This, I absorbed from “The Mirror and the Palette” by Jennifer Higgie: there was no past in the history of humanity that can be glorified for the separation between art and the market.
“The Mirror and the Palette” is a book about female self-portraiture. And I thought about the inevitable symbiosis between art and the market when the author mentioned the Dutch artist Judith Leyster.
I got this pronunciation for her name from an article titled, “How to Pronounce the Names of Some Dutch Painting Masters.” I hope I’m saying it correctly.
In the book, well before Judith Leyster is mentioned by name, Jennifer Higgie talks about how difficult it is to attribute a painting to the correct artist. Wars happen. Mishandling happens. And sometimes, everyone does their job and destroys nothing, and yet through the simple passing of time, the roots and sources of artwork get… blurry.
Considering this tendency toward art being separated from the artist, what Judith Leyster did was genius. She had a distinctive monogram. It was J, followed by an l, with a little star next to it. “Jl*.”
Isn’t this so wonderful? Isn’t it great that an artist made her pride in her work perfectly clear by branding it for the market?
Yes. I think Judith Leyster had the market in mind. This seems to be an early example of branding, not only for the sake of putting a name tag on something, but specifically for the market, for others to see and recognize.
Why was it that other artists didn’t always do something similar? There could be many reasons.
First of all, many markets back then might have been so personal, so person-to-person, that a written, visible brand wasn’t needed unless you were particularly ambitious—say, if you were someone who dreamed of having their work be known on the opposite side of the continent. Otherwise, you might have known everyone involved in your particular local market. You knew the baker, the butcher, the seamstress, and so on. And they knew you. So, a separate brand that is distinguishable from your face might not have been necessary, in most cases.
Another explanation is that maybe, not signing a work might have been interpreted as humility.
Whatever the reason is, our current inability to connect past works to all their creators is sad.
And taking these examples from the past, I look at the present. In some modern circles, there seems to be the misconception that before the capitalist domination of society, or before globalization, or before the arrival of electricity and widely-available technology—basically, before everything that characterizes the modern world—there used to be an idyllic dream period in which artists could make art, free from the market, and therefore didn’t need to do any branding or marketing or sales or any such thing.
I believe this is just that: a misconception.
Before the aforementioned elements of modernity appeared, the biggest market in the Western world was the Church. It was what bought art. If the Church-dominated times seemed to preclude branding, marketing, and sales, then it was because it controlled the market to such an extent that such efforts were futile.
If the local bishop didn’t like you, then what were you gonna do? I would guess, pretty much nothing. Maybe you could move to a different neighborhood and hope that the clergy there approves of your art. But there are only so many buildings that need stained glass art and ceiling paintings.
In some parts of the world, there were patrons of the art, like the Medicis. But even in those cases, what looks like the absence of a market isn’t actually so. The Medicis were the market.
It is noteworthy that Judith Leyster lived in a time that was beginning to look very different. She was born in 1609 and lived until 1660. She lived in the Dutch Golden Age. Per Wikipedia, this is “a period in the history of the Netherlands, roughly spanning the era from 1588 … to 1672 …, in which Dutch trade, science, and art and the Dutch military were among the most acclaimed in Europe.”
This was the era of the Dutch Empire, of spices, sugar, and other kinds of imports from faraway lands. All kinds of art flourished. For example, there were things called “chambers of rhetoric.” These were, quote, “associations at a city level that fostered literary activities, like poetry, drama and discussions, often through contests. Cities took pride in their associations and promoted them.”
This was a time and place of more movement. More technology, more different languages, and most importantly, more buying power for the masses. And this buying power not only entailed monetary wealth, but a wealth of more free time, compared to the previous centuries.
Even though this was still a time-place where women weren’t allowed to freely partake in the economy, Judith Leyster found herself around… basically… traffic. Traffic, like never before.
And so, when the market becomes diversified, more sellers come in. The market expands. Geography ceases to limit transactions as much as it used to.
So what do the sellers do, including the artists?
Push this trend over several centuries, and we get what we have now: the global market economy. It’s the result of a continuation of a trend that has been going on for a long time. The market has always existed. Since the days of the cave people, humans must have traded in some form. They must have bartered.
The idea that in the idyllic past, there used to be a time when artists were free from the market, is unfounded. In fact, I see the present market economy as more freeing than the earlier iterations. I would die in a market driven by the Church. I think I might have literally gotten sick, like, get rashes from all the stress or something, and then die miserably.
Same with a market driven by the likes of Medicis. I mean, would you make art solely for Mark Zuckerberg? There’s nothing wrong with selling art to Mark as well as other people, but would you really want to put your livelihood in the hands of Mark?
Even with all the reliance on Big Tech today, artists have so many more options today. You don’t have to use Big Tech. There are very few things that we—living in the parts of the world with affordable internet and electricity and drinking water—have to do now, these days, whether we’re artists or not. Nobody’s going to excommunicate us from the community for religious reasons. If someone does that, then fuck them. Move somewhere else. And if some millionaire tries to force us into only selling art to them, exclusively? Then they’re delusional.
Although, I guess technically, that could happen. Say, if the choice is between starving and selling art exclusively to a millionaire, I think it isn’t entirely impossible to choose the latter.
But overall? The market is freer than three hundred years ago. And all the things that we associate with the modern world didn’t suddenly conjure up the necessity for branding and the market, in art or in other fields. It’s just that the market is bigger. There are more sellers and more buyers. So, more people pay attention to the market.
The biggest difference between the olden times and now is, in my opinion, the comparative transparency of the market. Many market processes can be witnessed by pretty much the entire world, with numbers attached.
Instagram accounts with their follower statistics.
Youtube channels with their subscriber count.
The annual reports of publicly traded companies.
But these things don’t mean that the market is something unique to the 20th or 21st century. Market functions might have intensified and multiplied, but the market wasn’t born in the modern times. And art didn’t exist in a vacuum before the modern times.
There was no past in the history of humanity that can be glorified for the separation between art and the market.
Besides, what is there to glorify if art and the market were to be separate? Perhaps relying too much on monetary compensation might spoil something, but that’s the same in any given field.
But is money bad? Is wealth bad? Is any sort of… exchangeable, neutral form of value bad? I say neutral, because money, and wealth in general, does not discriminate. It’s not the money that’s doing the discrimination. Maybe the owner of the money is discriminating, but money?
A dollar bill does not know who owns it. A dollar bill simply tends to be attracted by other dollar bills. And a hundred dollar bill is attracted to other hundred dollar bills.
The current market has problems. But I don’t think that an aversion to wealth itself is a solution. I personally don’t see how I can survive without money to buy things.
And I do not idealize the past, where everyone knew everyone. It actually sounds like a nightmare scenario to me, that, if the local priest doesn’t like me, I can’t go buy meat, because the butcher won’t sell to me. Or some such scenario. Whereas, in a bigger market, there are a dozen other butchers who will want my business.
More importantly, I love electricity. And I adore modern plumbing.
So, at least for me, now is an excellent time to be alive. I think Judith would have been happy in the modern age. She seems like the kind of person who would be eager to try new tools, new technology.
And it’s nice to have something that we want to brand, on our own, for ourselves, first and foremost… and then also for others who might share similar tastes.
Yes, I do think that we must do it for love, for ourselves, first and foremost. Otherwise, the long period of blind faith in our work would be unbearable—all those months, years, and decades in which we might put our monogram on the corner of the canvas, not knowing whether the painting will sell or not.
So, we do it for love.
And then there’s the market. Always, the market.
I hope that in all things you do, you find lots of love. I also hope that in addition to that, you find immense amounts of worldly fortune, if you’re into that. I am certainly into that. I want all the worldly fortunes so I can have more time to do what I love. But even if not, oh well—I did it for love.
- The Mirror and the Palette” by Jennifer Higgie:
- How to Pronounce the Names of Some Dutch Painting Masters: http://www.essentialvermeer.com/dutch-painters/pronuncpainters.html
- Dutch Golden Age: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dutch_Golden_Age
Grounded – Jameson Nathan Jones (licensed through Artlist)
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© 2022 Ithaka O.