Posts Tagged ‘art’

Apparently, the British artist-film-maker Isaac Julien is directing a public reading of all three volumes of Marx’s Capital at the Venice Biennale [ht: sk]. (Julien is also the director of a 2013 film Kapital, which is also being shown at the biennale.)

Perhaps it was too much to ask that the curator of the biennale’s central exhibition, Okwui Enwezor, actually understand his Marx (although the reporter, Charlotte Higgins, evidently does):

So what is the corollary of staging Das Kapital? I ask Enwezor. Did not Marx foresee the end of capitalism, inevitably brought down by its internal contradictions? “His programme was to use capitalism to achieve social equality,” says Enwezor. “I don’t think that Marx, had he lived, would have wanted capitalism to end.” I am slightly confused by this: I am no Marx expert, but I had gained the distinct impression that although Marx admired the energy and inventiveness of capitalism, he wanted it overthrown and replaced with a system that allowed people justice and dignity.

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Neoclassical economists don’t have a lot to say about the value of art. Basically, they start from the proposition that a work of art, such as Picasso’s “Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’),” is often considered to have two different values: an aesthetic or cultural value (its cultural worth or significance) and a price or exchange-value (the amount of money a work of art fetches on the market). They then demonstrate that, within free markets, individual choices ensure that the price of art generally captures or represents all of the various dimensions of value attributable to the work of art, rendering the need for a separate concept of aesthetic or cultural value redundant. Therefore, on their view, Picasso’s painting is “worth” the record auction price of $179.37 million.*

But the Wall Street Journal (gated) observes that yesterday’s sale of other paintings—including Mark Rothko’s “Untitled (Yellow and Blue)”—reveals something else:

Some paintings act like object lessons in tracking the global migration of wealth, bouncing from one owner to the next in timely turns. Such was the case Tuesday when Sotheby’s sold a $46.5 million Mark Rothko abstract that previously belonged to U.S. banker Paul Mellon and later to French luxury executive François Pinault.

All night long, Sotheby’s sale demonstrated the power that the younger, international set is wielding over the art market, pushing up brand-name artists and newcomers alike. Bidders from more than 40 countries raised their paddles at some point during Sotheby’s $379.7 million sale of contemporary art, and the house said bidding proved particularly strong from collectors in Asia and across Latin America.

Clearly, the ever-expanding bubble in high-end art is predicated on the extraordinary amount of surplus that is being captured by a tiny number of individuals at the very top of the world’s distribution of income and their willingness to spend a portion of it on “vanity capital.”

As Neil Irwin explains,

Let’s assume, for a minute, that no one would spend more than 1 percent of his total net worth on a single painting. By that reckoning, the buyer of Picasso’s 1955 “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)” would need to have at least $17.9 billion in total wealth. That would imply, based on the Forbes Billionaires list, that there are exactly 50 plausible buyers of the painting worldwide.

This is meant to be illustrative, not literal. Some people are willing to spend more than 1 percent of their wealth on a painting; the casino magnate Steve Wynn told Bloomberg he bid $125 million on the Picasso this week, which amounts to 3.7 percent of his estimated net worth. The Forbes list may also have inaccuracies or be missing ultra-wealthy families that have succeeded in keeping their holdings secret.

But this crude metric does show how much the pool of potential mega-wealthy art buyers has increased since, for example, the last time this particular Picasso was auctioned, in 1997.

After adjusting for inflation and using our 1 percent of net worth premise, a person would have needed $12.3 billion of wealth in 1997 dollars to afford the painting. Look to the Forbes list for that year, and only a dozen families worldwide cleared that bar.

In other words, the number of people who, by this metric, could easily afford to pay $179 million for a Picasso has increased more than fourfold since the painting was last on the market. That helps explain the actual price the painting sold for in 1997: a mere $31.9 million, which in inflation-adjusted terms is $46.7 million. There were, quite simply, fewer people in the stratosphere of wealth who could bid against one another to get the price up to its 2015 level.

More people with more money bidding on a more or less fixed supply of something can only drive the price upward. On Monday, the auction was for fine art. But the same dynamic applies for prime real estate in central London or overlooking Central Park, or for bottles of 1982 Bordeaux.

The pool of “potential mega-wealthy art buyers” has indeed expanded but it’s still a infinitesimal fraction of the world’s population. Still, it’s enough to set record prices in recent art auctions, which (along with real-estate and fine-wine markets) thereby serves as a window on the grotesque levels of economic inequality we are witnessing in the world today.

But there’s another aspect of the Wall Street Journal story (and of many other articles I’ve read about recent art auctions) that deserves attention: the worry that the highly unequal distribution of income and wealth is migrating out of the West—to the East (especially China) and the Global South (particularly Latin America). It’s a worry that the cultural patrimony of the West is being exported (or, if you prefer, re-exported, after centuries of plunder of the empire’s hinterland) as the surplus being generated within the world economy is increasingly being captured by individuals outside the West.

I wonder, then, if this worry (about the migration of wealth and art) will ultimately be reflected in Western neoclassical economists’ long-held celebration of free markets—and if will there be a new round of preoccupation about the differences between market and aesthetic values, as the demands of new buyers from outside the West succeed in determining ever-higher prices for the art (and utilizing the surplus) the West has long claimed as its own.

*For other mainstream economists, if art’s cultural value is not adequately represented by its exchange-value (because, for example, art has “positive externalities,” that is, benefits to society beyond what is captured in the market price), then there is room for public subvention of art and of artists. And that ends up determining the limits of debate within mainstream economics: the neoclassical view of free private art markets (when the two values are the same) versus the alternative view in favor of public support for the arts (if and when they are not).

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Apparently, Bank of America Merrill Lynch has dubbed a new asset class Vanity Capital, which relates to lifestyle and identity-related purchases. It’s equivalent to the world’s fourth largest economy.

Here is how that spending is distributed globally:

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As Harry Wallop explains,

Lot 25 in the Christie’s auction, Looking Forward to the Past, in New York next month is likely to excite a lot of interest for one simple reason, and it’s not its historical significance nor even the universal fame of its creator. It’s all about the price tag.

Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Version “O”), painted in 1955 in homage to Matisse, is expected to break the $142 million (£95.3 million) record for a painting sold at auction when it goes under the hammer. If so, it will confirm that the top end of the art market has gone completely crazy.

The week before, Sotheby’s will sell Van Gogh’s L’allée des Alyscamps with an estimate of $40 million, and Roy Lichtenstein’s The Ring (Engagement) with an estimate of $50 million.

“The prices of so many of these artworks are disproportionate to their art historical importance,” says Josh Spero, the editor of Spear’s, a magazine that caters to the yachtowning, Picasso-aspiring classes. “It’s all about ‘my Giacometti is bigger than your Giacometti’ now. Will you really get $140 million worth of pleasure from it? I doubt it. But you know you had to outbid three US hedge fund managers and a Russian oligarch to secure it.”

Bank of America Merrill Lynch may be trying to capitalize on the spectacular growth of the market in vanity goods in the Second Gilded Age. But, if remember our Thorstein Veblen, there’s certainly nothing new about the conspicuous consumption of the leisure class.

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There is no doubt, for those of us who work in and around institutions of higher education, that the university is dying.

Terry Eagleton has been making that argument for a long time. Now, he’s making it in the Chronicle of Higher Education [ht: ja], with his characteristic incisiveness and wit.

Eagleton’s argument is about the death of the British university but much of his analysis holds for the United States as well.

Universities, which in Britain have an 800-year history, have traditionally been derided as ivory towers, and there was always some truth in the accusation. Yet the distance they established between themselves and society at large could prove enabling as well as disabling, allowing them to reflect on the values, goals, and interests of a social order too frenetically bound up in its own short-term practical pursuits to be capable of much self-criticism. Across the globe, that critical distance is now being diminished almost to nothing, as the institutions that produced Erasmus and John Milton, Einstein and Monty Python, capitulate to the hard-faced priorities of global capitalism.

Much of this will be familiar to an American readership. Stanford and MIT, after all, provided the very models of the entrepreneurial university. What has emerged in Britain, however, is what one might call Americanization without the affluence — the affluence, at least, of the American private educational sector.

But Eagleton, I think, focuses a bit too much on the decline of the humanities, as if English and art departments were the only source of critical thinking. Better, it seems to me, is to identify and analyze the crisis of critical thinking across the length and breadth of the university—in economics as well as English, anthropology alongside art. Critical thinking in all the disciplines is disappearing as “Philistine administrators plaster the campus with mindless logos and issue their edicts in barbarous, semiliterate prose.”

The death of critical thinking in and across all its disciplinary forms is the real death of the university.

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As we know, rising inequality, especially the hollowing-out of the middle, has undermined the financial viability of retailers and other merchants of consumption that, during the postwar period, catered to the middle-class—and boosted the prospects of particular lines and whole businesses that target those at the tiny top and growing bottom of the distribution of income. As the New York Times reported in February,

In Manhattan, the upscale clothing retailer Barneys will replace the bankrupt discounter Loehmann’s, whose Chelsea store closes in a few weeks. Across the country, Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants are struggling, while fine-dining chains like Capital Grille are thriving. And at General Electric, the increase in demand for high-end dishwashers and refrigerators dwarfs sales growth of mass-market models. . .

Investors have taken notice of the shrinking middle. Shares of Sears and J. C. Penney have fallen more than 50 percent since the end of 2009, even as upper-end stores like Nordstrom and bargain-basement chains like Dollar Tree and Family Dollar Stores have more than doubled in value over the same period.

Now, that same unequal distribution of income seems to be destroying the foundations of the postwar era of middlebrow culture. As A. O. Scott explains,

The middlebrow is robustly represented in “difficult” cable television shows, some of which, curiously enough, fetishize such classic postwar middlebrow pursuits as sex research and advertising. It also thrives in a self-conscious foodie culture in which a taste for folkloric authenticity commingles with a commitment to virtue and refinement.

But in literature and film we hear a perpetual lament for the midlist and the midsize movie, as the businesses slip into a topsy-turvy high-low economy of blockbusters and niches. The art world spins in an orbit of pure money. Museums chase dollars with crude commercialism aimed at the masses and the slavish cultivation of wealthy patrons. Symphonies and operas chase donors and squeeze workers (that is, artists) as the public drifts away.

Universities and colleges, the seedbeds of a cultural ideal consecrated to both excellence and democracy, to citizenship and to knowledge for its own sake, are becoming either hothouses for the new dynastic elite or training centers for the technocratic debt peons of the digital future.

In the hectic heyday of the middlebrow, intellectuals gazed back longingly at earlier dispensations when masterpieces were forged in conditions of inequality by lucky or well-born artists favored by rich or titled patrons.

Social inequality may be returning, but that doesn’t mean that the masterpieces will follow. The highbrows were co-opted or killed off by the middle, and the elitism they championed has been replaced by another kind, the kind that measures all value, cultural and otherwise, in money. It may be time to build a new ladder.

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An arts degree costs $120,000 but the typical artist only makes $25,000 a year.

That’s one of the many facts about the situation and composition of artists in New York City generated by the collective BFAMFAPhD (which includes my friend Susan Jahoda) [ht: ja].

Here are some others:

  • Only 15 percent of the people in New York with an art degree actually make a living as artists. The rest? 16 percent work in sales and other office occupations, 15 percent work in various professional fields, 11 percent are educators, 10 percent are managers, 10 percent work in service jobs, 9 percent have not worked in the last five years, 5 percent are working in business and finance, 3 percent work in various blue collar occupations, 3 percent now work in science, technology, or engineering, and 2 percent now work in medicine. (See this chart.)
  • As it turns out, while the poverty rate in New York City is 20.8 percent (and the national rate is 14.9 percent), 10.1 percent of people with an art degree live at or below the official poverty line. (See this chart.)
  • New York City’s population is 33 percent white non-Hispanic, but 74 percent of people in the city with arts degrees are white non-Hispanic and 74 percent of people who make a living as artists are white non-Hispanic.
  • New York City’s population is 23 percent black non-Hispanic, but only 6 percent of people in the city with arts degrees are black non-Hispanic, and only 7 percent of people who make a living as artists are black non-Hispanic.
  • New York City’s population is 29 percent Hispanic (of any race), but only 8 percent of people in the city with arts degrees are Hispanic, and only 10 percent of people who make a living as artists are hispanic.
  • New York City’s population is 13 percent Asian non-Hispanic, but only 10 percent of people in the city with arts degrees are Asian non-Hispanic, and 8 percent of people who make a living as artists are Asian non-Hispanic.
  • Of the people who identified their primary occupation as artist in the 2010-2012 American Community Survey in New York City, 55 percent were male, even though only 42 percent of people with art degrees are men.

The portrait that emerges is an artist (or someone with an art degree) who, demographically (in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender), does not represent the larger New York City population and who mostly has to earn a living doing something other than creating art.

As A. O. Scott recently observed,

Nobody would argue against the idea that art has a social value, and yet almost nobody will assert that society therefore has an obligation to protect that value by acknowledging, and compensating, the labor of the people who produce it.

Count me among the “almost nobody” who is willing to assert that society does have “an obligation to protect that value by acknowledging, and compensating, the labor of the people who produce it.”

 

Off today to give a talk on “Culture Beyond Capitalism” in the opening session of the 18th International Conference on Cultural Economics, sponsored by the Association for Cultural Economics International, to be held at the University of Quebec in Montreal.

I plan to start my multimedia presentation on how “culture offers to us a series of images and stories—audio and visual, printed and painted—that point the way toward alternative ways of thinking about and organizing economic and social life” with the original 1928 version of Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountains.”

Where they hung the jerk
That invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.