The Arts Economy

Started reading Hans Abbing’s Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts and it has raised some interesting issues. I have not gotten through the whole thing yet, so I cannot evaluate the strength of his argument but I wanted to bring up a few of its central concerns and discuss some of my initial thoughts.

The book looks at arts economies in continental Western Europe, Britain and the US and examines their idiosyncratic qualities with an eye towards attaining an understanding of why, though arts expenditures in each of these countries have increased, the incomes of artists have not proportionally followed. He seems to be arguing that this is due to a couple of factors:

  • the unique status/conception of the arts
  • the unique importance of the gift sphere in funding the arts

I picked up this book in part because I’ve been intrigued by the debate over government funding in the arts (vs. private gift giving at the large scale and on the more grass roots level (kickstarter)) and I was curious what Abbing had to say about that. But it has also raised some interesting points about how we define and classify the arts and the relationship between aesthetic currency and monetary currency.

He begins by examining what art is. He argues that the arts have a few qualities that make them unique and will shape their economies. These include:

  • The arts have a mystique, they are considered sacred.
  • For something to possess high aesthetic value it is typically remote and elite.
  • Aesthetic value is determined by a sort of average of the opinions of those who possess a great deal of cultural capital (critics, intellectuals, experts, artists). In other words, art is art because certain people say it is.
  • The arts must participate in the market economy, but they also set themselves up as ideologically opposed to the market economy (a necessary evil).
  • Artists are considered gifted, they possess a higher calling. It is a career that seems to trump monetary concerns (many artists must work second jobs).

These issues got me thinking about where theater lives within this artistic sphere. Is it an art? Who are the artists in the theater? Everyone? Or perhaps just the playwright or director? Are the builders, set painters, crew, etc, excluded? The actors (a source of considerable theoretical debate)? Is all theater art, or is it only just the more remote theater: pieces by Robert Wilson, or Peter Brook, or Complicite. What about Broadway theater? What about “downtown”? How do each of these arenas participate in the gift sphere? Could these arenas find a way to support themselves independently? Is commercial success linked to a diminished perception of aesthetic value? Is success in the gift arena linked to a heightened perception of aesthetic value?

The idea that the arts are set apart and considered elite or “scared” made me think of David Savran’s argument in A Queer Sort of Materialism: Recontextualizing the American Theatre that in the United States, theater holds a middlebrow cultural status. It is not as highbrow as opera, classical music or ballet and therefore receives considerably less funding from the gift sphere, yet it is not populist enough to bring in a great deal of income from its consumers (such as pop music). This middle ground status is responsible for some if it’s unique economic hardships and its precarious financial position.

Abbing’s arguments also got me thinking about the arts advocacy movement. I’ve discussed before the strategic emphasis of arts advocacy groups on the economic returns that come from supporting the arts as well as on arts education. I and others have questioned this emphasis—perhaps we are products of a common bias against the market when thinking about the arts. In the late 90s the ARTNOW movement attempted to stage a demonstration in Washington to protest cutbacks in NEA funding and present a different kind of arts advocacy (one that was art for arts sake rather than for its utilitarian effects). This demonstration was largely unsuccessful for a variety of reasons, but most interesting to me was their inability to form an alliance with other arts advocacy groups because they were questioning the dominant strategy. The elevation of the arts above the market is ideologically appealing to artists and intellectuals, but does not seem practical to arts advocates. Herein lies a fundamental paradox of the arts economy.  Abbing seems to be moving towards an argument that these paradoxes are what make it uniquely inhospitable to artists and their incomes. What are the solutions? Destruction of the capitalist market economy? Or a full embrace of the market (challenging our ideologies of what is art)? Neither seems particularly likely to happen.

Hopefully as I read I’ll be able to formulate some more structured thoughts for you, but wanted to share a few of my scattered initial ones.

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