OPINION | Why artists are dying poor

Ndebele art legend Esther Mahlangu
Ndebele art legend Esther Mahlangu
Image: Siphosihle Mkhwanazi

There may come, or already has been, a time in your life when people start suggesting you invest in art. After all if you buy the right artist, the resale value of an artpiece can rise faster than tempers at a taxi rank. If the artist you are collecting does you the favour of dying, you’re 10 steps closer to living like a lotto winner. 

What very rarely gets mentioned in all this blue sky thinking, are the artists themselves. Imagine for a second putting your blood, sweat and finances into a piece. Loving it, fretting over it, hating it and starting all over again until you finally have something you think is worthy. Depending on a variety of factors, including what it is and how famous you are, you will get a few thousand rand for it and your gallery or some other middleman will swoop in and take a healthy commission for helping facilitate the sale. That’s it. As a general rule, once the artwork is sold the artist won’t see another penny from it regardless of whether it sells again for R3 or R3million.

In a recent Instagram clip rapper turned art patron Swizz Beats took issue with this saying “I think the one wish that I have is to have artists retain publishing in their artwork. I feel that artists should participate in the duration of their creativity. When a person goes to sell that work that artist should at least get to retain 5% of that work. Music even has publishing.”

The gist of what he was saying, was that it seems unfair that someone puts all of that creative energy into an artwork and sells it for x amount only to see someone else hoard it for a few years and sell it on for xxxx amount without the artist seeing a red cent. In the music industry, if you own your own publishing, then that song will generate money every time it is used publicly. And so it should be.

The counter argument would be that even though an artist may not profit from the increasing price of art he or she has already sold, the rising value of the artist’s work will mean that any new works they sell will increase in value too so everyone wins. That argument sounds like something someone trying to recruit you into a network marketing scam would say. Saying “but that’s the way it the art world works” is equally facile.

There is a reason the phrase “starving artist” exists. It is because, in general, artists are broke and a big factor in why they’re as hungry as they are is because wily art collectors swoop in and collect their work at a steal only to sell it for fantastical amounts of money later on. The potential value of their future works may increase but that requires them to churn out more work, which is a much harder thing than most people give artists credit for. Furthermore they can’t produce too much because then their work will be too readily available and the value drops.

Art is hard and its producers should be well fed. So next time we go out campaigning for land, let's tack publishing rights for artists onto that list of demands.

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