Have you ever wondered why art you think your toddler could make sells for millions of dollars?
If so, then this article is for you. In essence, there are two big reasons: historical context and money laundering. I’ll focus on the history here, specifically of what is known as Western art history, meaning Western Europe and the US.
Prior to the late 19th and 20th centuries, art and artistic expression had fairly defined limitations. Most working artists painted religious pieces for religious institutions because that was where the money was. Many were also employed by extremely wealthy patrons to create portraits or religious pieces that the patron could then donate to their local religious organization for clout, or keep in their private collection as a display of their wealth. There were many innovations, such as chiaroscuro and the introduction of perspective during the Renaissance, and many artists managed to insert personal touches into even the most uptight religious works. Some artists also depicted daily life. But the idea of what counted visually and thematically as art was still quite narrow until the latter half of the 19th century. Art was meant to be realistic and refined —brushstrokes could not be visible, subject matter had to be believable and support ideas that were widely accepted, and if an artist chose to depict something like peasants working in a field, it had best be a beautiful and romantic depiction in order to be seen as real art. Abstract art as we think of it today, as in, art in which no recognizable subject matter can be discerned, simply didn’t exist yet.
Édouard Manet was a pivotal figure in the shift to Impressionism in the 19th century, largely because his work focused more on contemporary modern life and what the society he lived in considered to be less “refined” subject matter. He was most definitely not an Impressionist (he would have been the first and the last to say so), but his brushwork was loose and sketchy compared to the norm at the time, and his paintings of performers, absinthe drinkers, and the homeless were highly unusual and even offensive to genteel society. From there, the figurative doors opened to many other new and young artists to experiment and play with the socially-approved definition of art in the latter decades of the 19th century and into the start of the 20th. Impressionists like Monet and Morisot, Post-Impressionists such as Seurat, and Fauvists like Matisse famously explored and pushed artistic boundaries in both subject matter (the underbelly of society, quiet home life) and technique (pointilism, expressive brushwork, using photos as references instead of live models, etc), while living unusual, “bohemian” lifestyles and consorting with people genteel society scorned (vaudeville dancers, sex workers, addicts, etc).
Further into the 20th century, with both World Wars causing not only thousands of deaths but thousands of cases of what we now know as PTSD and the slow death of the old ways of living (see the show Downton Abbey for a contemporary, fictional portrayal of an old way of life dying out in the wake of the Great War), many artists continued to experiment and invent. In the ’20s there were the Dadaists, who advocated pure absurdity and meaninglessness through abstraction and art made from found objects, like The Fountain by Marcel Duchamp. There were the darkly satirical and critical works of German Expressionists after the horrors experienced in WWI. We remember Salvador Dalí and the Surrealists, as well as Frida Kahlo who was not a Surrealist but depicted the strange and painful circumstances of her life in beautiful imagery largely inspired by her cultural heritage. Pablo Picasso was a child prodigy when it came to painting, but by the time he was an adult he was bored of making normal art and helped to invent Cubism with Georges Braque and the financial support of Gertrude Stein. Around the mid-century and only a couple decades after the Harlem Renaissance, many Black artists, particularly in the American South, were creating abstract works out of found objects and readily accessible materials that were meant to represent their ways of life, civil rights struggles, and trauma inherited from centuries of slavery. Before Abstract Expressionists like Rothko and Pollock became the poster children for abstract art in the mid-20th century, artists of all kinds were already experimenting with historically unprecedented subject matter, innovative techniques, and unusual materials in order to explore and express fundamental truths about human existence, from the inane to the macabre to the unjust.
If you look at Abstract Expressionism in the context of modern art history, you can see that the progression was natural and inevitable. And if you wonder why pieces by these artists continue to sell for so much, it is in large part because of this historical context (the artists being dead and no longer able to make any more work helps too). Most art does not exist without context of some kind, whether it is historical or personal to the artist. In many cases it is both, and it is a large reason why Death of the Author is difficult if not impossible to maintain in our current era, though of course there are many different opinions on this latter issue. For Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and their contemporaries, they were simply taking the next step, creating art that was purely abstract but made with intention. I can’t speak for the abstract artists of today, but Rothko’s color fields and Pollock’s paint splatters were not accidental. They were remarkable not only because nothing quite like them had been done before, but because the artists experimented over and over to perfect their techniques and translate their visions and ideas into art (it also helped that they were men, white, and connected enough socially to have their work shown in galleries and museums in their lifetimes).
Nowadays the art market seems flooded with contemporary abstract artists and it’s harder to ascertain the historical context and therefore the value of their work. Working artists of today are hustling in an oversaturated market. Art follows trends like anything else, and these days especially, much of it is about appealing to the broadest possible market and/or the lowest common denominator. People with money want art that expresses their wealth or that boosts their social value. People without money or with less money either can’t afford to think about art or they want art that speaks to them and fits within their budget. These are broad generalizations but they speak to the wealth disparity in the art world and the effect that has on current working artists, especially those who are still young and haven’t yet had time to build a following large enough that they can support a comfortable lifestyle for themselves. All of this is on top of the overall devaluing of art, where few people understand or appreciate the value of art and its purpose in nearly every facet of life and try to lowball artists for their time by promising “exposure” instead of money.
In short, when it comes to abstract art in particular, its appeal and value come either from its historical context or purely from the preferences of the person viewing it and potentially buying it. If you just don’t like it, that’s fine! Art is subjective and that is basically the whole point. But understanding how it came to be and what it means in context can often shift what we consider to be “good” or “bad” art as much or more than the art by itself. This is what makes art as a whole so wonderful. It has become so much more accessible than it ever used to be for people of all ages and backgrounds, in large part because our definition and understanding of art has expanded far past what people only a hundred years ago would have accepted or even believed was possible. Your toddler can scribble and splash paint and make art that, without any context, might seem no different visually than the pieces that sell for millions of dollars, but they would not have been able to do so if it weren’t for artists in the past who did it first, and did it with intention and care. Without the abstract art movements of the 20th century, it is possible if not likely that parents of today wouldn’t even think to give their children crayons and tempera paint to play with.
Now, I did mention money laundering at the top of this article. This other article provides much more information and context, but to sum up — because of the subjective nature of art, determining the monetary value of it can be tricky, even with historical context adding value; this means that laundering money through the sale of art at auction or in private sales is a pretty plausible and likely scheme. So if you have ever heard of a piece of abstract art that was sold for a sum of money that is greater than you ever expect to make in your lifetime, and you can’t fathom how anyone could possibly spend that kind of money, even on a historically rich piece like a Rothko, it could very well be laundered money!
- Art is life.
- Pay artists what they’re worth.
- Look for art everywhere and you will find it.
- Frame your children’s art.