Journal of Cultural Economics 28: 239—24 1, 2004. © 2004 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
Hans Abbing: 2002, Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 367 pp., ISBN 9-05356-565-5.
Over recent years there has been an ever-growing literature dealing with the economic problems of creative artists. What makes Hans Abbing’s book different is the fact that it is written by someone who is not only an economist but also a painter and photographer. Thus the book is informed not just by an understanding of the relevant economics, but also by an insider’s experience of what it is like actually to make art as a serious practising professional. The result is an intriguing concoction, where economic reasoning jostles with personal anecdote, and where objective analysis is mixed in roughly equal parts with passionate polemic.
Abbing asks two basic questions, reflected in the book’s title: Why is it that the arts economy can be described as “exceptional”? and Why are artists poor? His answers to these questions derive essentially from his views about the nature of art and about the characteristics of those who produce it. Art, he suggests, is sufficiently different from routine commodities in the economy to justify the “exceptional” label, and artists sufficiently different from other workers to explain the peculiar economic circumstances evident in the artistic labour force.
At the risk of oversimplification, Abbing’s argument can be summarised somewhat along the following lines. There is an apparent disjunction between the aesthetic value and the market value of art, leading to a “two-facedness” in the art economy: on the one hand the sacred nature of art presumes a denial, or at least an irrelevance, of money value, yet on the other hand trade in art is a necessity for economic survival. The picture is complicated by the fact that much of the valuation of art, whether aesthetic or economic or both, is socially conditioned, due importantly to the location of the arts as much in the gift economy as in the commercial market place. On the supply side, the compelling feature of artists as producers of art is their “work-preference” characteristic, deriving from their desire for the sorts of non-monetary rewards that only working as an artist can yield. Add to all this the fact that there is uncertainty and misinformation affecting artists’ career choices in a profession where there are few if any barriers to entry, and you have a long enough list of peculiar characteristics to warrant the “exceptional” description.
In looking at the consequences of this speciality, Abbing is primarily concerned with artists’ incomes. He notes that while some artists have extraordinarily high incomes—much higher than in other professions because of the superstar phenomenon—the majority of artistic practitioners are extremely poor. Despite this, there is no shortage of new entrants into the artistic professions, and the numbers of artists, or of people wanting to be artists, seem constantly to be rising. This is by no means a new conundrum, but Abbing’s explanation of it warrants our attention.
Even so, it has to be said that to a large extent he has succeeded in producing a work of very respectable scholarship—despite some long-windedness and an occasional tendency to resort to assertion rather than evidenc-based argument, the exposition is generally transparent and clearly expressed, the footnoting and keying to the literature is exceptionally thorough, and the coverage of the field is comprehensive. In the end, however, it is Hans Abbing’s engagement with the joys and frustrations of being a true artist that gives the book its unique flavour. It deserves a wide readership especially among economists, who might even feel a pang of envy for one of their colleagues who has had such evident reward from practising what the rest of us can mostly only preach.
Department of Economics, Macquarie University,
Sydney N.S. W, 2109 Australia.