When artists complain about the twentieth century art market in which we all have to either tread water, sink, or swim, the complaints cover a whole range of so-called "problems." From cheap reproductions masquerading as investment quality art to copycat, assembly line "original" oil paintings imported from second world countries at so much per square yard in which the retailer makes more from the sale of a grandiose, gold leaf (really bronze) frame than from the painting; the list of gripes is nearly endless. Of course, one man's "problem" is another man's "opportunity." We lament the fact that the "good" art we laboriously turn out in our eight by ten studios cannot be differentiated by buyers from "bad" art with million-dollar marketing machines behind it. If it will make anyone feel any better, artists have fought these problems, or similar ones, ever since the model for our current art market developed in seventeenth century Holland. Hals, Vermeer, and Rembrandt all had largely the same complaints we do, and suffered many of the same economic indignities because of them.
To understand their plight, one has to understand the Dutch art market of the time. Perhaps the easiest way to describe it is to note the traditional market elements that were absent. First of all, in Calvinist Holland, the churches were all largely unadorned and the clergy intended that they should stay that way. There was no religious patronage. Some religious painting was done, but not for the church. Second there was no monarchy. Holland was one of the earliest democracies in the world. And likewise there was no hereditary aristocracy to commission massive painted works of art. Yet, in spite of this there was great bourgeois wealth, and wherever there is that, there is also an abounding art market. And just as interesting as the forces absent from this market is the subjects also absent. There was little or no demand for mythology. History paintings were out, pretty flowers were in. Huge fresco murals were out, modest living room art was in. Stuffy, individual portraits were out, stuffy group portraits were in. Genre was in, landscapes were in, still lifes were in while paintings of butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers plying their trade were out.
If an artist could work within those constraints he (and sometimes she) could paint and sell (for a reasonable price) about everything they could produce; and hundreds did just that. Never before in the history of painting was there so much good art and so little great art, and those who did produce great art did so at their own risk, and often at considerable loss. This was especially true of Hals and Vermeer. And while Rembrandt was immensely popular for a decade or two near the start of his career, in his declining years, he too suffered for his efforts to move beyond that which was popular to that which was uncommon. So as we grouse about the inequities, the outrageous, the fraud, deceit, and execrable poor taste that seems to be the driving force in today's art market, keep in mind that those elements literally "come with the territory" and though we can try to change things, and cry because we can't, few of us would want to go back to Medieval or even the Renaissance times and the crushing creative restraints dictated by the religious and political forces which drove that market.