The Romantic Ethic of Capitalism and the High Value of Art

by Hans Abbing

There exists a relationship between low incomes of artists and the high symbolic value of art. At first the low incomes in the arts seem to contradict this high value: in spite of the high value of art the majority of artists are poor. But maybe it should be: because the symbolic value of art is high, artists are poor. If this is true, it implies that, if the symbolic value would go down, artists would become less poor.
I am talking of symbolic value. Nevertheless financial value both follows from it and contributes to it. This financial value can be very high. For instance, governments and foundations spend huge amounts on prestigious new museums and concert halls — think of the Louvre museum in Abu Dabi and the Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg. Also much public and private support is predominantly a sign of the high value of art. But the typical artist is poor.

(…) But, as noted, in people’s romantic imagery poverty in the arts is not necessarily a bad thing. Moreover, it is a good thing for those who benefit from the high respect for art. This applies to the art world elite. But also many poor artists believe that they benefit from the high respect. And if they do, there must be at least some benefit. The latter probably applies most to poor artists in the early stages of their career. But this type of benefit does not diminish suffering; sometimes it is the contrary.

“Notes on the Exploitation of Artists” presented at The Labour of the Multitude? The Political Economy Of Social Creativity organized by the Free/Slow University of Warsaw, 2011

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