The Myth of the Tortured Artist

Within the art world, it’s a profanity to mention earning money and making fine art in the same breath. It shouldn’t be.


No one blinked an eye when John Malkovich stooped to do Transformers 2. Jimi Hendrix’s reputation as a rock god hasn’t suffered for having been a session guitarist for The Isley Brothers. If your child opened a lemonade stand on the sidewalk you’d probably praise his enterprising spirit. So why is it so odious to some in the art world when an artist tries to make a little coin for himself?

Somehow visual art never divorced itself from its romantic attraction to the tortured genius, which has wound its way from Byron to Blake to Bacon—and into Bushwick. This genealogy has birthed a modern myth of artist-as-shaman, devoting his life selflessly to a singular vision, trading worldly compensation for the creative fugue.

And it happens that shaman do a far better job of securing the value of culturally sacred objects than yeomen craftspersons or trust-fund babies.

My friends and I have a term for art-worlders who believe fine art should be delivered from shamen and should be appreciated for, as the refrain goes, “its own sake.” They are evangelicals. And the evangelicals have been especially irked by the recent sale of a Francis Bacon triptych for an astounding $142 million.

According to New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, such sales “are painful to watch yet impossible to ignore and deeply alienating if you actually love art for its own sake.” When asked if he would ever buy a $140 million work of art, New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz was less measured:

“Auctions make me sick. I can’t stand them. They’re ruining the art world. They change the conversation from art to money, from quality to quantities, and now those quantities are mass quantities. Hey did you ever notice the word tities is in quantities?”

I didn’t get the bit about the “tities” either.

This reaction isn’t particular to the press, who we expect to maintain an elevated posture. Dealers speak about their stable of artists as if they were social workers: supporting and nurturing their artists, helping them realize their visions, providing the context they need to grow creatively. Even those who buy art invoke a higher morality. Mega-collector Mera Rubell admitted to “collecting for the right reasons” in Sarah Thornton’s book Seven Days in the Art World. “The right reasons,” you can be sure, don’t include “for money.”

True, Smith and Saltz are commenting on an especially egregious instance of commodification. Still, by categorically condemning the proximity of money to art they perpetuate the idea that money is in itself impure, inadvertently fueling a mythology that guarantees $140 million paintings.

Artists wanting a legitimate career know better than to speak of earning money and making fine art in the same breath. Most artists I know are liberal, anti-establishment types, but when the subject of money comes up they become Puritans, denying and repressing every urge to speak in business terms. But really, how impure is the desire to garner professional respect and reap enough cash to pay rent and keep making work? Robert De Niro, who has plenty of artistic legitimacy to spare, is currently starring in a movie called “Grudge Match” with Sylvester Stallone—Hollywood schlock designed to make money. But De Niro gets as many mulligans as he wants on the path to canonization. But if a heavily indebted recent MFA from RISD decided to go commercial, they’d be sent out of town backwards on a donkey.

A few weeks ago in a Bushwick bar frequented by artists a friend told me of an opportunity that had recently come her way. Explaining the details, she held her hand to the side of her mouth and spoke in a hushed manner, as if to prevent others hovering nearby from overhearing. A major home product company asked her to contribute paintings in a display of high-end housewares. The work requested was already complete, produced on her terms, so no intellectual or conceptual was required. The company would pay her well. And she needed the money. But she feared that if word got out she’d be seen as unchaste and thus thought twice about taken a perfectly honest paycheck.

Many in the high art world are unaware of the parallel universe of unrepresented, self-promoting artists that thrives outside its precincts. Tens-of-thousands of these unaffiliated hustlers market their original artwork at dozens of independent art expos around the country. Actress Jane Seymour is a fixture on the expo circuit. Buy one of her editioned prints and you can have a photo with her, which she’ll gladly autograph. It’s a marketing strategy that seems to work well; her booth is always packed. From 100 feet in the air, these expos look the same as those of the art world proper, yet to insiders, these expos with their peddler-artists might as well be gun and knife shows. “It’s commercial product pandering to buyers looking for decoration,” a gallery owner who didn’t want to be named told me. If any self-respecting artist rented a booth at one of these expos unironically, they would pay with their career. To be fair, the work at these fairs is generally decorative, sentimental, and derivative, but being associated with it shouldn’t automatically poison an artist’s reputation anymore than being from Kansas should designate someone as a backward creationist.

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It’s interesting to note that Francis Bacon—the artist whose triptych garnered $140 million dollars at Christie’s last month—has his entire rat’s nest of a studio preserved down to the last flattened paint tube and soiled Band Aid in a Dublin Museum. The tortured visionary’s den. And viewers love it. Unfortunately, it’s hardly representative. The typical contemporary artist studio is less eccentric, filled with tools-of-the-trade, bookshelves, glossy art magazines, and memo pads covered with to-do lists. Is there an enterprise other than serial killing where those who study it are so satisfied by the squalor and instability of its practitioners?

The truth is, most artists working in New York City in 2013 have as much professional education as the person who manages your 401K. They take multiple choice tests in schools accredited by teams of traveling bureaucrats with clipboards. They learn art history, theory, and how to present and write about their work. They aren’t visionaries, just creative people, making wonderfully physical--not metaphysical--things that should be admired, indeed purchased, by those who are moved by them.

For those who wish for objects and makers to be more pure, or more transcendent, they might consider joining a church.

The art world, so fiercely liberal and anti-fundamentalist, should do a better job of recognizing when it adopts the spirit and contradictions of the institutions they dismiss. If we want a progressive art world, we’d let the art fall to earth. We’d cease with the sorcery. As the critic Dave Hickey famously said, let art be “frivolous” enough to move us at a terrestrial level. We’d lose our shamen and our religion, perhaps, but art would be healthier. And paradoxically, the money that accumulates around a handful of sacred treasures would disperse more equitably among all the poor lay artists who need it most.

Shane McAdams is a Brooklyn-based writer and artist