The artist in the shadows: the political economy of an organised art market

An exploration of 'labour' in the artistic pursuit and the positioning of the artist in the business of art.

by Girinandini SinghPublished on : Nov 11, 2021

It sometimes seems a task to fathom the minefield of contradicting skill-sets that one need to learn to navigate through, when one considers the day-to-day of the contemporary artists. For artists of today and arguably for artists of historic times, it was never enough to simply create. Their work did not end with the making of art, rather they contended with maintaining the tempers of patrons, keeping up with the demands of at times thriving or at times dried up art markets depending on the period and place; there was social impact, aesthetic credibility and the maintenance of studios and their participation in guilds, just to mention a few of the organisational structures of the past. Today the artist has grown to become an industry in themselves, conceptualising, creating, marketing, researching, thinking, producing, managing sales and more. To be an artist is to be an entrepreneur. Yet, we still can't help but cling to the romantic notion of the artist disconnected from the petty day-to-day commerce of the market, the very market that imbues life into their craft and is a source of their livelihoods. What is it that makes us so much more willing to accept and oftentimes even celebrating this separation between the artist, their work and their market? Would we accept this from any other kind of entrepreneur? Would we expect a company to be disconnected by middlemen in the sales of their product?

Paul Gaugin died virtually penniless despite the popularity of his work due to the hierarchies of the art economy |STIRworld
Consumer desires for faster, streamlined delivery services have brought in giants such as Deliveroo, which is now operational in over 10 countries Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This pre-occupation with the positioning of the artist as part of the economy of the arts or as apart from it has been a historic conversation, continuing since the early days of modernism. When Bohemianism first came to the fore, it was as a response to a sort of ‘industrialisation’ of the artist. The artists tired of participating in artist guilds, tired of the commodification of their work and the almost factory like production scales, opted to distance themselves from the business of art. As much as this provided for a free space to focus on the act of creating over the act of selling and finding the marketability in one’s own work, also by extension reducing some of its aesthetic import, it introduced into the mix the middlemen. These middlemen were the people who would be entrusted with the livelihoods of the artists themselves – whether this be in the form of cultural organisations, agents, patrons or state organisations. It constructed a power hierarchy that separated or more likely created distance between the artists and the fruits of their labour.

The conversation around the fair compensation in the arts especially when weighed against the labour that goes into its creation has long been part of the artistic discourse. Many valiant efforts have been made towards the reformation and much of this criticism depends on appealing to the better judgement or shall I say ‘conscience’ of the capitalist systems of art and cultural organisations. It does force us to look at the ideas of ‘commodification’ in the arts. But perhaps it is not enough to simply critique the system, rather we need to re-examine the relationship between the artist and the economic model within which they work. Art can exist in the absence of a market, we only need to look towards the work coming out of socialist countries to understand that, but the market is essential to the survival of the artist and thus it is important to ask the question that can art exist in the absence of an economy?

Edvard Munch, Kristiania Bohemians | STIRworld
Edvard Munch, Kristiania Bohemians Image: Courtesy of Creative Commons

John Ruskin in his studies of the economy of art – Political Economy of Art – published in 1857, opined on the position of the artist as needing to be a position of innocence separate from the business of art. The business was best left in the dominion of the patron, who here ranges from the individual agent to the state organisation. According to Ruskin, the patron is on the top of the hierarchy, beholden to the responsibility of nurturing artistic talent, finding this talent and partaking in its training and skill development itself. The artist in this context is simplistically positioned as the labour compensated only for the actual time spent towards creating or producing the work. The problem with this division is the sense of agency that is taken away from the artist, and also the extent to which we understand the actual labour of art. Is it simply the time spent before a canvas or before clay or before a tablet? How does one measure the process of conceptualisation, the abstraction of research and perhaps, I would venture to say even the lived experience of the artist that plays a role in the creation of a work?

It is almost with a stubbornness that we seem to misconstrue the idea of ‘labour’ in art, at times underestimating it, simplifying it, or even misunderstanding it completely. It is virtually impossible to address the fare wage compensation in the arts till we don’t begin to broaden our ideas and definition of ‘labour’ in art.

Andy Warhol Museum, Warhol married the factory style production and bohemian spirit in post-modern art | STIRworld
Andy Warhol Museum, Warhol married the factory style production and bohemian spirit in post-modern art Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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