24 May 2012

Van Gogh, Capitalism & Art

Van Gogh reportedly sold only one painting in his life. Since then, his paintings have sold for tens of millions, sums that would have surely boggled his mind.

Between Michelangelo (1475 to 1564) and Picasso (1881 to 1973) art patrons shifted, from popes and monarchs to private collectors and foundations, art financed by tithes and taxes to art financed by profits and equity.

Van Gogh (1853 to 1890) lived and worked his short life in a time when capitalism was rising to displace nationalism and religion as the new force that bestowed wealth and power. Capitalism was rising; religion and kingdoms were falling but neither were particularly strong.

During Michelangelo's time, popes and kings financed art. The Renaissance was funded by a surge in economic growth that benefited secular and religious rulers like the Medici and Pope Leo.

During Picasso's time, another economic surge - one that benefited banks and corporations - helped to provide investors and company founders with ridiculous sums of money.

Van Gogh worked during a time when art had not yet become a way for the rich to prove that they had culture. And for the most part, many of the very rich were just emerging during his life. Kings and popes weren't in command of quite as many resources in this age of growing religious diversity and democracies. But by the time that Picasso was working, money was again available for art from capitalists.

What is one reason that Van Gogh sold only one painting during his life? His short life hit a gap in funding. Today, few investments have gained as persistently and as impressively as art. A piece of art from Van Gogh would probably cost you $100 million or more. Not because his art has suddenly gotten better since his death but because there is money enough to pay that sum. During his life, there simply was not.

You wouldn't think that timing would matter for a still painting.

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