In a country where money is taboo and culture is sacred, French artist Aurélie Galois navigates the uneasy relationship between following your muse and paying your rent.
PARIS — "And...do you make a living from it?" That's the question I'm often asked when I say I'm a painter, before people even know what I paint. In a country where money matters are taboo, it's strange that artists are asked if they make a living from their art.
My response — "I'm not a painter to make a living; it's my life" — feeds the romantic vision behind this idea, a construction that I endure, like so many others, and which raises questions as intimate as they are enmeshed in society.
For Sigmund Freud, money is symbolically associated with excrement. In everyday language, the epithet "dirty" is often attached to money, reminding us how much Judeo-Christian culture has moralized our relationship with this dubious substance.
For artists, the question is even more complex. Certainly, Andy Warhol changed the game and glamorized the art of making money. But we will always prefer a Van Gogh, who never sold a painting during his lifetime, or a Donatello who, according to legend, hung a basket overflowing with banknotes in his studio for everyone to dip into.
Lure of success
For German philosopher Immanuel Kant, the argument of detachment serves to distinguish the beautiful from the pleasant. So, we expect the artist to be disinterested, motivated by the muses and certainly not by the lure of gain, and by extension, by glory, as Cyrano says: "But one does not fight in the hope of success! No! No, it is much more beautiful when it is useless!" Artists are also poorly off in terms of income: 48% of artists earn less than €5,000 per year from their artistic income; 52%, if only women are counted.
Adding up all of their resources, including those outside the field of art (jobs, food jobs, pensions, social benefits, annuities, etc.), their median annual income is €15,000 for men and €10,000 for women, according to Bruno Racine, who provides these statistics in "The Author and the Act of Creation."
Since the 19th century, when the artist’s salary started to be defined by the market and no longer by the commissions they received for their work, artists have been producing at a loss. For my next exhibition, I have produced 15 canvases, without any guarantee that I’ll sell even one, and without modifying my craft to make them more sellable, as if that could somehow corrupt their authenticity.
While being fully aware of the pathetic nature of this stance, I persist in it, because every time I've attempted to pursue more commercial work, it was a failure — and especially because it's often the least appealing artwork that sells.
Galois shares an image of her old cardigan on her Instagram page.
A patent for disinterest
Is it an unpredictable whim of the heart or the great organizational hypocrisy, described by Nils Brunsson, who would like art purchases to confer a certificate of disinterest upon the collector? Here's my final confession: I did not get into art for the money, nor did I do it to ensure a comfortable retirement. If that were the case, I would have been doomed from the start. Bertrand Lavier, a world-renowned French artist, receives a pension of just €890.
Without our work to invent, enchant or denounce, life would be much poorer.
But on the one hand, I enjoy selling my work. The strangeness of receiving money in exchange for an intimate expression is priceless, and I also need it to survive.
Some unions are seeking a guaranteed minimum income, where artists wouldn't be forced to seek supplementary jobs. The fact that everyone takes it for granted that an artist should have a day job in addition to their artistic practice, which requires an enormous amount of time for research, production, and communication, says a lot about the progress that still needs to be made to recognize the status of an artist as that of a real worker. Without our work to invent, enchant or denounce, life would be much poorer.
Aurélie Galois is a painter based in Paris.