On the Link Between Money and Art
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 203, June 2017
We are gripped by the idea that art should be resistant to the pernicious and anti-cultural influence of money. We inherently mistrust the unholy union of art (and photography by ineluctable extension) and money but the reality is that art needs money like Gilbert needs George and we should welcome it with open arms.
Lets start with an ancient trope; that of the struggling artist. From pre-mercantile neanderthals who painted on their cave walls right up to today’s art school graduates, we ascribe virtue to the impoverished artist because to live and work in a reduced economic state speaks of a higher, almost religious ‘calling’. We sense that the artist without material comfort is dedicated to a higher plane and that their art is the singular medium by which they will achieve a dematerialised oneness with their creator.
Certain stories, on the face of it, have given meat to the myth; Van Gogh is often cited as an impoverished artist partly because some of his paintings nourished such notions and partly through the mythology of his life. His painting ‘Bedroom in Arles’ (1888) depicts the simplest of accommodations and underlines the link between the purity of spirit required to create artworks of genius and the purity of spirit from which these visions spring. However, here’s a quote from the website of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam;
“Van Gogh was not poor. From 1882, he received financial support from his brother Theo, who had been appointed manager of the Parisian branch of the Goupil art dealership.
In the first few years, he received an average of 100 to 150 francs a month. At the time, that was about 50 or 75 guilders, in any case a lot more than the 32 guilders a factory worker received back then to support a family of seven.
But there is no question that Van Gogh struggled and it could be argued that it is ‘the struggle’ that we have misplaced in our estimation of the ground upon which creativity occurs. Van Gogh was well known for the precariousness of his mental state (the link between mental health and art is one to be covered in a future edition of TP) – this was a real struggle, one that, arguably, produced some of the greatest work of the impressionist movement.
Van Gogh died on the 30th March 1890, unrecognised for his genius, a mere 47 months before the birth of a photographic genius who had a very different relationship with money. Jaques Henri Lartigue was born in France into privilege and wealth. It was not until late in life that he was recognised as the man who established that photography could do something that painting or other art forms could not – to freeze time. Lartigue spent a lot of time (and presumably money) attempting to exploit the speed at which a camera can record. Without money this photographer would not have been able to establish a new approach to photography that helped to ensure its recognition as the medium of the 20th century. Lartigue helped the foundation of an appreciation of photography as an art form bound by its own physical limitations and beholden to none other in defining its own dialectic.
Without money art can have meaning but without art money can have no meaning. The wealthy and powerful have understood the power of art for centuries. Much of the greatest work has been created under the patronage of rich men. Take Matisse’s 1909 paintings, ‘Dance’ and ‘Music’ for example. These two paintings were commissioned by the Russian collector Sergei Shchukin. ‘Dance’ is “a key point of (Matisse’s) career and in the development of modern painting” – and these painted for the scion of I.V. Shchukin and Sons Trading Company! Schukin understood that art gave his wealth meaning and so, as he had the means to consume great art, he gave the world another view of itself – a view that only money could buy.
Now to 1930’s America, Roy Stryker of the Information Division of the Farm Securities Administration (FSA) tasked eleven photographers with the job of “introducing America to Americans” by depicting the poverty, hardship and everyday life being lived by so many people in rural areas that were deemed uncultivable – the FSA being in charge of the resettlement of farmers from arid ‘dustbowl’ lands to more fertile regions. Among the photographers hired to document these people were Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange, Carl Mydans and Arthur Rothstein. These photographers were to roam the land freely documenting what they found and all this in the pay of the government. Here a well meaning government project turned into one of the great documentary photography projects of all time. So many great images were created as a result of the inspired collusion between a government department with a budget and some ambitious and talented photographers.
As the UK prepares to leave the European Union and the City of London ponders its long term future we are faced with a strange crisis – the potential loss of a great many bankers and those related to the finance industries. The debt owed by the UK to the richest .5% is shamefully unacknowledged. Money spent throughout the country on contemporary art is, on the one hand international and on the other home-grown, deriving as it does from the activities of the Square Mile. To lose many of these buyers of art will have a negative affect on the ability of people who wish to spend their lives making art. After all it was Oscar Wilde who said, “When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss Art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss Money.”
Art which is motivated only by money will be a pastiche of better work at best – there can be no substitute for the raw power of creation for its own sake. The fire created by money spent wisely on art lights many candles; a flickering legion of lights which illuminate, inspire and provoke.
Next month I will be discussing the neurological and philosophical question of whether a photograph brings people you know better to mind than a painting.