The art industry loves themselves a dead artist. The deader, the better.
I apologize if you just choked on your tea while I spilled mine, but it’s true. And I’ll tell you why:
Dead artists’ narratives are easier to control and thus easier to sell.
Part of selling art is marketing and controlling the narrative surrounding that marketing campaign. In modern day, artists lose out on sales, partnerships, etc. and their audience plummets when they misstep or they stop representing their original ethics or purpose. Not so with a dead artist. They can’t make any missteps: they’re dead. No twitter feuds or support of the wrong political candidate. Nope, dead artists have narratives that can be easily molded into a marketing campaign and that marketing campaign can be converted into sales for whoever owns the dead artist’s estate/holdings.
Limited art is rare and rare is expensive.
If I make one piece of art- it’s value is based upon a) commodity, b) availability, and c) demand. One piece wanted by 10 art collectors suddenly sees a steep price incline. But let’s say I make 100,000 pieces and 10 art collectors want one: there is no panic or supply in demand, there are plenty available to choose from, and I can easily make more. Not so with dead artists. What they made is what they made- no more and no less. Dead artists hit all three criteria for being a great sell. Hello supply in demand! Art by dead artists are more valuable than art by living artists (with a few rare exceptions) not because of any difference in skill or effort- but by social structure.
No one buys the art collection from the dead: they inherit it.
Immediately, a dead artist’s work becomes someone else’s asset. There is no overhead, no materials to purchase, no studio to rent, no electric bill to pay: just the gift of an art inheritance. Many convert inherited art into cash by breaking up the work and selling it privately and publicly.
So the art industry tends to prioritize dead artists over living artists. For instance, I just checked an ongoing auction at Christie’s (international auction house) and a living artist’s work is going for under $1,500 and a dead artist’s work is hovering around $50K. Let that sink in.
Let me also point out that this very visible pay gap is not at all healthy for living artists who come to understand that their career’s ultimate success hinges on their death. Let that sink in.
Every authentic artist is creating, making, inventing, and pouring themselves into putting something good out there and into the world for everyone. Creating art is an incredibly human thing that we do. There must be some recognition of that effort, even if we don’t particularly like the work. We give recognition to the artist and their art every time we visit a museum, browse art collections online, attend a gallery, secure a finger-painting with a magnet on the fridge, and purchase art for our own homes and private art collections.
So the next time you want to add aesthetic detail to your living space by investing in something (or someone) artistic or by supporting arts & culture: go find the artists that are still alive. The ones whose art pays their electric bills and studio rent. Talk with them. Ask them questions. Get to know the human who created the thing that caught your eye. And maybe, just maybe, invest in their work while they are alive. If you do it while they’re still alive- they get to experience the recognition and that moment of gratitude and connection between their art and you. And you get to proudly brag to guests “oh yes, this is by so-and-so artist”.