Rembrandt's painting, "The Syndics of the Drapers' Guild"
Serious business: Rembrandt's 1662 painting portrays members of a Dutch drapers' guild, watched over by a servant

Five soberly dressed men sit at a table, taking a break from their earnest discussions. They have been assembled in a private room by the mayor of their home city, Amsterdam, to debate the issue of cloth regulation. Their expressions are varied, but their purpose is united. It could be a parish council meeting in an English market town, or a committee pondering the frequency of local refuse collections.

Not the sexiest of subjects, yet this staid, awkward scene is the subject of one of the greatest paintings of all time. Rembrandt’s 1662 “The Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild” is lauded as a masterpiece of composition, but also of thematic resonance. Here is a group of simple businessmen coming together to discuss items of common concern. But their responses, some intent, some resigned, portray a diversity of attitudes. It is a microcosm of a thriving capitalist economy, where individual achievement and prosperity must be allied to a wider societal good.

Rembrandt’s respectful painting, which is displayed in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, is an unusually positive artistic portrayal of business practice. It has not always been this way. Traditionally, Art and Mammon have opposed each other with undisguised virulence. What could they have in common, these two worlds that are so far apart in both intent and substance?

Artists are used to thinking big, following idiosyncratic visions that may or may not yield fruitful results. Business people do precisely the opposite, runs the argument, poring pragmatically over detail to ensure stealthy competitive advantage. The artist finds the business practitioner boring; but business has scant sympathy for the artist’s egocentric and unreliable ways.

The mutual animosity goes back a long way. Religious painting, which dominated the art of the past two millennia, was understandably interested in portraying and promoting humanity’s non-materialistic character. Moneymaking was seen as morally suspect.

We need look no further than one of the Renaissance’s favourite subjects, the story of Christ chasing the money-lenders from the temple, to detect the animosity between the two worlds. In El Greco’s nightmarish version, at the church of San Ginés in Madrid, a dominant, red-robed Christ disperses semi-naked figures with imperious contempt. The world he is casting aside is corrupt, malign.

But just half a century later, the points of common interest between puritan versions of Christianity and the rise of capitalism resulted in the kind of sympathetic account that was typified by Rembrandt’s powerful psychological study. There was more respect from the artist for this new, aspiring middle class than for the wilful, profiteering ways of the old aristocracy.

Of course it helped that by this time, artists themselves had become shrewd business figures. That archetype of the tortured artist, Michelangelo, has long been portrayed as a single-minded visionary. Yet when it came to the reward for his efforts, he was one of the meanest negotiators around. By his death in 1564, he had amassed more than 8,000 ducats and scudi, amounting to almost 30kg of gold. Not that you would know it from his work, but the troubled genius had a handy way with a savings account.

In the Romantic era, art once more turned its attention away from business. It became the height of fashion to live in freezing attics, working intensely at being misunderstood by the world and its bourgeois values. In the late 19th century, a stockbroker and tarpaulin salesman by the name of Paul Gauguin fled his job, family and country to take refuge in French Polynesia.

The industrial revolution prompted similarly appalled responses from most artists, who either ignored it altogether, or portrayed its inhuman excesses with grim candour. L.S. Lowry’s “matchstick men” were delicate fragments from a fast-changing economic environment. It became the artist’s job to illuminate the alienating effects of those changes.

Yet, once more, artists were drawn into the business world. This time, it was the new breed of collectors, who bought art as an expression of status, who complicated the picture. The more artists turned their back on material issues in their work, the more material success they seemed to attract. The abstract expressionists of the postwar years spoke only of their own interior worlds, yet the world outside loved them for it. The richer they got, the more anguished their work became.

It took an untroubled genius, Andy Warhol, to change the relationship between art and business forever. There was no conflict according to Warhol. Indeed they were one and the same thing. “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art,” he said. “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”

He celebrated his heretical insights by painting several versions of the US dollar sign. “American money is very well designed. I like it better than any other kind of money,” he would say in his epoch-defining ironic drawl. Of course, Warhol knew his “dollar paintings” would attract hefty, self-congratulatory bids at auction (they continue to do so to this day). There was nothing abstract or ennobling about Warhol’s work; it was a celebration of business, pure and simple. Warhol’s shadow looms over the contemporary art scene, in which artists playfully twist their way around their own material worth.

At the turn of the millennium, the confessional artist Tracey Emin made “I’ve Got It All”, a photograph of herself with her legs wide open, clasping piles of bank notes to her genitals. This was sharply sarcastic: nearly all of the rest of her work had told us that she far from “having it all”.

The graffiti artist Banksy also revels in showing contempt for money, and especially those collectors who have enough money to afford his work. His response to a sale of his work at Sotheby’s was to post a drawing of an auction room on his website, with clients bidding for a canvas scrawled with the words: “I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit”. Inevitably, the anonymous Banksy has become one of the most collectable of all street artists.

Today it is fruitless to expect our most prominent artists to comment with any objectivity on the business world. The savviest among them – Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami – have created business empires, possessing an intuitive grasp of marketing and branding that would be the envy of any entrepreneur.

Indeed, it is business that genuflects towards the heady conceptual spaces of the contemporary art world, in its realisation that it needs to respond with ever more imagination to a furiously fast-moving economic landscape. Art and Mammon are in bed together, and no one seems in the least bit troubled. Certainly not those five august members of Rembrandt’s traders’ guild, who can these days be seen promoting – what else – a brand of cigar. Whatever would they have thought of that?

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