Equal pay for equal work is inarguable axiom. Lately, there’s been a rush to graft the important work on equal pay onto the art market which is not a measure of art historical value nor of artists’ income. The issue was raised recently by a study undertaken by Artnet and Maastricht University’s department of finance examining “Glass Ceilings in the Art Market,” which tries to apply auction valuations to the question of equal stature for artists who are women and men.
Using auction data is understandable but limited in what it can tell us about artists, their stature and their incomes. Almost all artists derive their personal income from primary market sales, not the visible auction prices. Unfortunately, the paper seems to have inspired further inquiry into pricing gaps that quickly loses the thread of rational argument.
Artsy recently published the pseudo-scientific, “13 Famous Artist Couples’ Massive Gender Pay Gaps,” which confuses auction prices for artists’ ‘pay’ and the spurious pairing of artists’ work simply because they shared sleeping arrangements. You’ll be shocked to learn that Françoise Gilot’s work sells at an unfair discount to Picasso’s. Even when Artsy deals with pairings where the female artist is the unquestioned market star—Georgia O’Keeffe over Alfred Stieglitz, Barbara Hepworth over Ben Nicholson—the foolishness is compounded by irrelevant explanations that Stieglitz was a photographer, a medium that rarely achieves spectacular prices.
Artsy’s flaccid analysis is further hampered by its use of auction records which tell us very little about the artist’s worth, if that is what we’re meant to be comparing by listing the auction prices of two artists who are romantically attached side by side.