EmbrACE Magazine

Kunst = Kapital


We really have to get over this elitist idea that demanding pay for art is taboo.

For centuries, the artistic genius, one fantastically plagued by an overflowing and endless amount of creativity, has been portrayed as a labourer unmoved by financial worries. On the other hand, the artist has been romantically fantasised as the poor painter engrossed in their artistic calling, while frantically working to make ends meet. But why such a polar representation of the artist? Either the artist is unaware of the finances needed to sustain an artistic living, or they are imagined as the starving artist who, nevertheless, refuses to give up their dreams.

Recently, I was discussing post-university plans with a friend who attends art school. When I asked her what she was planning on doing, she said “well, it all really depends on the money, you know?”. By this she meant that she could only really start building a career for herself as a fully-fledged painter if she was financially stable. This got me thinking about the no-go that is the turbulent affair between art and money.

As an art school alumni myself, my experience was that it was frowned upon to ever ask questions relating to career prospects, never mind even thinking that you could make money from something as “pure” as art-making. But in reality, this is absurd: avoiding telling soon-to-graduate students about how to make money as an artist seems backward. This optimistic idea that your love of art should be sufficient to sustain your career is false, even misleading. An artist needs a space and materials, which can amount to a hugely long list of expenses. Furthermore, we teach art students to be silent when it comes to valuing their own skill, leading many to work for free or miserable low pay.

Why should it be antithetical to the artistic practice to expect an exchange of payment for an art work? The art market is similar to any other labour market out there. An exchange is made between a producer and consumer, an exchange of a product for money in most cases. Andy Warhol was essentially the first visual artist to openly speak about money; now, artists such as Damien Hirst charge over $50 million for a single work of art, and David Hockney is predicted to surpass Jeff Koons’ record-breaking 2013 auction sale of $58.4 million by $21.6 million on November 16th this year (effectively making Hockey’s Portrait of an Artist the most expensive work ever sold by a living artist at $80 million). These crazy sums of money are openly acknowledged by Hirst and Koons, solidifying their presence in the art market, yet emerging artists are expected to keep quiet about rates and payments.

In 1979 the German artist Joseph Beuys wrote “Kunst = Kapital” (art = capital) on a banknote. While it is unnecessary to take such a radical approach as to quantify art into simply monetary value, we need to take more steps to open up the conversation about the relationship between art and money. By informing young artists and creatives about profit-making strategies and market positioning, we enable a new, knowledgeable generation of artists who can make calculated decisions in sustaining their artistic practice. Money does not have to be the be-all and end-all; in the end, art really isn’t only about money. But maintaining the ‘money talk’ as off-limits works to reproduce the stigma surrounding asking for compensation, something we would find reasonable in any other profession.