Updated: Apr 20, 2020
In the post World War II art world, so much is built around abstraction and doing things different, providing an experience that has not been seen before. People were deciding to be different than the masters of the previous eras, doing new things and applying new ideas to art and suddenly it was profitable. Art was no longer built around the functional purposes that it had previously held, it was just nice imagery and there was a market for that. There still is a market for that, that’s what the art market is, and much like any industry what’s made and what sells is decided by the market. But I think, in a lot of ways, that’s forgotten when we’re talking about the masters of old artistic eras. Just a heads up, I’m about to insinuate that the artists you were taught are great geniuses might not have been.
The market is a scary term, especially in art, because when someone hears it they realize they have to appease it. The market is like some higher being that controls what is good and what is bad, dictating value on everything and it’s been like that forever. Like FOREVER. But for some reason, we always seem to ignore that when we look at the great master works of the past. We revere artists like Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Bernini, and so many others as these great artistic minds but in their times they weren’t really that. The Celebrity status and reverence of artists is a very modern idea and the artists previously mentioned were more so just workers in their time. Art was treated like a trade, if kids showed promise then they were sent to live with another artist as an apprentice, learning technical skills and honing their craft. And what did they create? They created what was profitable. That’s why so much classical art is built around religion and higher society, because those are the two groups who could pay for art. Much like the best bricklayer is recruited to build the kings home, the best portrait painter was brought in to paint his portrait. That’s why so many classical artists also dabbled in multiple mediums, like sculpture and painting, or in architecture because they weren’t just making things to be shown in galleries and flex their artistic muscles, they were trying to build the nicest possible things for the richest possible people. Why? Money.
It sucks to say that art is dictated by a market because there’s a lot of “good” art out there that isn’t selling or being shown, but since it’s not being sold or shown the market can dictate it as not good. That’s why I titled this little essay what I did, because I bet there were people back in the day painting colored squares, or abstract whatevers but if there were no galleries to show it in, the church wasn’t buying it because it didn’t display their message, and rich people weren’t buying it because it didn’t directly show how awesome they were it was worthless. Artists have always been victims of the market and while a lot of past artists might have been great minds, they might not have been doing what they wanted or what they were passionate about, they were artisans doing what they were contracted to do.
Now, I’m not writing this to discourage anyone from making their work because it isn’t selling. That’s the beauty of modern art, there’s a market for anything and everything if the right people stumble upon it. I’m just saying sometimes what sells is what’s made, the old guy with a small shop at the beach selling paintings of the beach is making a hell of a lot more money than a lot of abstractionists trying to paint with the brushes in their ears or whatever. Not that brushes in the ears person is doing anything wrong, but they’ve got to find the right niche to show or sell their work. Landscape paintings guy is always going to sell work because people are always going to want that cliche, simple stuff to slap on the wall of their house because they get it. Hey that landscape guy might not even be all that passionate about his work, and creates totally wacky stuff on the side, but until someone finds that, the landscapes sell and pay the bills.
It’s really something to ponder as an artist, how the work we deem as genius is often just the work that sold. Master painters from classical eras were trained artisans more than creatives and that old painting and frame shop might be making more money than your gallery career. It’s a shitty thought, but sometimes what sells is whats good, fortunately we’re in an era where there’s a lot of different markets for different types of art but it might take one hell of a long time to find yours, so how will you get by? Maybe that’s why we’re taught so many mediums and tools within them, so that we can adapt and shift our craft to what works when we have to so that we can survive.