Friday, July 13, 2012

What is the value of second-tier art?

We've been travelling around the Southwest on vacation this week. We passed through Taos, NM a few days ago. Taos is a beautiful little arts town, centered around its adobe-built plaza and pueblo revival buildings. There are dozens of little galleries. The roads throughout the surrounding area have signs for "pottery this way" or "working artist." There are hundreds of artists resident in the area.

How do people make a living at it? Commercial art galleries always seem so deserted, with one staff member always at a corner desk hidden behind a computer and trying to look busy. I'd be surprised if they make more than two or three sales on a good day. The average for a painting or sculpted mirror in the area is around $750 up. Of that, probably less than half goes to the artist, and they no doubt have to pay tax on that. Better known artists in the main galleries sell for $5000 or more. Even the, only a few make a very good living. There is a limited market.

In economic terms, it's a tournament, like a sports league that starts with a hundred teams and ends up with one winner. Thousands start in the arts, only a few rise to the pinnacle and capture most of the fame and financial rewards. Success is inherently scarce. The rest hope for an occasional sale in a small gallery, but are mostly frustrated and obscure.

Most of the arts are like this. Only a tiny proportion of actors, musicians, rock bands, painters, ceramicists, opera singers "make it." Some of it is a matter of talent rising to the top, of course. But often it is sheer chance - which is why I suspect so many Hollywood artists trend liberal, as they have a sense that their wealth was chance rather than earned or justified. And very often success is a matter of skill at manipulating connections and contacts.

Art and money mix in strange ways. Selling art wraps together many different issues and flash points. It is tangled with wealth. In many cases, art IS wealth, the clearest expression of wealth that exists. The loot of the robber barons, like Frick and Carnegie and Getty and Morgan, ended up as treasure houses of art. Miners and steelworkers and wildcatters toiled for decades to produce the wealth that funded the great American museums, where their sweat has been transmuted into Picassos and Serras.

People naturally incline to spend more money in aesthetic pursuits as they grow wealthier. The first generation often makes a fortune in meat processing or engineering or finance. The children and grandchildren spend it on art. The Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos is one example. The Allerton Gardens in Kaui is another. Trust fund babes hang out in Williamsburg and write novels.

Art is tangled up with status, of course, all the more so as people increasingly have access to the same mainstream goods. You can't buy a better iPad even if you are a billionaire. They sell Prado and Armani in midwestern department stores. But you can put unique and expensive art on your walls.

Taste is the real class marker more than money.

And art is always tangled up with expression of particular values. Art is often the secular religion of the modern world, MoMA or LACMA its cathedrals. It is an expression of identity and state power and patronage.

So thinking about art, in both its aesthetic and commercial senses, tells us a lot about what people want and value when they are not materially constrained. It tells us a lot about how society may evolve in the future, as it grows wealthier. We may (hopefully) spend more wealth on beauty and aesthetic pleasure. But the art world also carries other less attractive features. It is hierarchical. It is bitchy. It is faddish and political. People can express themselves. And they can also be ignored and disdained and excluded.

There are many tiers in the art world, and despite an illustrious past Taos is not up there with New York galleries or Art Basel or the Venice Biennale.(Seven Days in the Art World is a fascinating insight into that sphere.)

The bottom tier is the souvenir and craft shops around the plaza in Taos ("schlocky", says the local guidebook). People buy turquoise necklaces and fridge magnets and made-in-china navajo rugs. Why? The human aesthetic instinct and a desire for decoration. Memories, something to give Aunt Mabel. Buying something a little more exotic than is readily available at home. It's not expensive, and it's not "art", of course. But it is aesthetic pleasure, and even average joe can buy a necklace chain for his wife with joy.

A step up from that is the second-tier galleries, which in Taos are located a block or two off the plaza. There must be so many people who paint or pot primarily as a means of self-expression, even if it means a fairly threadbare existence.

This is a fascinating thing. I've been talking throughout this blog about focusing the economy more on the ends of flourishing, developing the good life, because the sheer efficiency of the market economy is saturating lower levels of basic survival needs. For a lot of people, producing mediocre art is the thing they would love most of all to do. Is this a bad thing?

Getting into even a second-tier commercial gallery in a small remote town is an achievement in itself, something that most aspiring daubers never do. But walking around many of the smaller galleries it is difficult to avoid the thought that much of it is not very good. Real aesthetic talent stands out when you see it.

How can we tell? After all, perhaps it needs a very discriminating eye to evaluate it - although clearly the galleries here are appealing to well-healed tourists who might suddenly fall in love with a painting at random. Yet the art in the better, more expensive galleries immediately seems so much better. (We liked this one).

Finally, there is the top tier art, the realm of Sotheby's and museum curators and the jet set. There are the collectors and the dealers and the PR people. It is the art market. It is art for display and investment and scholarship, rather than love.

Yet the market tends to yield to public goods after a while. Private owners donate to public museums, and the greatest art becomes the common heritage, the common-wealth of people. Over time, the stock of those public goods, those assets, steadily grows. Maybe that tells us something too. The nature of posession changes as we go up the hierarchy of needs.

A thought experiment

Let's imagine we have an economy which before long lets people do just what they want - perhaps not at a lavish standard of living, but free to spend time as they choose. (We imagined a desert island back here). Maybe some people will just sit at the bar all day. But a lot of people will dearly love to paint, or write bad novels, or poetry, or ceramics. They will want to sit around in espresso bars and debate the latest trends. There's inherent motivation to do so.

Let's say ordinary people have more chance to indulge their aesthetic inclinations, as only rich heiresses could do in the past. What kind of society does that produce?

There is surely an independent value in having many more people able to paint and write and play in a band, even if society ends up with more unread novels and unplayed music tracks. It isn't something that many people will pay much for, of course. The exchange value is low. But there is value in letting people flourish and develop their talents - and some of it wil turn out to be astonishingly good. Perhaps more of the work will circulate by gift and exchange and donation than it ever would if people have to sell it to make a living. Perhaps everyone can have mediocre original art on their walls.

This is one of the fundamental issues we will have to confront as the economy evolves. A lot of the things people want to do have little or no market or exchange value. But people want to do them anyway. And the wealtheir or less constrained they get, the more they want do to them.

Will real aesthetic value drown in a sea of medocrity? Publishers and editors and gallery owners used to sift out the gems from the dross. But there is scope for lots of little worlds, little scenes, small groups. You may never be recognized as a major international artist. But you may be recognized as significant in Taos circles, or even in your church or reading group or extended family.

In any case, it is getting harder to define quality, at least beyond a minimum qualifying threshold. The gatekeeper role is breaking down in so many areas. You don't have to have a contract with a major publisher or know the right literary circles to get published as a novelist any more. You can upload to the world on Kindle, and it's increasingly not clear that Simon & Schuster or Penguin can market your book any better than you can. Choosing the next big hit has always involved some luck, as the rejction slips for plenty of famous novels and screenplays show.

Making it big in the art world is potentially corrupt, as well. The Poetry world, for example, seems to revolve around people giving those they know prizes and vice versa. Committees and art seem to repel each other.

Maybe we will get more mediocrity. But maybe we will also get more plurality and differetiation and local presence.

Maybe we will get less modernist originality, at least in aggregate. But we may get more beauty. A little extra aesthetic beauty can be transformative, and not even that expensive in monetary terms. A little extra design talent could alter the living conditions of all the people who live in deeply ugly tower blocks and cookie-cutter mansions.

Talent still matters. But perhaps even bad art is better than no art.

Maybe the second-tier art sometimes needs more of a purpose or an idea. It isn't always clear if the fault is in what the artist thinks will sell to uneducated consumers - demand rather than supply. And perhaps the artist's perspective often is just not that interesting. Self-expression as such just isn't that interesting to other people if it does not resonate with more universal themes. The great art of the past was mostly linked to much larger themes or subjects - religious expression in quattrocento Florence, status markers of elite taste (everywhere and at all times), particular commercial imperatives or market demand, like portraitture in golden age Dutch art. Maybe it is a matter of more education, so that the art says something.

All art is quite useless, Oscar Wilde famously said. But the little latte towns and tourist-trap galleries and craft stalls tell us something about what people want if they are given the chance. It tells us something about the good life. The value of second-tier art is letting people flourish and develop their talents. And maybe occasionally other people might like it.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

How Amazon will destroy local retail

Disturbing news for retailers. Amazon is going to destroy you with next-day or even same-day delivery, says Slate. The internet retailer has given up trying to avoid state sales taxes, and is instead building massive warehouses right next to major cities.

It’s hard to overstate how thoroughly this move will shake up the retail industry. Same-day delivery has long been the holy grail of Internet retailers, something that dozens of startups have tried and failed to accomplish. (Remember But Amazon is investing billions to make next-day delivery standard, and same-day delivery an option for lots of customers. If it can pull that off, the company will permanently alter how we shop. To put it more bluntly: Physical retailers will be hosed.
Main Street retail employs millions of lower-skilled salespeople, so this could have a serious impact on employment more generally. As with most of these things, however, it will not be immediate, but cumulate over a period of years.

The process of retail consolidation has been going on for forty years, through Wal-Mart and big box stores. This could be a new leap in efficiency, though. We saw Amazon has invested in new technology to dramatically improve the efficiency of its warehouses too. It is safe to say an Amazon-dominated retail industry will employ a lot less people.

On the bright side, it may be a good thing if downtown retail rents fall, so that the retail that remains becomes quirky and individual and creative, rather than a soulless chain store scrambling to pay rents to some pension fund a thousand miles away.

Or maybe we'll get even more of the plague of banks opening storefronts and hollowed out city centers. There needs to be a deeper rethink of the health of cities.



A Garden Economy

I thought this NYT op-ed the other day was interesting. Metaphors have an insidious effect on the way we think about the economy, the authors argue.

What we require now is a new framework for thinking and talking about the economy, grounded in modern understandings of how things actually work. Economies, as social scientists now understand, aren’t simple, linear and predictable, but complex, nonlinear and ecosystemic. An economy isn’t a machine; it’s a garden. It can be fruitful if well tended, but will be overrun by noxious weeds if not. ..

Seeing the economy this way does not make you anti-capitalist. In fact, nothing could be more pro-business and pro-growth than a Gardenbrain approach — because by focusing our attention on the long term over the short, on the power of markets to create wealth through evolutionary adaptations and on the health of the whole rather than a part, it gives us prosperity that is widely shared, sustained and self-reinforcing.

It's possible to exaggerate the effect of metaphors and 'framing'. I think George Lakoff's work generally falls in that excessive category.

But it's also important to be sensitive to the kind of stories we tell, and the assumptions embedded in those stories. I've always thought the constrained optimization models of mainstream economics are just another kind of metaphor, not inherently better than comparing economic activity to a football game or a movie or a machine or war. Not rigorous; just an "as if" story.



The British press is having a field day over the tragic death of billionaire Eva Rausing, who was married to the third generation heir of the man who invented the cardboard milk carton. There is a third generation curse, this Telegraph article says. Many people with too much money and too little purpose in life drift into self-destructive ennui:  

In 1944, Evelyn Waugh wrote a letter to an old friend, Coote Lygon, saying: “I am writing a very beautiful book, to bring tears, about very rich, beautiful, high-born people who live in palaces and have no troubles except what they make themselves and those are mainly the demons, sex and drink.” ..
If Waugh was writing Brideshead now, he’d throw in a third demon – drugs. Poor Eva Rausing, who was found dead this week, was the daughter of a rich American Pepsi-Cola executive who multiplied her fortune – and her troubles – a thousand times, with her marriage to Hans Kristian Rausing, joint heir to the £4.5 billion Tetra Pak fortune. It didn’t help that they met in rehab. As they don’t teach you in maths lessons in smart public schools, Predisposition Towards Drugs + Limitless Cash = Big Trouble.
There is a third element to the equation: too much playtime. It’s the drugs that actually shut down the body; but it’s the relentless dreariness of one empty day after another, with nothing to do – except the odd charity ball committee meeting and the forever unfinished screenplay – that buttresses the need for drugs.

It's very sad. It also illustrates a theme I keep coming back to: people find it hard to live and be happy without a sense of purpose. But our economic system at best delivers purpose only as a side-effect.

When people are released from economic constraints, the results are often not good.

Step back and think: our whole society is steadily being released from material constraints. Much of the disruption of the current economic crisis is - paradoxically - a consequence of that, just like farm work dried up in the face of automation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That was a huge step forward for society, but it didn't feel good if you were a displaced farmworker.

Sheer economic efficiency means we have basic material abundance. A lot of older kinds of work is starting to dry up. And our economy increasingly has a tendency to go on the equivalent of heroin benders.

We are in the midst of a huge economic phase shift, to levels of needs which require evolution of our economic institutions. It isn't actual material shortage which has created recent volatility, it's psychology and behavior: misperception of risk, lack of restraint, debt benders, welfare ponzi schemes, bad incentives and misbehavior.

The problem isn't wrestling enough to eat from nature any more. It's us. Our problem isn't shortage, but addictions.

The new "commanding heights" of the economy is not to feed people, or give them stuff or routine services. It's to give people purpose and help them flourish when we have satisfied most of the lower levels on the hierarchy of needs. It's finding the good life when you don't spend your day in cubicles.

At present the cubicle is, by default, our vision of the good life, with the corner office its highest expression. But the world of work is starting to be turned upside down.

Aristocratic follies and tragedy should serve as a warning. Near the beginning of this blog I talked about Keynes' famous essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. Keynes looked several generations into the future:

Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem-how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well. ..
Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society. To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes to-day in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing! For these are, so to speak, our advance guard-those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp there. For they have most of them failed disastrously, so it seems to me-those who have an independent income but no associations or duties or ties-to solve the problem which has been set them.

Eighty years on and an eightfold increase in economic wealth later, those problems are live and on stage now.

Keynes, the Bloomsbury aesthete, was suspicious of purpose of course. But purpose is now our main problem. The trouble is our reflex liberalism makes it difficult to talk about ends, and purpose, and substantive content to human flourishing. Our economic institutions have become outworn, devoted to solving the problem of material scarcity that is steadily less relevant, and procedural neutrality.

Economic wealth is insufficient for happiness, as most ethical and religious traditions have always known. It is necessary, perhaps: few people can be happy with monk-like austerity and deprival. But at some point the main obstacles for society become ethical rather than purely economic.

In some ways, our society is like sad Eva Rausing. We haven't figured out how to make wealth work for us, and some of the pathologies lead to foolish decisions and crisis instead.



Sunday, July 8, 2012

Don't Indulge. Be Happy

An NYT op-ed this morning by two researchers on happiness:

We usually think of having more money as allowing us to buy more and more of the stuff we like for ourselves, from bigger houses to fancier cars to better wine to more finely pixilated televisions. But these typical spending tendencies — buying more, and buying for ourselves — are ineffective at turning money into happiness. A decade of research has demonstrated that if you insist on spending money on yourself, you should shift from buying stuff (TVs and cars) to experiences (trips and special evenings out). Our own recent research shows that in addition to buying more experiences, you’re better served in many cases by simply buying less — and buying for others.