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Faltering Over the Shape of the Art Economy

Getting ready for the presentation at Artist's Space. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Last night, I attended Feeling the Shape of the Arts Economy, a forum for discussion organized by Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) at Artists Space. It sounded interested and provocative and I enter the room to an interested buzz. There is an undertone of “we want justice” more subdued than Occupy Wall Street but equally doused with a not-to-be-dismissed attitude. Its an impressive turnout of about 120 people representing a diversity of artists interested in the plight, art professionals curious about Hans Abbing’s philosophy and young hopefuls wanting to gain insight into the inner workings of an alternative mind.

Artist and author Hans Abbing.

Hans Abbing is sweet and accessible and marginally professional. He flips through a bland Powerpoint that looks like it was created in the early 1990s, skipping over two thirds of its info and selecting what seem like random points to talk about.

He begins with a slide of his 2001 book Why are artists poor? and apologizes that he is so shamelessly promoting his book in an art forum, and highlights the dichotomy between the sciences, where self-promotion is apparently a norm, and art. I think to myself — have you been in the art world recently?

This leads on to a multitude of sweeping statements ranging from “because the value of art is high income is low” to “artists prefer work” to “most artists have second jobs.”

It becomes apparent that his analysis is based on a study conducted in the Netherlands. Historically, Holland has provided considerable support for its artists through state grants. This makes his conclusion appear Romanticized and unreal and I could poke a million holes in his analytical approach — the most burning of which is “What’s are his stats based on?” It feels like the elephant in room as we all sit patiently waiting for him to progress through an illogical dissection of what artists are in the economy.

I wonder how he determines what constitutes compensation? Who is defined as an artist? Abbing continues to tell us that artists are poor and not why, reaffirming what we know already. The lady next to me lets out a quiet snort and shakes her head in disdain as Abbing fumbles to find his watch to check on time after only 15 minutes.

In his defense he does make a handful of subversive observations that provide food for thought. He states:

  1. In art when income is low it is very low, but when it is high apparently it is unusually very high. He attributes this to the likes of Damien Hirst who has capitalized on the stardom phenomenon.
  2. He defines the “respect for art as beginning around 1800.” (“What about the Renaissance?” someone asks under their breathe.)
  3. And my personal favorite “Artists are often single.” This makes me wander if we are that dysfunctional that we can’t maintain relationships, or are we a bunch of players?
  4. And the most problematic “Artists are allowed to be poor and it is seen as acceptable. In fact “the Bohemian idea is a privilege.” Whereas I can understand how the image of an artist as poor has been sensationalized, is Abbing implying that being a poor artist is sexy?

Maybe this is why we are all single!

Thankfully, the conversation turns to economy. Abbing finally acknowledges that the complexity of art world economies makes it difficult to analyze it conclusively, and like all economies, some profit and some are exploited.

He also suggests that on the whole contemporary artists are poorer than traditional and modern artists. As yet the secondary market hasn’t entered his presentation and this seems to further confuse his analysis. Lastly, he contemplates over the idea of artist unions and a lady in the front row astutely suggests that artists are likely to become freelancers and contractors in conjunction with the grander economic trend. This seems to be the most logical conclusion surrounding what has been a largely tangential wage discussion.

AL Steiner, co-organizer of WAGE.

There is nothing more provocative than a civil rights question. We all get fired up. In fact, before the talk began I overheard the person sitting on my left explaining Abbing’s theoretical and economical analysis to his friend as ‘If you give poor people food they will breed, and if you give artists money there will be more artists.”

Abbing does mention that if artist’s wages increased, the effect would be a decrease in the value of art. He does not state why, and ironically this seems at odds with W.A.G.E’s recent proposal to collaborate with Artist Space to set a standard for artist’s pay.

I chat with AL Steiner, W.A.G.E.’s co-organizer, who confirms that the organization’s aim is to find a way to determine how, and when, artists should get paid for their work. It sounds like a daunting task to define this cohesively, but she is confident this will set a president for other art spaces to follow. Perhaps then artists may get paid a decent wage AND find ever-lasting love.

W.A.G.E.: Feeling the Shape of the Arts Economy” took place at Artists Space (38 Greene Street, Soho, Manhattan) on Monday, January 9 at 7pm.

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