“Perhaps contemporary art is an art to survive our contemporaneity as an artist.”
Since the early days of modernism, artists have faced a peculiar dilemma with regard to the economy surrounding their work. By breaking from older artistic formations such as medieval artisan guilds, bohemian artists of the nineteenth century distanced themselves from the vulgar sphere of day-to-day commerce in favor of an idealized conception of art and authorship. While on the one hand this allowed for a certain rejection of normative bourgeois life, it also required that artists entrust their livelihoods to middlemen—to private agents or state organizations. One result was that some of the most influential modernist artists, from Paul Gauguin to Mondrian and Rodchenko, died in abject poverty, not because their work was unpopular but because the economy produced by the circulation and distribution of their work was entirely controlled by others, whether under capitalist or communist regimes. While a concern with labor and fair compensation in the arts, exemplified by such recent initiatives as W.A.G.E. or earlier efforts such as the Art Workers Coalition, has been an important part of artistic discourse, so far it has focused primarily on public critique as a means to shame and reform institutions into developing a more fair system of compensation for “content providers.” It seems to me that we need to move beyond the critique of art institutions if we want to improve the relationship between artists and the economy surrounding their work.
Here I am not particularly interested in the power relations between artists and the art market, a cyclical conversation that seems to dominate much of art writing today. Historically, art and artists have existed both with and without a market. Important art was produced in socialist countries for most of the twentieth century, in the absence of an art market. Much of art production today occurs in places without a market for art, or in countries where a capitalist market system is not the dominant form of social and cultural organization. Art can clearly exist without a market, but artists fundamentally rely upon a certain economy in order to live and make art in the first place. Furthermore, it’s important to note that “economy” and “market” are not synonymous terms: a market is just one facet of the economic sphere, coexisting with many other forms of exchange, from barter, debt, and favors to a gift economy.
The term “political economy” is more or less synonymous with “economy” in our contemporary lexicon: both designate the distribution of goods and services under a certain political regime—be it capitalist, feudal, or communist—along with all the regulations, laws, and conventions governing such distribution. According to Aristotle, however, “economy” is the way to arrange things within a household (“oikos” means “house”), and “politics” is the way to arrange things between households—between “polites” or citizens, within the polis. So political economy combines both things. At some point in the late nineteenth century, the adjective “political” was dropped in English-language writing, and we ended up with simply “economy.” In one of the first studies of the economy of art—a book called Political Economy of Art published in 1857—the critic John Ruskin laments the confusion regarding the interpretation of the word “economy,” emphasizing that economy does not automatically imply money, frugality, or expenditures, but rather taking care of a household and managing labor. This would later becomes an important point in Hannah Arendt's analysis of work and labor in the Human Condition.
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