Of Art & Money


There is a dangerous phrase in the art world. It runs rampant amongst artists, and is idolized in liberal arts colleges. Its falsehoods permeate the very psyche of artists, art students and even professors. Perhaps you've even heard of it:

If you're starving, you're doing it wrong.

If you're starving, you're doing it wrong.

"The starving artist."

I hate that phrase. It has no business being in the art world — or any career field, really.
The expression is seemingly innocuous, but through my observations it subliminally cultivates a backwards culture in the art world. By backwards culture, I mean one that discourages an art career as a profession that not only pays the bills, but also allows the artist to financially thrive.

You see, in the art world there's this totem pole. The pole of social status amongst art circles is in relation to how little money you make. In the art world, making less money is virtuous. Make more money than you need to pay rent and survive on ramen and you're dubbed a sellout. Additionally, the less money you're likely to make with your art degree in school is directly proportionate to how popular you are. Crazy, huh? Anyways, here's the totem pole of artists:

On the top we've got the fine artists — painters and sculptors mostly. Especially oil painters and abstract sculptors — famous dead guys aside. The artists who succeed in getting NEA grants are especially high on the list and must do small gallery exhibitions only (or abstract earth/land art), have names that are only recognized in the art world. Any sort of fame they acquire outside the art world and they're immediately stricken down to the next level on the totem pole (we'll get to that momentarily). Their sole income must be from their exhibitions and any private commissions should be understated or kept "hush hush" — lest word gets out they're turning a profit. Also, they must live in small, hip, outrageously priced metro apartments and have weird food aversions (even through they technically should be "starving").  
Note: Their is a "recent art school graduate" equivalent to this. In order to be qualified for this level on the totem pole by their fellow art world peers, they're allowed to have a part-time job unrelated to their degree (such as working as a barista or other entry-level job) but must do gallery showings with art that is not considered mainstream. They may even choose to continue their art degree (anything involving women's studies or gender studies is preferred). So as long as they do gallery showings, show a liberal bias on social media and (optionally) receive grant money they're allowed to stay on the lower part of this tier of the art world totem pole.

Scrooge McSellout

Next up are the super famous artists. These guys are both pariahs and anomalies in the art world. Takashi Murakami. Damien Hurst. Ai Weiwei. Jeff Koons. Banksy. They are begrudgingly recognized by the art establishment due to their influence and recognition by the general populace. Basically, they couldn't be ignored. With this tier of the totem pole, what usually happens is these artists rose to the top at some point and then quickly rose in popularity. They're seen as "sellouts" in the art community because after all, there's no way you can be a "real" artist and successful too. Real art must be unpopular, complex or weird. Female artists get a break from this group, however — I guess you could say they're a hybrid between this tier and the tier above because no matter what they do, their art is considered "feminism" (i.e. Cindy Sherman). The reason why famous artists aren't at the very bottom of the totem pole is because of their influence in the art world. They can't be left out of art history books, can they?

The third tier of the totem pole consists of printmakers and photographers. Famous photographers would fall under tier two (i.e. Annie Liebovitz), but regular professional photographers (read: film) are in this group. Digital photographers are somewhat recognized, but because their work involves computers, that somehow detracts from the value of their art. Printmakers are in this category too because printmaking is the predecessor to graphic design and anything is better than graphic design (we'll get to that in a minute). Also, their work, like film, requires rituals, expensive equipment and intense labor. It isn't as valuable as oil on canvas however, because there is an efficiency to printmaking (making multiple prints of the same thing), versus the one-of-a-kind oil painting. Efficiency is evil in the art world, after all. Being inefficient is glorified.

This blog, in summary.

This blog, in summary.

The fourth tier consists of crafters and professional artists who actually make money and understand the business side of art. You can find these guys on Etsy, at your local arts festival or in Oprah Magazine. They usually sell prints of their art, have an Instagram or Twitter account and don't necessarily have a degree. Some of them may even have a blog or video tutorials. They're usually pretty talented, have an identifiable style and sell art that is pleasing to the eye. The reason they're one the second-to-last tier is because they make money and sell art that the general public finds appealing. The reason they're not dead last is because they use artists' tools and not computers like...

Graphic designers! These guys are dead last. Bottom rung. I've even had someone tell me graphic design isn't art at all — which was rather ironic because they couldn't really define what art was. Graphic designers are on the bottom rung because they make money, will have a steady (and potentially successful) career, took the practical route with their art degree and use computers for 99% of the time they're working. They're either despised or unacknowledged by artists and secretly envied by the "recent art school graduate" class because they can pay off their student debt.

This totem pole is an unfortunate thing because there is a shift in the art world. Galleries are losing traction and like the music industry, the arts are taking advantage of the internet. Artists, like musicians, are slowly starting to deal directly with their clients via the internet more, and galleries less. I can only hope that one day, the art establishment and educational institutions will catch up with this trend — for the sake of the future of the arts. In turn, perhaps one day the "starving artist" will be no more than an antiquated term and successful artists will be celebrated for not only their talents, but for their ability to understand their talents as a commodity.