Thursday, September 9, 2010

Artists and Money

The other day I came across a list of which modern artists' works were worth the most money. I don't recall every name, but the top of the list was Picasso and third on the list was Andy Warhol. Not surprisingly, both artists took very deliberate steps to increase their net worth, and David Galenson points this out in an excellent article called Arti$ts and the Market which appeared in The American on Sunday the 5th.

The article pulls back the veil as regards what artists are really like, if not all then certainly many. His article begins this way:

Many in the art world cling to the myth that financial gain does not motivate artists. This is not only bad economics, but bad art history.

In an era in which many previously forbidden subjects, including race, sex, religion, and drugs, have become favored themes for artists and critics, the nexus between money and art remains perhaps the last taboo subject for many in the art world. The origin of this prudish distaste lies six centuries in the past—the myth that artists work not for economic gain but solely for the love of art was one of the very foundations on which the image of the modern artist was created. The rise of a competitive market for art in the late nineteenth century began to bring the economics of art into the public domain, as some critics began to cite high prices as evidence of artists’ success. Yet it was not until the 1960s that an important artist successfully broke with the myth of the artist as ascetic, when Andy Warhol created a new image of the artist as avowed wealth-maximizer. Although Warhol’s model has now been emulated by a number of important contemporary artists, many in the art world still cling to the myth that financial gain does not motivate artists. This is not only bad economics, but bad art history. A brief historical overview of the relationship between artists and the market can lay bare the attitudes that have led to this curious fiction.

Galenson provides readers an overview of how artists once were artisans who formed guilds and how they evolved to the modern image of impoverished idealist who paints out of passion.

What I remember about Picasso is that he burned some of his paintings in order to stay warm through one particularly cold winter. He exemplified the poor artist who kept his ideals and made good. At least, that is how he appeared to me as a young art student. But here is what Galenson observes:

It is likely that no artist painted more portraits of dealers. During the early period in which he was establishing himself as a leading artist, Picasso painted the dealers Pedro Manach (1901), Clovis Sagot (1909), Ambroise Vollard (1910, 1915), Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1910), Wilhelm Uhde (1910), Léonce Rosenberg (1915), André Level (1918), Paul Rosenberg (1919), and Berthe Weill (1920). In 1918, he also painted portraits of the wife of Georges Wildenstein and of the wife and daughter of Paul Rosenberg.

Early in his career, Picasso told Kahnweiler, “I’d like to live like a poor man with a lot of money.” Yet Picasso was careful to keep private his considerable interest in the material rewards of art, and it did not become part of the colorful image that made him the epitome of the modern artist for a vast admiring public.

My recent Aha! moment with Warhol was that for him it was always about the money. It dawned on me that he wasn't kidding when he said that he could make 4000 masterpieces in one day, as opposed to Picasso's 4000 in a lifetime. If you visit major galleries and collections, you can find Warhol is everywhere. When I visited the Wynn collection in Las Vegas, the climax of the presentation was a Warhol piece of Mr. Wynn, which he was most delighted to talk about. Do you hear an echo here?

The rest of Galeson's well researched piece is worth your time, especially if you are a serious artist, and you can find it here.

In the meantime, if you know someone with a lot of money who desires an original portrait, well... faces are my current specialty and I'd be happy to oblige. Let's make some memories.

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