Art and making money: The tale of the poor and suffering artist

Home » Art and making money: The tale of the poor and suffering artist
Willem de Kooning

Is an artist prone to suffer, at one time or the other? Is making art for art’s sake still a pertinent argument or has a lot less credit been given to ‘making money’ in the field of art? Santanu Borah pens his thoughts in this column for Abir Pothi

One of the foremost voices in abstract expressionist art, Willem de Kooning, had once famously said that the “trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time”. More wiser words were not spoken.

Money is a window to the material world, as it is meant to be. Often it is a gateway drug to the spiritual world as well, because to meditate or practice higher spiritual arts long enough, you have to have enough in the bank stashed away. Not everyone is a Buddha. Otherwise, you will be running behind making the rent or putting food on the table.

Willem de Kooning, whose ‘Excavation’ is one of my all-time favourite paintings, would use black and white enamel paints because he did not have enough money to buy better paints with expensive pigments in his early days, right before his first solo show in 1946. While he later did become wealthier as his legend grew, he started off as a poor artist, which has become a cliché today.

By Willem de Kooning

I have often heard in various conversations with artists that the age of the “suffering artist” is gone, and that an artist should not suffer like the van Goghs and de Koonings. They should know how to make enough to live a good or decent life (which is definitely a practical approach). That the suffering artist is now an anachronism.

I have been guilty of being hasty in declaring that the suffering artist is the thing of another time and has little relevance today. But when I look at it deeper, there seems to be holes in this view, just like most opinions. Let’s briefly analyse it:

The first criterion of the suffering artist is that he should be living and working in a higher degree of obscurity than artists who “do not believe” in the need for this “unnecessary” idea. Now, what is a higher degree of obscurity? I would say, somebody who does not have public presence, is not included in coteries or groups, is not suave enough to network or charm the art industry, is probably living in a little-known town or village with no outlet (or in a dingy cranny of a city), is not backed by inheritance, either of money or power or family influence, and would qualify as someone without any tangible privilege or is on the wrong side of the digital divide.

By Willem de Kooning

When I put these parameters to gauge artists who believe the suffering artist is just someone who is not hooked in with the times and is just not smart enough, almost hundred percent of the time the artists (or anyone) with this view seem to have it all: they are big city hawks, great at networking and working through coteries, come from privilege and good education, have relatively better amounts of money or inheritance or influence, and, often, have good jobs or business ventures, if they have not arrived in the world of white cube galleries or swanky art festivals.

In that sense, the suffering artist is not an extinct species. In fact, most artists still seem to be suffering despite adding value to a culture from an unknown realm. Which is why, I now am slow to clap when people say that the material life of the artist is universally changing. Her or his creative universe might have seen a paradigm shift, but whether she or he is getting to enjoy the same amount of protein and spirits like their smarter counterparts is up for debate.

Of course, I am not including artists here who are in self-imposed exile and do not wish to engage with the mainstream or anyone else, and are content doing what they do. Maybe, they are looking at death as the ultimate gallery. That is another story.

In any case, it is important to realise that whatever we say or believe in, it is also likely that the exact opposite is true. That’s just how art and the world seem to work.

By Willem de Kooning