Art in a market economy


When Donald Horne declared in a speech delivered at a Sydney seminar on arts management in March 2003 that the arts are not an industry, this statement – heretical in the context and the current climate – sparked little or no published comment. I wonder why. Was Horne simply dismissed as an academic past his use-by date? I hope not, because his opinion is shared by a large number of arts practitioners, who generally feel powerless to assert it themselves.

The contrary view – that the arts are an industry – was mentioned as an aside (with the confident assumption of absolute truth) by Professor David Throsby at the Arts Summit in Adelaide in June 2003. He was howled down by the practitioners in the audience. Curiously, no rational argument is ever presented to justify this point of view (which is not, of course, exclusively Throsby’s); in spite of it being an aspect of what is laughingly known as ‘economic rationalism’. Throsby’s hurried (and somewhat embarrassed) justification was that art is carried on in an economic milieu – a totally specious argument since this applies to all life! So, motherhood is an industry? And religion?

Thanks to Peter Nicholson from the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson from the Australian

Well, these questions are not as ridiculous as they may sound. The Cultural Ministers Council recently established the Collections Council of Australia and designated it ‘the national peak body of the collections industry‘! This usage is intended to be honorific, of course. But, curiously, the term is gaining so much thoughtless popularity that it has begun to be used pejoratively: an editorial in The Australian of 29 March 2005 criticised the ‘refugee industry rent-a-crowd’ for harming the cause of the detainees in Baxter Camp.

That the arts are not an industry is a matter of cold logic, not just Horne’s personal opinion, however authoritative that may be. Industries exist solely for ‘the bottom line’: profit to owners or shareholders. Industries are only established after considerable research into whether their products will sell at a price high enough to pay expenses and yield that profit to shareholders. By far, the majority of these products are clones or variants of products that are already on sale in some form.

Nothing could be less reflective of how the arts operate. True artists create things for which there is no pre-existing market because the world does not yet – cannot yet – know about them. Art’s products are not made to satisfy an existing market except in the most general sense (such as the human need for portraiture, music and entertainment). Hence, the age-old practice of patronage – the funding of artists’ living expenses by far-sighted royalty, nobility, the church, corporations or states.

The motivation of the true artist is a self-generated imperative to create, not monetary reward. Vincent van Gogh, the paradigm case, painted dozens of pictures but never sold one. These same pictures are now worth millions of dollars each. This is not a function of art per se but of the art market.

Sometimes artists work in awe of the cosmos. Painter Lloyd Rees, accused by Michael Parkinson in a television interview of being ‘an incurable romantic’, replied that one could hardly be anything else, sitting, as they were, ‘in the middle of Eternity’. And Joan Miro’s reaction to those who thought art is about money was: ‘Merde!’

The only instance where there is a concurrence between the arts and industry is in the marketing of art’s products. While there cannot be an arts industry, there is an arts market. Its operatives are not painters, composers or poets, but art galleries, auctioneers, dealers, box-offices, producers, publishers, agents, recording companies etc. These operate by selling, on behalf of artists, their products. They operate in exactly the same way as any other marketing business, i.e. by selling product for profit and (if they are functioning well) promoting this product in the market. Apart from what it sells, the arts market has absolutely nothing to do with art per se.

Thus, ‘arts industry’ is a nonsense term and should be discontinued forthwith. In fact, no one term can adequately and validly cover both the creation and marketing of art’s products and do justice to both.

Recently, there have been government moves to train artists in the ‘business’ of art, i.e. how to market their own products. However, having to peddle your works takes valuable time away from production; even more relevantly, the mind-set required to sell being so different from that required to create, means that taking time out to sell work actually inhibits production. Truly a ‘catch-22’ situation.

But this did not prevent the 2002 Myer Report requesting the Australian Taxation Office to define for the sector ‘what constitutes carrying on an art business’. And the ATO responded accordingly. In January this year, it published a ruling entitled ‘Carrying on Business as a Professional Artist’, which defined ‘professional artist’ exclusively as one whose sole aim is to make a profit, and any artist who does not have this intention is not, by definition, ‘professional’! One would have thought that the ATO’s conferencing with arts representatives would have established beyond doubt that art is neither business nor industry. Instead, the current irrational and erroneous official orthodoxy prevailed.

As well, business is an even less appropriate paradigm for the arts than industry is: at least industry produces something; business produces nothing.

These facts deserve the serious consideration, and adoption, of all our arts writers, academics and administrators, as the tyranny of economic (ir)rationalism is increasingly shown to be the false religion it always was.

Donald Richardson’s Policy Paper, The ‘realpolitik’ of selling visual art can be read here

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