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Art and money

Van Gogh iPhone

Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime, I’ve only ever sold one painting, therefore I’m as good as van Gogh.

Stupid logic, but it seems to be quite widespread. Hell, I haven’t even sold one painting so I must be even better than Van Gogh. It’s the dangerous Myth of the Starving Artist.

There are plenty of examples. Critics thought Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was the ravings of a lunatic. They thought Anna Karenina was just a load of words and Citizen Kane was bullshit. (Okay, I made those up. Beethoven’s 9th, Anna Karenina, and Citizen Kane actually all got rave reviews when they came out, in spite of our attraction to triumph-over-Philistines narratives.) This is the related Misunderstood Artist Fallacy:

Beethoven was misunderstood in his time, I’m misunderstood in my time, therefore I’m as good as Beethoven.

Except in this case the logical fallacy is taking place a step earlier, because the problem of most starving artists is not that they’re misunderstood in their time but that they’re actually only too well understood, as the mediocre egomaniacs that they are.

Because the truth is (trigger warning) that while capitalism is not a perfect system, money is still a pretty good indicator of value. And that is why – and this is the thing that I’ve never seen written before – good artists tend to make their money back. I’m not arguing for crass commercialism here, but I don’t need to appeal to crass commercialism to prove my point.

Take Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. It took Beethoven a while to write it, and someone had to pay for his time while he did it. It took a lot of musicians to perform it and didn’t get many performances on its first run, so the whole escapade probably lost money. But Beethoven’s 9th Symphony made a shit ton of money after his death, in record sales, subsequent live performances, licensing rights, and sheet music sales.

Same with Schubert. He never made much money while he was alive (although he actually made more than people think), but his work generated a ton of revenue after his death. If only he hadn’t died at 33.

People who subscribe to the Myth of the Starving Artist or Misunderstood Artist Fallacy should instead ask themselves this:

Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime, but one of his paintings sold for $100 million 100 years after his death. I’ve only sold one painting during my lifetime, but will one of my paintings sell for $100 million 100 years after my death?