All Commentary
Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Commerce and Artistic Freedom

The latter thrived because of the former.

In the early 1500s Albrecht Dürer was perhaps the most famous artist in northern Europe.   A recent article in The Economist reports that he was also a shrewd businessman.  In today’s world of popular artists — from Steven Spielberg to Lady Gaga — the pairing of business and “entertainment,” if regretted by some, is noncontroversial.  But many still see the true artist and the profit-seeking business person as coming from radically different places.

Historically speaking, however, cases like Dürer’s seem to have been fairly common. Tyler Cowen explains in his book In Praise of Popular Culture, for example, that the artists of Renaissance Florence were men of business.  Michelangelo and Raphael sculpted and painted timeless masterpieces for prelates and princes, but each had an eye for the bottom line.

These entrepreneurial artists weren’t some quirk of history.  And the appearance at about the same time in Western culture of the artist and the merchant was no accident.  Before the reemergence of urbanity and commerce, the artist as we think of her today did not exist.  What transformed the artisan and craftsman into the artist were the very causes and conditions that gave rise to the independent business person.  Without the business person there could have been no artist.

The End of the Middle Ages and the Beginning of the Artist

During the Middle Ages someone with outstanding artistic talent would probably have gone unnoticed in predominantly rural Europe — too much plowing or harvesting to do.  The fortunate few who were noticed might have decorated a cathedral or castle.  The very lucky ones, with good connections as well as skill, might be bound to patrons within the Church or nobility.  But in a world where poverty was the norm the overall demand for fine art was very low and patrons hard to find.  In that world the artisan did what he was told or else.

The end of the Middle Ages came slowly, beginning in southern Europe in the eleventh century and spreading northward over the next several hundred years. The city, which had largely disappeared from Europe, made its way back to become the foundation for the commercial revolution.  In the coastal cities of Italy especially, merchants became big players not only in commerce but in politics and social change as well.  The merchant class, or bourgeoisie, which needed to read contracts and calculate costs and revenues, increased the demand for and helped to supply more widespread literacy and numeracy.  (Henri Pirenne is an excellent source for that story.)

The lure of profit sent merchants around the known world, expanding not only the variety of products imported to the West, but, just as important, also broadening the range of consumer tastes in growing urban centers.  Rich merchants (as well as churchmen and princes) began to demand a greater diversity of goods.  As the standard of living for the commoner rose and her long-dormant talents reawakened, people began to see more of the sacred in the secular, or at least greater value in their experiences and creations on earth.

Commerce and the Artist

The artist as we think of her today — creative, fiercely independent, temperamental — could not have survived in a static world dominated by popes and princes.  But the rising wealth of the merchant and the growing taste for the novel made it possible for more and more people to discover new ideas and find new outlets through which to express them.  On the one hand, expanding commerce lowered the cost of experimentation.  For example, sketches on cheaper paper allowed painters to test out ideas before committing them to canvass or plaster; oil paints, like erasers on pencils, let them cover up their mistakes and try again; and the invention of double-entry bookkeeping allowed the Michelangelos of the Renaissance to keep an accurate accounting of their workshop’s financial condition.

On the other hand, having sources of customers besides the Church and nobility meant that losing a patron didn’t necessarily spell financial ruin for the artist. With the growing wealth that came with expanding trade, a growing number of people could afford to buy art to decorate their homes and halls of commerce.  With new ideas and subject-matter in this environment, the artist might have better luck satisfying the increasingly diverse tastes of merchants (and eventually princes and even perhaps bishops). Diversification on the demand side could lower the risk of experimentation, giving the artist a freedom to create that was likely unknown in human history.

The dynamic merchant class gave birth to artistic freedom a thousand years ago, and today commerce continues to open new opportunities for creative expression to budding artists  – from YouTube to eBooks to new media.  Art and business, and much of what we regard today as culture, are the fruits of economic freedom.

  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.