Monday, January 7, 2013

Who gains when art/literature/science is hyped?

What is art worth? And who decides?
An interesting exchange of letters appeared yesterday in the New York Times Sunday Review.  "Sunday Dialogue: What is That Art Worth?"  Why is art selling at such high prices today?  Is it 'good' art, or is it hype?  And, who benefits?

William Cole, whose byline says he is writing a book on art connoisseurship, begins the debate:
Financiers know the value of hype. They understand that if artworks sell at exorbitant prices, those works — and the artists who created them — become newsworthy, regardless of whether they’re actually any good. And the media play right along, almost never questioning the quality of the works or the abilities of the artists.
Historically, time has been very cruel to the reputations of all but the very best artists. But today enormous sums of money are devoted to propping up the star power of a small group of wildly overrated cult figures. Have the masters of the universe created the unpoppable bubble? Or will the child’s voice somehow manage to rise above the buzz and proclaim that the emperor is, as many have suspected all along, buck naked?
The first reply takes Cole to task for misunderstanding why art has become so expensive.  It's that it's no longer single masters sitting alone in their drafty lofts creating their masterpieces.  Instead, art has become a huge industry, each stage, from artist's workshop to the gallery, demanding huge amounts of money, thus ratcheting up the cost.  Thus, the cost is understandable, and justified.

The next reply takes Cole to task for ignoring the 2% theory -- only 2% of artists of any age are actually any good, and today is no different from any other time.  If bad artists are being promoted, it's nothing new.

Several correspondents take issue with Cole's choice of bad artists, who deserves idolatry and who does not.  Caveat emptor and all that.

Donald Waits, a former public school teacher of art-history, writes:
It is obvious to me, as a subscriber to several art blogs and arts in education Web sites, that a new specialty in promoting and influencing the sales of minimally valuable “art” is being developed as a serious career in the business of art. The courses being touted by universities and art schools describe, in clear language, how to advocate for mediocrity in the art market. A whole new language is being taught to critics and art “scholars” for the sole purpose of pushing higher and higher prices for art that ultimately has little value.
Next, Michelle Marder Kamhi, art reviewer, writes:
Mr. Cole is absolutely right. Today’s art market has nothing to do with art and everything to do with hype, and the media are deplorably complicit in the game.
Another correspondent points out that the art market is not an academic enterprise, it's a business, and the idea of who deservers to be "in" at any given time changes, not according to any objective truth, but in response to market forces.

Cole replies that the argument that big projects require big price tags, regardless of the quality of the results, should be used by Congress next time they want to vote themselves a raise.  He also notes:
With strategic donations, rich collectors and dealers gain influence in major art museums. Whose works do you suppose they encourage those museums to purchase and exhibit? Whose works do they donate, sometimes retaining a life interest, for huge tax deductions calculated according to market prices, however ridiculous those prices might be? 
So while only the few can afford to actually hang such pictures on their walls, the rest of us taxpayers get to help pay for them. Who said the art market wasn’t democratic?
It's not just art
By now it's surely clear to you why this exchange interested us.  "Wildly overrated cult figures," "the rest of us taxpayers get to help pay," "a new speciality in promoting and influencing the sales of minimally valuable "art", "not an academic exercise but a business," and so on.  Take just a step back and it's clear that what's happening in the art world -- huge prices for art of questionable, or at the very least debatable, value -- is happening in many sectors of society, particularly those in which quality is a subjective judgement, and where megabucks are there for the taking, including banking, publishing, industrial agriculture, and of course, science.

Substituting, say, GWAS or Mars-life, or Higgs Boson, etc. for "art" in this exchange of letters is not too much of a stretch.  And, as with art, there are arguments over who the bad guys are, and whether there even are bad guys, whether it's hype or truth, but there can be no argument over the amount of money the taxpayer is putting up to make some people well-off and famous, scientists and providers of the technology both.  On the promise that this is all an investment in the future.

A common argument, especially by those doing well in such a system, is that it is the incentive that drives success, that success is rare but it's just costly if you want to nurture that 2%, and that's our way of doing business.  From this point of view, there's nothing to complain about, unless perhaps it's how your taxes are used if you don't happen to be a beneficiary, or whether that 2% really is that valuable compared to what else might be achieved at more modest cost.

Then, of course, one can argue anthropologically, that this kind of resource hierarchy-building is how our society works, so that any alternative approach to art or science that one might dream up, even if it could be applied against resistance from those currently 'in', would quickly lead to much the same as we see across such a wide spectrum of societies today.

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