Art, money, and labor

There are few modern relationships as fraught as the one between art and money. Are they mortal enemies, secret lovers or perfect soul mates? Is the bond between them a source of pride or shame, a marriage of convenience or something tawdrier?

As the New York Times reports, “The way we habitually think and talk about these matters betrays a deep and venerable ambivalence. On one hand, art is imagined to exist in a realm of value that lies beyond and beneath mere economic considerations. The old phrase “starving artist” gesturesimgres toward an image that is both romantic and pathetic, of a person too pure, and also just too impractical, to make it in the world. When that person ceases to starve, he or she can always be labeled a sellout. You’re not supposed to be in it for the money.

“On the other hand, money is now an important measure — maybe the supreme measure — of artistic accomplishment. Box office grosses have long since become part of the everyday language of cinephilia, as moviegoers absorb the conventional wisdom, once confined mainly to accountants and trade papers, about which movies are breaking out, breaking even or falling short. Multimillion-dollar sales of paintings by hot new or revered old artists are front-page news. To be a mainstream rapper is to have sold a lot of recordings on which you boast about how much money you have made selling your recordings.

“In the popular imagination, artists tend to exist either at the pinnacle of fame and luxury or in the depths of penury and obscurity — rarely in the middle, where most of the rest of us toil and dream. They are subject to admiration, envy, resentment and contempt, but it is odd how seldom their efforts are understood as work. Yes, it’s taken for granted that creating is hard, but also that it’s somehow fundamentally unserious. Schoolchildren may be encouraged (at least rhetorically) to pursue their passions and cultivate their talents, but as they grow up, they are warned away from artistic careers. This attitude, always an annoyance, is becoming a danger to the health of creativity itself. It may seem strange to say so, since we live at a time of cultural abundance and flowering amateurism, when the tools of creativity seem to be available to anyone with a laptop. But the elevation of the amateur over the professional trivializes artistic accomplishment and helps to undermine the already precarious living standards that artists have been able to enjoy.

“Making a living is nothing,” the novelist and critic Elizabeth Hardwick wrote in an essay titled “Grub Street: New York,” first published more than 50 years ago in the inaugural issue of The New York Review of Books. “The great difficulty is making a point, making a difference — with words.” She might just as well have said with images, sounds or the movement of bodies; words just happened to be her chosen medium. And her words in this case still stand as a concise, slightly scolding credo for the creative class. Nobody cares how you pay your rent. Your job is to show us something we didn’t know we needed to see.But it is, nonetheless, a job. The risk in separating the labor of making points and differences from its worldly reward lies in losing sight of the fact that it is labor, and therefore has a value that is material as well as abstract. In March, the National Endowment for the Arts released a report estimating that more than two million American workers identified themselves as artists, and noted that they had, since 2008, undergone the same bumpy, piecemeal recovery as other workers. An earlier report, from 2011, calculated that “the production of arts and cultural goods and services contributed $504.4 billion to the U.S. economy,” or 3.25 percent of gross domestic product. It may be relevant to note that the single largest category of artistic endeavor was advertising — a sign, perhaps, that the distinction between art and commerce is finally moot — but the upshot is that what artists do represents a significant quantifiable share of the nation’s wealth.

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