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Arti$ts and the Market

Sunday, September 5, 2010

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.

The Renaissance Ideal

During the Middle Ages, artists were considered craftsmen who earned money through manual labor. Painters’ guilds were first founded in Italy late in the thirteenth century, and from there this practice spread throughout Europe. Sculptors and architects were also organized in guilds, along with masons and bricklayers. As the economic status of artists improved, some objected to guild supervision. In 1434, for example, Filippo Brunelleschi refused to pay his dues to the guild of building workers, and the guild’s officials had him thrown in prison. He was freed 11 days later, after the intervention of church authorities, and he returned to his work on the great dome of Florence’s cathedral. In spite of declining authority of guilds over artists, the widespread perception of artists as craftsmen who earned their keep by manual labor persisted. So, for example, Michelangelo’s biographer Ascanio Condivi reported that the master’s family regarded his choice to become an artist as shameful.1

The nexus between money and art remains perhaps the last taboo subject for many in the art world.

As artists increasingly asserted their freedom, a new model of the artist emerged. A key element of this was economic. As craftsmen, medieval artists had been paid like other manual laborers, at fixed rates per day. During the fifteenth century, artists began to challenge this practice. The archbishop of Florence noted in the mid-fifteenth century that “painters claim, more or less reasonably, to be paid for their art not only according to the amount of work involved, but rather according to the degree of their application and experience.” Margot and Rudolf Wittkower recently recognized the turning point marked by the spread of this claim during the course of the following century: “The time had come when great artists could ask and would receive star fees and were capable of amassing wealth undreamed of by fourteenth and fifteenth century masters.”2

With artists’ new economic status came a desire to improve their image with new behavior. In the early fifteenth century, the painter Cennino Cennini advised his peers that their conduct should reflect their newly elevated status: “Your life should always be regulated as if you were studying theology, philosophy or other sciences.” Cennini observed that the dignity of their position had implications for their motivations: “There are some who follow the arts from poverty and necessity . . . but those who pursue them from love of the art and noble-mindedness are to be commended above all others.” The Wittkowers noted that the idea that artists should work not for economic gain but for love of their profession became a well-established convention.3 In his treatise On Painting, written in 1435, Leon Battista Alberti told aspiring artists that painting “brings pleasure while you practice it, and praise, riches and endless fame when you have cultivated it well.” He encouraged them to pursue fame, but warned them against coveting riches: “You who strive to excel in painting, should cultivate above all the fame and reputation which you see the ancients attained, and in so doing it will be a good thing to remember that avarice has always been the enemy of renown and virtue.”4

Art scholars must overcome their distaste for economics, and become more sophisticated in examining how changes in art markets have influenced artists’ attitudes and behavior.

The principle that the price of an artist’s work would be determined by the artist’s skill rather than his time gave great artists enormous leverage, and many used this to advantage. So, for example, the Wittkowers observed that “Titian looked after his financial interests with skill, patience and tenacity . . . The image of the ‘typical’ artist unconcerned with the value of money most certainly did not fit him.” His behavior was not a secret: “His contemporaries took it for granted but posterity has often forgotten that he hardly ever used his brush except on commission. Works which bear the stamp of incontestably sincere emotional experience and unrivaled technical mastery were to him so many objects of trade, barter and bribe once they were ready to leave his studio.” Titian shrewdly used his art to advance his career: “Time and again we find Titian painting a portrait for no other reason than that the sitter’s influence might be advantageous to him.” Furthermore, “Titian’s cupidity is not at all exceptional”—a number of other Renaissance masters, including Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo, used their genius to accumulate substantial fortunes.5

Although many artists would be interested in, and motivated by, the prospect of financial gain, the convention that artists should not openly and publicly appear to be concerned with money became a legacy of the Renaissance. Notably, when the French government authorized the establishment of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1648, members of the academy were required to appear to be above commercial activity. The founding statutes included a rule forbidding any member from opening a gallery to sell his work, “Nor to do anything to permit the confounding of two such different things as a mercenary profession and the status of Academician.”6 Katy Siegel and Paul Mattick observed that of course these artists lived by selling their work, “But the higher social status embodied in the work of academic art was expressed by a theoretical disdain for monetary considerations; the fine artist, like the aristocrat who was his ideal customer, worked in theory not for money but for personal and national glory.”7

The Rise of the Market for Modern Art

In late nineteenth-century Paris, a change in art market institutions created a different attitude in some members of the art world toward prices. During the final quarter of the century, the patronage system in which the government dominated purchases of advanced art was progressively replaced by a competitive art market. The effective monopoly of the academy’s official Salon as the only venue for the legitimate presentation of new art to the public was undermined by the establishment, in 1874, of smaller artist-organized exhibitions.8

After 1874, the Salon would no longer determine whether an aspiring artist could have a successful professional career.

That year, a group of ambitious young artists were frustrated by the Salon’s conservative jury refusing to accept and exhibit their innovative works. In response, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and a group of their friends organized an independent exhibition that presented paintings by 29 artists, including Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, and Paul Cézanne. Although its initial impact was limited, and its full significance would not be recognized until considerably later, the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874 began a new era, in which the reputations of important advanced artists would no longer be created in the Salon, but in independent group exhibitions. After 1874, the Salon would no longer determine whether an aspiring artist could have a successful professional career; a larger and more diverse group of patrons would make this decision, in a more competitive market setting. New collectors, drawn from the ranks of the middle class, not only in Paris but also in America, would buy the innovative paintings of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, as collecting advanced art would no longer be the exclusive domain of the aristocracy.

The existence of an independent, competitive market for art prompted a change in critical attitudes toward prices. In 1878, for example, in Defense of the Impressionists, the critic Théodore Duret declared that “it is necessary that the public who laughs so loudly over the Impressionists should be even more astonished!—this painting sells.”9 Robert Jensen explained that Duret’s claim was an instance of a new strategy: “The challengers to the French Academy used market value to demonstrate how previously disfranchised artists (and that could mean almost anyone who was not a member of the Academy) were vindicated by later prices, consequently demonstrating their right of place in the pantheon of great artists.”10

During the Middle Ages, artists were considered craftsmen who earned money through manual labor.

In the twentieth century, the artists’ group exhibitions were eventually superseded by galleries of private dealers as the primary locus of the competitive market for new advanced art. The first important artist to rise to prominence by exhibiting in galleries rather than in group shows was Pablo Picasso. Early in his career, Picasso used his art to cultivate key figures in Paris’s art world, as he made portraits of the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire and of the collector Gertrude Stein. Yet he devoted more extensive efforts to portraying dealers, as he carefully cultivated central figures in the art market who could sell his work and spread his reputation with major exhibitions and publications. 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.11

Early in his career, Picasso told Kahnweiler, “I’d like to live like a poor man with a lot of money.”12 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.

Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol decisively broke with the hallowed tradition of five centuries that the artist should appear to be unconcerned with money. He was fascinated with money, he loved earning it, and he never attempted to hide this.

The idea that artists should work not for economic gain but for love of their profession became a well-established convention in the Renaissance.

Warhol created a revolution in modern art in 1962, when he began to use the mechanical technique of silk screening to make multiple photographic images on canvas. His most celebrated works with the technique in that year are the serial portraits of Marilyn Monroe that he made after hearing the news of her death in August. Interestingly, however, Warhol’s adoption of silk screening was prompted by a different motif. Early in 1962, he made a number of large drawings of paper money, in several denominations. His decision to repeat these images in grid compositions prompted him to try simple printing techniques. At the suggestion of his assistant, who was a commercial artist, Warhol took his drawings of dollar bills to a printing shop, which converted them into silk screens. As a result, Warhol’s paintings of dollar bills became the first works in which he used the silk screen technique that became his basic method of making paintings for the rest of his career.13 It was not an accident that Warhol engaged in making images of money. He often asked his friends for suggestions of motifs, and in his memoir of the 1960s he recalled that “finally one lady friend of mine asked me the right question: ‘Well, what do you love most?’ That’s how I started painting money.”14

In 1975, Warhol published THE Philosophy of Andy Warhol. As his friend and biographer David Bourdon observed, Warhol’s remarks in the book “are conspicuously devoid of any idealism concerning the making of art or its role in society and offer little evidence that he considered painting to be an honorable profession.”15 In a chapter titled “Art,” for example, Warhol asked, “Why do people think artists are special? It’s just another job.”16 Warhol was much more enthusiastic in discussing the relationship between art and business. In an often-quoted passage, he declared that “business art is the step that comes after Art . . . Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business—they’d say ‘Money is bad,’ and ‘Working is bad,’ but making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”17

A number of Renaissance masters, including Titian, Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo, used their genius to accumulate substantial fortunes.

With both his actions and words, Warhol blatantly and publicly violated both key elements of the Renaissance ideal that bound artists’ behavior for five centuries, as he not only flaunted his fascination with money and wealth, but also openly demeaned the dignity of his profession. The superficial, nakedly commercial persona he projected served to complement the garishly colored images, often derived from publicity photographs, of celebrities and consumer goods that appeared in his paintings. Indeed, Warhol not only created images for commercials, but registered with an agency to become a celebrity model and personally endorsed products.18 In these as in other aspects of his behavior, Warhol enlarged the range of attitudes that artists could present to the public, and that could be tailored to the particular forms of conceptual art they created.

After Warhol: Artists

No true successor to Warhol in the lineage of the artist as avowed materialist appeared until the rise of Jeff Koons in the late 1980s. Koons’s art, which included such consumer goods as vacuums and basketballs in display cases, and framed advertisements and posters, owes a great debt to pop art. Koons’s philosophy about the relationship between artistic success and the market was also made possible by the new model of the artist that Warhol had created.

Koons’s stated goal was “for art to have as much political impact as the entertainment industry, the film, the pop music and the advertising industries.” Accomplishing this required recognizing a change in the position of the artist: “At one time, artists had only to whisper into the ear of the King or Pope to have political effect. Now, they must whisper into the ears of millions of people.” This insight led to Koons’s desire “to communicate with as wide an audience as possible.”19

Early in his career, Pablo Picasso said, 'I’d like to live like a poor man with a lot of money.'

Koons has explained that his philosophy made him want his work to sell for the highest prices possible. “It’s not about greed. It’s about demanding to be taken seriously on a political stage. What I’m saying is that the seriousness with which a work is taken is interrelated to the value that it has.” For Koons, the market is consequently the most important voice in the art world: “The market is the greatest critic.”20 He believes that those in the art world who claim that their own judgments are superior to those of the market are merely trying “to conserve their little bit of power . . . What they’re really saying is that they’re not going to let the market dictate the situation.” In fact, however, Koons believes that the judgment of the market necessarily transcends that of individuals: “Of course the market represents the only true power because it absorbs all their ideas and a lot of other ideas besides.”21

Damien Hirst has made a fortune as a celebrity artist in a country he believes disapproves of successful artists: “I think in England especially, people are anti any kind of success really. You’re struggling and you cut your ear off; they like that kind of artist. Whereas if you’re making money . . . They’d rather you were working on a building site and painting in a garret somewhere. I’d say that’s a problem.” He has seen through the pretense, and recognizes that the art world has materialistic values: “I have proved it to myself that art is about life and the art world’s about money. And I’m the only one who . . . knows that. Everyone lies to themselves to make it seem like it’s the other way. But it isn’t.” He is not troubled by the fact that the market determines the value of art: “I’m one of the few people in the world who can say, ‘I know what everything is worth.’... Everything in the whole world is worth what anyone else is prepared to pay for it. And that’s it. Simple.”22

With both his actions and words, Andy Warhol blatantly and publicly violated both key elements of the Renaissance ideal that bound artists’ behavior for five centuries.

Interestingly, Hirst initially became widely known not for his art, but for his entrepreneurship. In 1988, Hirst, who was then an art student at Goldsmiths College, curated Freeze, a group exhibition, in an empty port authority building in London’s Docklands. Nearly all the exhibitors were fellow students at Goldsmiths College. Freeze is now regarded as the key event that led to recognizing a new art movement, the Young British Artists, of which Hirst is the acknowledged leader. Nearly all of Hirst’s subsequent activities have equally reflected his flair for entrepreneurship, as he has consistently attracted publicity. This publicity is often generated by economic considerations. Thus Julian Stallabrass observed, “Try to find one of the many popularizing articles about Damien Hirst . . . which does not mention money.”23 Hirst’s work, "For the Love of God," is an obvious case in point. Photographs of the sculpture, a platinum human skull covered with diamonds, have been featured in newspapers around the world. Also prominently featured in virtually every news story about the work is its price of £50 million—which has almost certainly become the most famous asking price in the history of art.24

The ability of Hirst’s materialist image to generate free publicity is probably unrivaled by that of any other artist, except perhaps the model’s inventor. A recent illustration is afforded by the reaction to the announcement that Hirst’s sculpture, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” would be displayed on loan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This prompted not only a news item in The New York Times, but remarkably also an editorial.25 The editors took direct aim at Hirst as a materialist, taunting that he “has gone from being an artist to being what you might call the manager of the hedge fund of Damien Hirst’s art.” They further declared that “no artist has managed the escalation of prices for his own work quite as brilliantly as Mr. Hirst.” If Warhol were still alive, it is likely that he would be proud of Hirst for successfully provoking such impressive free publicity, though also likely that Warhol would be at least a bit offended by the Times’ judgment that Hirst has surpassed him as a career manager.

After Warhol: Scholars and Critics

'Everything in the whole world is worth what anyone else is prepared to pay for it. And that’s it. Simple.'

Even in the post-Warhol era, many in the art world remain squeamish about the relationship between money and art. It is still not uncommon for critics and scholars to denounce prices as meaningless. For example, in 1978, Robert Hughes of Time Magazine declared that “the price of a work of art is an index of pure irrational desire.”26 In the same vein, Sotheby’s chief auctioneer considers the market “magical.”27 Sounding very much like a nineteenth-century French academician, in 2005, the dean of the Yale University School of Art declared, “We don’t consider [that] success in the marketplace has anything to do with being a successful artist.”28 Art markets appear to be a source of embarrassment for these sensitive aesthetes, and their discomfort appears to increase as prices rise.

Yet in recent decades some prominent members of the art world have taken a more positive view of the relationship between prices and artistic quality. In 1988, for example, Peter Schjeldahl, who would later become an art critic for The New Yorker, attended his first art auction. He was driven to this by the fact that the booming art market was “a bigger story than anything that might conceivably be happening in studios, galleries, or museums.” Although Schjeldahl was hardly overjoyed by the prominence of money in the art world, which he described as an “atrocious situation,” he had to concede that the relative prices produced by the session he witnessed at Christie’s were generally reasonable: “I must admit that the artistic judgment of current big bucks is better than the average among, say, critics.” He understood that this should not be surprising: “Like the prospect of being hanged, shelling out millions may concentrate the mind wonderfully.” He also recognized that high art prices could have a favorable impact on the future supply of art: “Moreover, I foresee as a sure, short-term bet the rise of ambitious artists intimately attuned to the psychic wave-lengths of major money. Some of these artists, of whom Jeff Koons is a harbinger, will be very good, and I will like them.”29 (Peter Schjeldahl, meet Damien Hirst.)

Even in the post-Warhol era, many in the art world remain squeamish about the relationship between money and art.

Long before Andy Warhol, Théodore Duret established the principle that prices provide evidence of artistic success. What is disappointing, however, is how poor the quality of the art world’s economic discourse remains even in the post-Warhol era. It continues to be fashionable among many critics and scholars to claim that art markets are irrational, and that prices have no value as indicators of artistic importance. These claims are both ignorant and foolish.30 Art scholars must overcome their distaste for economics, and become more sophisticated in examining how changes in art markets have influenced artists’ attitudes and behavior. If they don’t, they will continue to be unable to keep up with the artists.

David W. Galenson is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, academic director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, and a research associate for the National Bureau of Economic Research.

FURTHER READING: Roger Sandall discussed “Beauty, Art, and Darwin,” Roger Scruton explored “Soul Music” and “The High Cost of Ignoring Beauty.” Scruton also explores “Shocking the Bourgeoisie” with art, how some things are “Not for Sale,” and discoursed “On Defending Beauty.”


1. Margot and Rudolf Wittkower, Born Under Saturn (New York: New York Review of Books, 2007), pp. 9-11.

2. Ibid., pp. 24-26.

3. Ibid., pp. 14, 23.

4. Alberti, On Painting, p. 64.

5. Ibid., pp. 263,269-70.

6. Harrison and Cynthia White, Canvases and Careers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 13.

7. Katy Siegel and Paul Mattick, Art Works: Money (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004), p. 18.

8. David Galenson and Robert Jensen, “Careers and Canvases,” NBER Working Paper 9123 (2002).

9. Robert Jensen, Marketing Modernism in Fin-de-Siècle Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 18.

10. Ibid., pp. 18-19.

11. John Richardson, A Life of Picasso, Vol. 1 (New York: Random House, 1991), p. 201; Michael Fitzgerald, Making Modernism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), pp. 3, 19, 27, 34-36, 65, 83-84, 88; Roland Penrose, Picasso, third ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), p. 205.

12. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, My Galleries and Painters (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003), p. 91. Michael Fitzgerald reflected that “To most readers, this goal is probably not much of a secret, since many people follow the same dream - to be financially secure but unrestricted by social expectations. But it does appear to be a secret in regard to the history of avant-garde art, because of the widespread assumption that these artists’ rejection of established conventions (aesthetic and otherwise) must involve an opposition to the systems of consumption that generate wealth and fame in our culture;” Making Modernism, p. 4.

13. David Bourdon, Warhol (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989), pp. 104-08; Victor Bockris, Warhol (New York: Da Capo Press, 1997),p. 151.

14. Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol Sixties (Orlando: Harcourt, 1980), p. 22.

15. Bourdon, Warhol, p. 350.

16. Warhol, THE Philosophy of Andy Warhol, p. 178.

17. Ibid., p. 92.

18. Ibid., p. 398.

19. Jeff Koons, The Jeff Koons Handbook (New York: Rizzoli, 1992), pp. 33, 37, 12.

20. Anthony Haden-Guest, True Colors (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996), p. 151.

21. Karen Wright, ed., Writers on Artists (London: DK Publishing, 2001), pp. 47-48.

22. Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, On the Way to Work (New York: Universe Publishing, 2002), pp. 16, 63, 84.

23. Ibid., p. 81.

24. E.g. see Alan Riding, “Alas, Poor Art Market: A Multimillion-Dollar Head Case,” New York Times, (June 13, 2007).

25. “Dumping the Shark,” New York Times, July 20, 2007.

26. Robert Hughes, Nothing If Not Critical (New York: Penguin, 1990), p. 237.

27. David Leonhardt, “The Science of Pricing Great Works of Art,” New York Times (November 15, 2006).

28. Sandra Salmans, “The Fine Art of Yale,” New York Times, (April 24, 2005).

29. Peter Schjeldahl, The “7 Days” Art Columns, 1988-1990 (Great Barrington, Mass.: The Figures, 1990), pp. 88-93.

30. E.g. see Galenson, Artistic Capital, Chaps. 5-6.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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