This week I attended a lecture by artist/sociologist/economist Hans Abbing on the hosted by W.A.G.E on the subject of "Why are Artists Poor." As far as I could tell I was one of the few people in the room Abbing didn't piss off. Ben Davis who asked Abbing about artists subsidies durring the Q&A, and may have been the only person there who had read Abbing's book wrote a piece for Artinfo. Perhaps because I've been preoccupied with the economics of being an artist all week I wrote a comment on the site that was longer than Davis' own post (shame on me), luckily my comment didn't seem to register on the site, but I did save it:

I didn't read Abbing's book, but I did listen to his lecture carefully, with an ear to the fact that he is an economist, and a European. Subsidies represent a very different portion of the pie in the Dutch art world - which I know you are aware of - so it is important to not that Abbing is not Friedrich Hayek. He was very quick to say that it was unfortunate that all Americans don't benefit from universal health care.

I think the title of Abbing's lecture was misleading. the subject he seemed to be addressing best was not WHY artists are poor, but why aren't artists like OTHER poor people. The story he told of the "greedy" dancer, was clearly intended to be an observation about artists vs other poor people.

Unlike the other (presumably also poor) men and women who pose for Abbing he has found that the dancers (artists) haggle for more money when they are unemployed (as dancers), but that when they are employed again (as dancers) no amount of money will keep them working as models. This is anecdotal evidence, but detailed economic data on artists is spotty at best.

The observation Abbing made - that like all "human beings" artists are logical but short sighted - reflected that Abbing was using a conventional model of Homo economicus, but he was also making the point that artist have different goals than other poor people. He went out of his way to say that "artists are what a Marxist might call less alienated" (I remember because he had that screwy Mike Myers Goldmember accent and he disfigured the word). That statistically we (artists) have the educational and family backgrounds simular to professionals, but that choosing to become (and remain) an artist defies the logic of a career choice.

Abbing said art does not seem to be (He had no data for this) a choice, but something that artists feel compelled to do despite the obvious economic downsides- that art is closer to a "vocation": something we are called to do. I got know sense that Abbing believed we were called by a transcendent force like God or not-Selfish-Genes, but instead by an accident of history - that in the wake of the Enlightenment, and under the shadow of the Industrial Revolution a peculiar set of ideas about the relationship between "Fine Art" (and Fine Artists) and commerce emerge. That the understanding of "Autonomy" that leads us to call art stores "galleries" and their shop keepers "gallerists" (I mean you Larry Gagosian) is a massive constellation of biases, assumptions, attitudes, and prejudices that artists benefit from (subsidies/patronage), but may also hold us back.

What I got from Abbing, was not that with more subsidies come more artists, but that no reasonable amount of subsidies will raise artists out of poverty because of the low value we (as a group) put on not being poor. Like you Ben, I don't see that as an indictment (Abbing may), As societies grow more affluent, I very much like the idea that more people self-identify as artists. Perhaps that means that the End of History is a bunch of happy, well educated poor people.
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