Money & Art Can, and Do, Touch

Alyson Stanfield posted this quote on her blog for her readers to respond to. Once I started writing about what I thought of it (and other readers’ responses), I found I had a lot to say – far more than would be appropriate to post as a comment. This is my full critique.

First, I have read this paragraph over and over again today, and though I consider myself to be fairly intelligent and well-educated, I’m still not sure I understand what Mr. Hickey is trying to say (you’d think a genius could speak more plainly – “comparable levels of cultural generalization”? what does that mean?). Yet I find myself having a very strong reaction against what I think he’s saying. So, here’s my stab at a critique despite my residual confusion.

For the most part, this excerpt seems to be an exploration of how art and money can (and mostly can’t) influence each other. It’s possible to interpret what he’s saying as, “Look, a lot of value is perception. This stuff can be pretty arbitrary, so don’t conclude too much from what happens with art in the marketplace.” And I agree with that.

But I don’t agree with his assertion that “neither piece of paper is worth anything” – that no matter which universe you are in, money or art, it’s all perception, all faith. That none of it is, well, real.

Every artwork embodies qualities that are independent of the artist or the perception of an individual viewer – otherwise, what is it that acts on the viewer to form that perception? How would any work ever transcend time or culture? Those qualities are real, do not exist separate from the artifact, and have intrinsic value. ONE of an artwork’s many qualities is its value as a commodity that can be traded for money.

Yes, a printed bill or a signed check or credit card receipt is a symbol, a representation (the “in god we trust” part). And what a dollar will buy you in the current economy fluctuates. But money nevertheless has intrinsic value as a system for the efficient exchange of goods and services. As a means, money is real. It’s not the only system nor a perfect one, but it is admittedly useful – and it’s the primary one we have. Money is a necessary tool and resource in contemporary society.

In suggesting that “Money does nothing to art but facilitate its dissemination,” Hickey minimizes the tangible and significant results of commerce. He makes it sound like being able to buy a bowl of Wheaties is no big thing, but it is! How can you work if you are hungry! Setting aside what your patrons get out of the deal, wouldn’t you and your work benefit in very real ways from – well, I’ll say the dirty word nobody’s willing to – sales? How you choose to be influenced by money is up to you. But unless you really believe you need to suffer to make good art, I think most would agree that it is easier to focus in the studio when you aren’t worried about paying the bills, and that your work improves when you have a supportive audience.

I make something I love. Someone who loves it too buys it from me. She receives whatever joy she finds in the work in exchange for her support and appreciation in the form of payment (which she likely also takes pleasure in giving). I receive the means to feed and shelter myself in exchange for providing some happiness through sharing my work (both of which I know I take pleasure in). That all feels very real to me. That’s not just perception. That’s a very meaningful and essential human exchange. The parts and the whole are genuinely worth something. And none of that meaning or connection can come about without the art and the money touching.

My impression is that Hickey is attempting to make sense of the uncomfortable and conflicting feelings we have about the intersection of art and money. We’re supposed to be above wanting it, but we need it to survive. We are afraid of not having enough, angry that we don’t have more, frustrated that our culture doesn’t offer greater financial reward for what we do, yet wisely resistant to measure our work (or our self-worth) according to its price in the marketplace. (I could go on and I’m sure you could add more, too).

Money is a very emotional issue.

I find myself wondering: is this truly a deep thought or a just a rationalization? The author’s stance on this subject is so philosophical, so intellectual, and so abstract (he is a theorist and critic after all), so devoid of emotion, of heart or spirit – that I wonder if the only way he has been able to reconcile his conflicting feelings is by reducing art and money to perception, and placing them so far apart as to be in different universes – and thereby distancing himself from the whole messy struggle. It’s a very hygienic conclusion.

Art and money never touch? If only it were so simple, tidy and pure. He never says that money is “bad,” but I think the appeal of his conclusion comes from what we fear money will do to our art when they do touch (i.e., will it be contaminated?). If they exist in separate universes, then we don’t have to worry about that (whew!). Except that it isn’t true.

In my day-to-day life, money and art exist in the same universe and touch all the time. Whatever discomfort or conflict I may feel about that, to deny that reality with an intellectual rationalization such as this one is not a practical solution to that internal, often emotional, struggle with earning a living as an artist.

Personally, I’ve found that continually chipping away at my limiting beliefs about the business of art (those are mere perceptions), and striving to develop a healthy relationship with money in general, is what has eased that struggle and allowed art and money to touch in positive ways in my life.

I’ve found the writings of Molly Gordon and Mark Silver on this subject to be especially helpful and highly recommend them.

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2 Responses to “Money & Art Can, and Do, Touch”


  1. 1 Mary February 11, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    I love that you took the time to write this thoughtful reply. I think when it is said both money and art are really just a piece of paper it is intrinsically true and we shouldn’t get our artist backs up against the wall about it. The value of each is what we ourselves give them. If you gave a dollar bill or even a million dollar bill (if there were such a thing) to a person in a culture where pottery was most valued and used as the rate of exchange they would wonder what you were doing and what you were hoping for in exchange. They wouldn’t understand the value you were giving it, your value would be meaningless to them. Art is like that for some people. They don’t get it. They don’t like it. They don’t respect it. I don’t know. I’ve been an artist my whole life and I respect not only fine, wonderful art but all the little brave attempts new art students make. I may or may not give one more or less value than the other because lately I seem to respect and value the courage and willingness to go out on a limb and express oneself more than the actual manifestation. Maybe we all just need to relax more and not worry about who values what. Do we value what we are doing? That should be our litmus test, not what anyone else thinks. Society has never really understood or valued art or artists. It can’t. Society is all about the masses and “the masses,” by virtue of its very definition is all about a common denominator, which if you remember your math, is always low…..As an artist I think we should worry less and enjoy our work more. ;-) Thanks for writing your post and caring about your work so much!

  2. 2 Cairene February 13, 2008 at 11:40 am

    Thanks, Mary, for reading my much-too-long treatise and for taking the time to comment in return :)

    I agree, we definitely need to make a certain peace with how subjective the value of art can be, not get too precious about our own work, and even cultivate a sense of humor about it all. It just is what it is and it’s important to not let it interfere with working or make us cynical.

    That said, I have to admit “it’s just a piece of paper” remains a statement I can easily let yank my chain ;P

    In the case of the Hickey quotation, what bothered me more than his assertion that it’s all perception (ultimately, an unanswerable question), is the way he used that idea to separate art from money. The myths about earning a living as an artist are so persistent and pernicious – and I see his artificial separation of the two as a perpetuation of some of those falsehoods. For me, it does nothing to undo the confusion and pain they cause – at least in ways that help me succeed in the business of art. Although, for other artists, I could see how his statement could go a long way in demystifying the power of money over their work and liberate their mindset in a positive way.

    Perception or not, right or wrong, our culture has assigned a great deal of meaning to money (making everything into a story is what we do as humans, we can’t help ourselves). Disapproval and rejection can often come in the form of “Sorry, but that’s not important enough to pay for.” So when our work is deemed of lesser (or no) monetary value, it hurts. From my perspective, this is where I think it’s easy to lose sight of the point: it shouldn’t matter, it shouldn’t hurt, but it does. We shouldn’t worry about it, but we do. And why not? This is our chosen livelihood. And our role in and connection to society matters. Even when we don’t have such a high opinion of the masses – we need an audience. What’s a gift without anyone to give it to?

    So, rather than finding ways to deny that hurt and worry, I prefer to look for ways to heal it – which involves much more than simply finding ways to earn more in the marketplace, than persuading people to buy. It involves staying engaged and continually questioning our assumptions about art and money and business and society – and bringing all our creativity to the process of that myth busting.


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