during the last decades, western nations expenditures on art have risen more than incomes. Thus, the notion of under-consumption is hard to maintain.) In order to explain the pervasive gift sphere, I examine the artists' motivations, attitudes in the art world, and the myths surrounding art. The argument I advance in this book is that the economy of the arts is exceptional. The impact of the mystique of the arts calls for a multidisciplinary approach. Therefore, I will employ insights taken from sociology and psychology. Nevertheless, my neoclassical background in economics will shine through throughout the course of the book.

As an artist I am immersed in the art world. When I look around me there is much that puzzles me. I know of artists who earn a lot of money and I have one or two colleagues who do relatively well. Other colleagues manage to survive, like I do, because they sell their work regularly, receive grants and subsidies, or they have interesting second jobs. Most of my colleagues, however, are poor. They hardly sell, have lousy second jobs, and yet they carry on. I don't understand why they just don't quit the profession.

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