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Art for the 99 Percent

Rich kids are way more likely to grow up to be artists. And that's because capitalism doesn't give us all the freedom to reach our creative potentials.

The artwork by John Baldessari "Ear Sofa; Nose Sconces with Flowers (in Stage Setting)" is displayed during the press preview for Art Basel at Basel Messe on June 13, 2017 in Basel, Switzerland. Harold Cunningham / Getty

If your family is wealthy, you’re more likely to become an artist. Quelle surprise.

That’s according to a study published in February by professor Karol Jan Borowiecki of the University of Southern Denmark. By examining reams of US Census data going all the way back to 1850, Borowiecki’s research identifies and documents various trends — demographic, geographic, and socioeconomic — in the development of the creative professions.

The key takeaways aren’t particularly astonishing, but still make for interesting reading, given the meticulous levels of detail involved in quantifying them. In Borowiecki’s words:

The proportion of female creatives is relatively high, time constraints can be a hindrance for taking up a creative occupation, racial inequality is present and tends to change only slowly, and education plays a significant role for taking up a creative occupation.

Perhaps most importantly, the study also finds that, along with education, the wealth of a person’s family plays a major role in determining their likelihood of becoming an artist or creative professional. The quantification of this insight exposes the breathtaking extent to which wealth helps determine a person’s occupation.

In fact, as Kristen Bahler notes, Borowiecki’s findings suggest that every $10,000 in total family income makes a person around 2 percent more likely to pursue a creative occupation — meaning that someone who comes from a family worth $1 million is ten times more likely to become an artist than someone whose family is worth $100,000. (This doesn’t mean, of course, that most artists are themselves rich — the study also notes that the incomes of creative workers tend to be lower than average.)

On its face, Borowiecki’s research might simply be taken to confirm an existing and oft-repeated caricature of artists as privileged, educated people from relatively well-off backgrounds who enjoy lives of leisure. Read this way, its findings might be an occasion for some good, old-fashioned class resentment. Members of the bourgeoisie, after all, have long embraced the arts — both as an entertaining distraction from their cozy lives and as a site for conspicuous consumption.

But there is also a less jaundiced and potentially more constructive interpretation available to us. If creative activity correlates with the education, economic security, and leisure time that tend to accompany wealth, the problem is not any of these things as such but rather their maldistribution. Seen this way, Borowiecki’s findings might just as easily complement the argument for democratic socialism — which above all else seeks to extend free time, education, and material well-being to the many, where they are currently limited to the privileged few.

If having time, a good education, and economic security increases the likelihood that people will take up creative pursuits, that’s all the more reason they should be treated as rights to be enjoyed by everyone. Real freedom, after all, means the ability to spend your time as you see fit — to write, to think, to paint, to sculpt, or to do nothing in particular — and, under capitalism, the rich have a lot more freedom than the rest of us. But it doesn’t have to be that way.