Dollar signs and brushstrokes: money within the art world

Updated: Jul 6

Fundamentally, art should represent the abstract, the beautiful, and the unconceivable images the world contains within itself to its viewers. It should be an experience removed from worldly worry or contentment; it should be able to exist within itself and only for itself.

However, this is far from the truth. As with every good or service that we have in the 21st century, art is also subject to a monetary value, and therefore a concrete, cash equivalent.

Patronage of Art

As with any profession, being an artist has to provide for one’s life and expenses in order to be actually manageable. However, as any artist will tell you, painting a landscape or carving a statue out of marble cannot bring in an income without anyone to purchase these works.

In short, without a market to sell work to, artists cannot keep on creating art.

Presently, art is a commodity that can be enjoyed in museums, the homes of people who can afford to buy it, and really anywhere that has creative people who have a message or idea to express.

But what about before art became a status symbol and the ultrarich started scrambling to auction houses to show off their impeccable taste, or before museums were racing to develop the most exquisite collection? Who paid for artists then?

Well, one of the first patrons of art was the Medici House of Florence, Italy. This family is credited to have started the wave of Enlightenment that took Europe out of the Middle Age. Historians have called this period “the re-birth” or colloquially, The Renaissance, in which a humanist approach to philosophy, politics, and art was adopted.

Of course, you might be wondering, “How much money and influence does it take to start an entirely new era?” Well, the answer to that question alone would be substantial.

To give you a quick overview, the Medici Family produced four Popes of the Catholic Church and two queens of France. They also established the Medici Bank which was the largest bank in Europe during the 15th century. This political and economic power was initially derived from the textile trade guided by the wool guild of Florence.

As the influence of the family grew, so did their trade, and by the start of the 16th century at least half of Florence’s workers were employed by the family. This massive amount of money allowed the family to fund several artists and even scientists. Among them was Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Galileo Galilei. By just looking at these names, it is clear that the Medici Family have made a remarkable impact on art as we know it.

Without the patronage of this family, we would have been deprived of many of the works that are considered masterpieces, such as da Vinci’s The Last Supper and Michelangelo’s David.

It doesn’t stop here either, as the family also funded the construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica and Santa Maria del Flore. This treatment raised the status of the artists in the eyes of Florentine society, and this was to produce an environment where they had more freedom of expression, enabling them to produce many great artworks.

Conditioning Art

While the presence of money can help artists flourish and allow them to create works, the absence of it can prevent them from continuing their profession or stop them from becoming prolific artists.

In rare cases, artists may choose to value their art more than their own health, which may push them to allocate any money they have to supplies and neglect their own needs. This, however, shortens the lifespan of the artist, resulting in a waste of potential.

A paradigm of this case is Vincent Van Gogh, who died at the tender age of 37, and is now considered a creative genius. It might be surprising to hear that his contemporaries actually thought the opposite of this, naming him a “freak” and shunning him from the art scene. Had his talent been recognized, Van Gogh could have attracted patrons that would have supported his creative endeavors. This would have greatly increased his quality of life and the supplies he would be able to access, which would directly increase the number of artworks he could have produced from the already impressive number of 2100, which he did in over just a decade.

Unfortunately, this was not the case and Van Gogh died ill and mentally deranged, having sold only a single painting during his lifetime for 400 francs. Compared with the 100 million dollars The Starry Night is estimated to be worth, this price sounds ridiculously cheap and reflects how unrecognized Van Gogh’s value as an artist was.

The ignorance of patrons conditioned Van Gogh’s art to a certain time period and medium, and keeps conditioning modern-day artists into limiting their work, which effectively discourages them from expressing themselves. Furthermore, in the world of auctions and galleries, art has become increasingly commercialized.

This has caused the creation of demand for a specific type of art, one that can show the status of its owner. Doing so, the market becomes more and more concentrated on a handful of creators that will provide them with status and deprives new artists of a chance in making a name for themselves. The hyper focus of collectors on the “brands” of artists has conditioned the type and quality of art itself to a certain mold.


The availability or scarcity of money for an artist greatly impacts whether they will be able to continue their livelihood as an artist. With this taken into account, it can be stated that money itself is the primary agent in shaping the world of art. As such, the state of the art world–past and present–is a reflection of the free-market economy championed by capitalism.

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