On Art and Money


The twin figures of the art impresario and the art star, performing for a large audience, have been with us since the eighteenth century. It was in Georgian times that dealers started to matter—emerging as people who exerted a real force on taste, as distinct from mere anti-quarians serving the existing taste of patrons. At the same time, English and American artists, envying the huge entrepreneurial success of men like Rubens, craving status, longing to be set free from the condition of mere craftsmen, began organizing themselves and their market: their instrument was the Royal Academy, led first by an Englishman, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and second by an American, Benjamin West. Today’s relationships between art and money wind back to the time of Burlington House, and the north and south poles of an artist’s attitude to the market were summed up in two eighteenth-century utterances. “Where any view of money exists,” wrote William Blake, Sir Joshua’s dogged but powerless enemy, “art cannot be carried on.” On the other side, Samuel Johnson was just as categorical. “No man but a blockhead,” he said, “ever wrote, except for money.”

We would do well to seek the truth somewhere between these two utterances, perhaps more on the Johnsonian than on the Blakean side. The fact is that art has always been carried on very nicely, thank you, where views of money exist. The idea that money, patronage, and trade automatically corrupt the wells of imagination is a pious fiction, believed by some utopian lefties and a few people of genius like Blake, but flatly contradicted by history itself. The work of Titian and Bernini, Piero della Francesca and Poussin, Reisener and Chippendale would not exist unless someone paid for them, and paid well. Picasso was a millionaire at forty and that didn’t harm him. On the other hand, some painters are millionaires at thirty and that can’t help them. Against the art starlet one sees waddling about like a Strasbourg goose, his ego distended to gross proportion by the obsequies of the market, one has to weigh the many artists who have been stifled by indifference and the collapse of confidence it brings. On the whole, money does artists much more good than harm. The idea that one benefits from cold water, crusts, and debt collectors is now almost extinct, like belief in the reformatory power of flogging.

So I will not rehearse the now-familiar neoconservative complaint about unnecessarily pampered American talents living the life of Riley on giant grants from the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. Anyone who knows the realities of American culture also knows that this is about as real as Ronald Reagan’s vision of the undeserving poor buying vodka with food stamps to carouse in their welfare Cadillacs. Of course the endowments waste money, since there is no known way of determining the cost-effectiveness of works of art; and some objects of their patronage are a minority taste, liked mainly by an elite. On the…

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