Posts Tagged ‘art’


Special mention


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Every time I see an exhibit of paintings from the so-called Golden Age of Dutch art (or teach about them, especially Vermeer’s, in my Commodities course), I am struck by the extent to which they provide a window on the changing class nature of Dutch society at the time.

That’s why I am intrigued by the new show, at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, “Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer” (see also this review [ht: ja]). The content of the individual paintings, at least the ones I am familiar with, as well as the economic status of the painters themselves and the new art markets that developed (and ultimately crashed) during the seventeenth century can tell a rich story about the emergence of capitalism in a heretofore noncapitalist economy and society.

And, of course, here we are in 2015, when the United States is characterized by obscene and still-growing levels of inequality. Perhaps, then, we are ready to see and think about class distinctions, at least in seventeenth-century Dutch society.

So, I am intrigued by this show—but also worried. That’s because, according to what I have read, the paintings are arranged in separate rooms according to class. Low, middle, and upper-class, “a bit like airplane seating.”

The exhibit follows a logical sequence by grouping paintings of the wealthiest ranks in one room and then moving down the social strata in the following sections. The final room ties the exhibit together by depicting paintings of ferries and public squares where members of each class intersect.

The question is, what is the notion of class that informs the Boston show?

As I see it, you can’t have one class without the others. It’s a class system—the different classes are related to one another, through performances and flows of necessary and surplus labor—not just different displays of clothing, interior furnishings, and activities. And the emergence of capitalism within the Netherlands created a new pattern of performances and flows compared to what had existed before and what existed even at that time throughout much of the rest of Western Europe.

If the paintings of the period are going to be utilized to illustrate those new class relations, then perhaps it would have been better to group them differently—for example, to show within the same room how the surplus labor that was captured by some households, and then utilized to relinquish members of those same households from the need to work and, in addition, to hire milkmaids and other servants and to purchase items of conspicuous consumption from abroad, was also deployed to make sure additional surplus labor continued to be performed by the other members of Dutch society.

That’s the exhibit of Dutch paintings that, in my view, could have been organized in Boston.

Art of the day

Posted: 2 October 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

I guess we’re far enough away from the Cold War that a socialist can make a serious for the presidency—and for the art that was produced in the early decades of the Soviet Union to be appreciated in the United States.

Yesterday, Kristin M. Jones reviewed the Jewish Museum’s exhibit “The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film” for the Wall Street Journal.

In Dziga Vertov’s exuberant “Man With a Movie Camera” (1929), the camera dances, spins and materializes on rooftops, before an oncoming train and even on stage. Combining electrifying editing, naturalistic scenes and trick photography, the film evokes 24 hours of Soviet urban life, beginning with humans and machines awakening at daylight. Vertov envisioned an all-seeing “cinema eye—more perfect than a human eye for purposes of research into the chaos of visual phenomena filling the universe.” Filmmakers explored various aesthetic approaches during the era, but it was a period of startling cinematic invention.

And, of course, that same startling artistic invention can be seen in the original poster for the film (created by the Sternberg brothers).



Harmen de Hoop and Jan Ubøe, “Permanent Education (a mural about the beauty of knowledge)” (Nuart 2015, Stavanger, Norway)

Ubøe, Professor of Mathematics and Statistics at the Norwegian School Of Economics, gives a 30-minute lecture on the streets of Stavanger on the subject of option pricing.

Drawing on Black and Scholes explanation of how to price options, Ubøe will explain how banks can eliminate risk when they issue options. Black and Scholes explained how banks (by trading continuously in the market) can meet their obligations no matter what happens. The option price is the minimum amount of money that a bank needs to carry out such a strategy.

While the core argument is perfectly sound, it has an interesting flaw. If the market suddenly makes a jump, i.e. reacts so fast that the bank does not have sufficient time to reposition their assets, the bank will be exposed to risk. This flaw goes a long way to explain the devastating financial crisis.

This theory, and similar other theories, led banks to believe that risk no longer existed, so why not lend money to whoever is in need of money? In the end the losses peaked at 13,000 billion dollars – more than the total profits from banking since the dawn of time.

My guess is, most of the members of the audience did not understand the mathematics. However, Ubøe assures them it works—both as a form of knowledge (the manipulation of the mathematics) and as a strategy for banks (to eliminate risk)—and they can’t but believe him. It has a kind of beauty.

And then he explains that other effect of the math: it led banks to believe they had found a way of eliminating risk (because, like the audience, they believed the mathematicians), which fell apart when markets made sudden jumps and the traders weren’t able to reposition their assets quickly enough.

In that case, the beauty of the knowledge is undermined by the ugliness of the results.


Special mention

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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 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.


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).