Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The emperor's new art

The graffiti artist Banksy had some fun over the weekend, getting a stand-in to sell his art in a streetside kiosk:

When collectors buy Bansky art from dealers, they can pay several hundred thousand dollars. But when a nondescript guy hawks the same stuff for $60, passersby knock the price down to $30 before taking it off his hands.

“Sooo … does this mean we’re in a Banksy bubble?” asks blogger Jodi Beggs: 

It’s a bit shocking how context, expectations and perceived social preferences affect how much value we place on things.

Alex Tabarrock offers this analysis:

Maximizing revenue for non-reproducible art is a matching process[;] the artist must find the handful of buyers in the world willing to pay the most (see An Economic Theory of Avant-Garde and Popular Art) so perhaps one can explain this as a failure of marketing. 
An alternative explanation is that modern art is a bubble[;] people buy only because they expect to sell to others–take away this expectation and the art doesn’t sell.

Today, a set of paints, brushes and some canvas can be had for a few dollars, and raw artistic talent - the ability to draw, paint or sculpt with facility - is more or less a commodity as well. (Nor is artistic talent needed any longer for a career as an artist, as a visit to any post-modern exhibit will readily show.) In such a world, is there anything to artistic “value” apart from social one-upmanship, marketing, and maybe some luck? If not, is Banksy’s schtick a refreshing demystification, or an exceptionally canny way of playing the game by seeming not to?

Is a person who pays $300,000 for a Banksy a connoisseur or a fool? What about a Van Gogh?  A Jackson Pollock? A Picasso? A competent copy of a Picasso? A Warhol?

And here's my conjecture about why this is interesting: I think the world as a whole is coming to resemble the art market more and more. 

The economist John Maynard Keynes once likened the stock market to a beauty contest in which judges tried to pick the girls they thought the other judges would like - a funhouse world of opinions about opinions. Yet most of us prefer to think we’re participating in a real economy, exchanging real goods and services that have intrinsic value. Art may be in the eye of the beholder, but bread is food, a coat is clothing and a house is shelter no matter what other people think. 

But we live in an economy where a $3.40 box of cereal contains $1.02 of marketing but only 14 cents of actual food. Fashion drives clothing styles and prices every which way. The price of your house can rise or fall by tens of thousands of dollars depending on whether quants working for Goldman Sachs think thousands of people you’ve never met will be able to pay their mortgages. 

We live in a world in which the opinions of people we've never met about things we don't understand have a profound and direct effect on our lives. It's weird and disorienting, like the same picture selling for $30 and $300,000 for no real reason. 

P.S.: If you haven't seen Banksy's documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, you really should. It's brilliant.

No comments:

Post a Comment