Why Are Artists Poor?

A recent article on artnet ruffled feathers on Twitter with a claim that artists’ pay is predetermined by their physiology, based on its reporting of a new neuroscientific study. The article headline is “Why Are Artists Poor? New Research Suggests It Could Be Hardwired Into Their Brain Chemistry”. I’ve read the article and the research behind it. The headline is wrong and the article is misleading. The research is modest, interesting and probably correct.

The study by Goya-Maldonado, Kyle, Brodmann & Gruber is published in the paperReactivity of the Reward System in Artists During Acceptance and Rejection of Monetary Rewards’. Its theme creativity and its “negative correlation with the availability of monetary reward.” Finding that no neurological research has yet investigated this, Goya-Maldonado et al. decide:

This is an interesting phenomenon and, following this reasoning, instead of directly requiring creative production from artist and non-artist volunteers in our research protocol (which could hinder creativity), a decision was made to study the baseline dynamics of their reward system as a fundamental starting point.

In other words, before studying how creativity and artwork is affected by money, let’s first find out whether artists themselves are any different to non-artists. They cite evidence that a particular experimental reward task (the ‘desire-reason-dilemma (DRD) paradigm’) in combination with fMRI scanning shows that monetary rewards activate areas of the brain associated with our dopaminergic reward system. So they propose to use this approach to test the idea that artists are less motivated by money:

Based on previous behavioural research on incentives, the hypothesis was that in comparison to controls the reward system of artists would be less reactive to acceptance and rejection of monetary rewards.

24 participants did the task, half of whom described themselves as creative (5 actors, 2 painters, 2 sculptors, 2 musicians and 1 designer) and half who did not (1 insurance salesman, 1 linguist, 1 social economist, 1 dentist, 1 environmental scientist, 1 construction engineer, 1 business administrator, 1 psychologist and 4 university students). fMRI works by detecting oxygen levels in blood. This study measured blood oxygenation (BOLD) in areas of the brain that promote (the ventral striatum (VS)) and suppress (the anterior ventral prefrontal cortex (AVPFC)) dopamine production. The results are:

Our hypothesis of reduced BOLD response in key regions of the reward system of artists was confirmed by the differential activations of the VS. On the other hand, activation in the AVPC was increased in artists in comparison to other professions.

In other words, the evidence shows that in doing this task artists’ react differently to money. This means that the hypothesis that artists are less motivated by money now has some empirical support. This is uncontroversial. What has inflamed a negative reaction is the artnet article’s framing of the research and interpretation of is findings. The article says that the research suggests a link between “brain chemistry”, occupation and earnings. This is false.

The researchers note the study’s limitations: small sample, single study, specificity of task (not creative), specificity of reward (artists may respond differently to other incentives), does not exclude socio-economic factors (income, class). They do not make any claims about how much money artists earn or whether this is determined by their physiology. They make no suggestions about why the artists reacted differently. They say this study is a small but important first step towards studying creativity and monetary reward via neuroscience. I am inclined to agree.

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