Art Money: An Introduction and Brief History / by Kai Chuan


If I make money from art, does that mean it’s not art anymore?

As Easton and I step into art as careers and we ease our way into artmaking as an eventual primary source of income, I find myself considering this relationship — art and money — a lot more often.

At the moment, I’m focused on pushing Two Feet Studios as far as I can take it, and then pushing harder. My hopes are that I’ll push until eventually I realize it’s gliding forward on its own. But I have training wheels to keep me upright in the meantime. To support myself financially as I start off, I have a part-time job at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Two Feet, at the time of my writing this blog post, is not currently making us any money. But it will soon.

In Easton’s case, he’s concentrated on finishing his final month in school. That means investing most of his time and effort in his capstone project and a Two Feet Studios game, Selfless. Easton also currently balances a necessary part-time job. In regards to Two Feet, he is passionately invested and plans to soon offer a larger hand in our development and management post-grad. On top of this, he will be searching for a full-time job in the games industry — for both financial purposes and the expansion of his experience.

I share all of this as a way of candidly introducing who and where Easton and I are on our journey, as well as provide a grounded foundation for my thoughts on art and money. It’s no secret that we’re just starting off… and neither will our progression be. Consider this the first in an ongoing series of blog posts dedicated to art money.

To begin this Art Money series, I want to take a bit of time to address how I currently see the relationship of art and money and the history of art as a career.

Plainly said, if art is your intended career, make it one. And that means making money from your work.

But! Here’s the important part: if you’re an artist full-time, you’re making art full-time. Your focus is on art, not on money. Just as an aspiring doctor is dedicated to their work, so should you be. Maybe they are in it for the money, but that’s a lot of schooling and effort for it. Their passion is health and healing. The same goes for art in an inverse kind of way: your passion is in creating and that is your driving force. It’s your career, so you are in it for money. But choosing to be an artist is too much of a risk (refer to the “starving artist” stereotype) and an equally effortful endeavor for your intentions to be solely centered on money. You will be paid for the acknowledgment and appreciation of your passion. It is not money that will validate the achievement of your pursuit. Always remember this.

I’ll just repeat it one more time: it is not money that will validate the achievement of your pursuit. Money is not a measure of success. You measure your own success based on what it is you’re seeking to do, feel, or share and how well you’re doing, feeling, or sharing it. How much you earn is neither a determining factor in a buyer/client/patron’s transactional decision with you. A person invests in the quality of your work (granted, based on their tastes and perspectives) — nothing else. There may be occasions when buyers/clients/patrons purchase for the sake of associating with a big name (e.g., acquiring a Jackson Pollock painting or recruiting Ava DuVernay for a film), but these are cases far removed from our more formative ones.

When we look at the development of art from the perspective of money-making, we can better understand our purpose and what it means to earn money from art. Note: I’m speaking very broadly, but please correct me or fill any holes in the comments. Additionally, the timeline of history I followed in this blog post leans primarily toward the history of painting and Western civilization and culture. I’d be interested to pursue following a different timeline in a later blog post.

Art saw its primitive beginnings as a tool for communication. Cave paintings were a visual language for translating ideas, warnings, and histories that verbal language could not fulfill. As civilization progressed, this visual language soon evolved into written language with hieroglyphs. Storytelling, sculpting, and music arose as a means of passing on more histories and functioned as instruments for religion and worshipping gods. In fact, the art of storytelling is more precisely what formed the foundation for myths and, eventually, religion. Simultaneously, architects stepped to the forefront as creators, designing functional buildings for efficiency. Pure functionality would slowly expand alongside the advance of religion as structures broke ground to commemorate individuals — gods, deities, kings.

It wasn’t until the Renaissance in the 14th century that we saw money enter the court and art become a legitimate career. Patrons — a new word and role that entered 1300s vocabulary — commissioned artists for work. However, art was manifold. Each medium of art was its own occupation and separate endeavor. Painters were painters, sculptors were sculptors, writers were writers. Artworks, particularly paintings, shifted toward realism. Artists were not associated yet with creativity in the sense we ascribe it now, but rather with skill.

This rigid organization of art led to the inevitable insurgency observed in the artistic movements from the 19th century onward. Romanticism emphasized emotion and the individual, granting artists an independence and self-determination in their work. Impressionists further rebelled the academic approach by upending technical tradition and focusing on subjectivity. They painted outdoors and captured ephemeral moments, spotlighting their literal, personal perspectives. Salons, institutions that emerged toward the end of the Renaissance, served as intersections for individuals to discuss art and culture, thus perpetuating the concept of patronage in relation to art as a profession.

As society moved toward the modern and contemporary, individuals’ perspectives expanded even further. Discoveries and advancements in technology led to the blending (or sometimes, appropriation) of cultures. Worldviews unique to every individual were unfolding. The artist became a singular, commanding voice in their work (though, of course, contextualized by history, culture, and their environment). Artists metamorphosed out of the occupational labels that had confined them to the discipline of skill and technique to develop their own styles. And even more paths were uncovered with the introduction of new (or even, due recognition of existing) mediums of art — film, dance, video games. Consequently, creativity became a skill and expertise of its own, contributing to the valuation of an artist. Meanwhile though, contemporary capitalism and other financial attitudes new to this era placed money at the forefront of career prospects. Because of this, art as a career changed once again.

The presence of patrons faded as art collecting replaced artist funding (though there seems to be a quiet return with angel investors†). Those with money sought ownership of works from established artists, not the brilliant artists themselves. Capitalism introduced competition, encouraging artists to withdraw and fend for themselves. In combination with the rise of social media, it instigated artists to compete and impossibly compare their unique, subjective works with those of others. It’s a difficult and complex place we’re in now.

I don’t have an absolute solution — change is gradual. But I do have insight.

Earlier, I stated that if you’re an artist full-time, you’re making art full-time. Build your craft and hone your skills. Then build them some more. Discover new interests, rinse-and-repeat. If you’re going into this, you’re going into it head on — not for the money, but for your love, your passion. You will be paid for the acknowledgment and appreciation of your passion. Just as artists past have pushed back against tradition and upended systems and worldviews, do the same with your art. Instead of competing, learn and collaborate. Turn social media’s culture of isolation and comparison into one of connection. Use it as a platform to genuinely share your unique stories and work, not as one for simply shouting louder than the others, and definitely not for shouting back the exact same thing.

Advancements and change in the world have brought us where we are now. Cultures are blending, worldviews expanding. Your singular, unparalleled voice is your creativity. And creativity is now a skill, just as technique — brushwork, camerawork, vocal control — has certainly been.

This is your focus — art and your craft, not money. Move forward with intent.

Your friends,
Kai and Easton