The Arts

I loved the Michael Hofmann review of Stephen Parker’s Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life in the 15 August 2014 Times Literary Supplement.  Every paragraph of that review is a gem and Hofmann calls the book perhaps the greatest literary biography he has read.  I’ve ordered my copy.

Here is one part of that review, toward the end, which caught my eye:

I’m not really sure what the case against Brecht is.  That he treated women and co-workers badly?  That he played fast and loose with the intellectual property of others, but was litigiously possessive of his own?  That he wrote no more hit shows after The Threepenny Opera?  That he failed to crack America?  That he wouldn’t denounce the Soviet Union?  That he was drab and a killjoy?  That he had it cushy after settling back in East Germany in 1949?  That he was consumed with his own importance?

Perhaps the Parker book will change my mind, but for now file under “All of the Above.”

Addendum: Here is another superb Michael Hofmann review.

A.O. Scott considers that question in The New York Times.   I am not sure I can sum up his view in a sentence, so I don’t know if this is criticizing him or partially agreeing with him.  In any case, I don’t see growing income inequality as the main driving force behind the decline of middlebrow American culture.  An individual’s level of education often predicts cultural consumption better than does his or her income, and education has not in general declined in this country.

Furthermore many forms of culture have grown much cheaper.  Once you are paying for cable, the marginal dollar cost of watching a show or a movie at home is zero.  Songs and music are much cheaper than twenty years ago, and eBooks make many (not all) books cheaper.  In other words, if stagnant income groups wanted middlebrow culture, they still could afford it.

Global markets are growing and those markets are often relatively middlebrow in their orientation, which should maintain the return to producing middlebrow culture.  And the United States continues to grow in population, even though the middle is shrinking in percentage terms.  The supply of creative activity is quite elastic, so it is hard to argue the wealthy have placed all relevant artists in their employ and thus choked or starved the middle.

It is much more expensive to organize a middlebrow art exhibit than fifteen years ago, and we see fewer good ones, but that is mainly because of 9/11 and insurance rates and related institutional issues, not income inequality.

My view is a lot of people never wanted middlebrow culture in the first place, at least not in every sphere of their cultural consumption.  The internet gave them more choice, they took it, and much of middlebrow culture lost its support base.  Consider one area where the internet still doesn’t play that much of a role and that is theatrical productions.  You can watch plenty of theatre on YouTube, but it’s not such a close substitute to seeing the show live.  And if you look at Broadway theatre, it seems more relentlessly and aggressively middlebrow than ever before.  Ugh, that is why I stopped going.  NFL football seems middlebrow to me and the audience base still is there, again because the internet has not come up with a close competitor.  If the sport has a problem it is the violence and injury, not that we’ve evolved into a mix of polo ponies and roller derby.

That is a new paper (pdf) by Brendan Epstein and Miles S. Kimball, the abstract is here:

We develop a theory that focuses on the general equilibrium and long-run macro-economic consequences of trends in job utility. Given secular increases in job utility, work hours per capita can remain approximately constant over time even if the income effect of higher wages on labor supply exceeds the substitution effect. In addition, secular improvements in job utility can be substantial relative to welfare gains from ordinary technological progress. These two implications are connected by an equation flowing from optimal hours choices: improvements in job utility that have a significant effect on labor supply tend to have large welfare effects.

I view this hypothesis as consistent with my view that we should be utility optimists but revenue pessimists.  Here is a closely related paper I once wrote with Alex.

The pointer is from Claudia Sahm.

The world’s first “emotional” auction, where people pay with feelings rather than money, has taken place in Sweden.

Bids were generated by the way people’s biometrics – heart rate and sweat changes – altered when they saw an item for sale.

Note that if you click on the link, it will make sounds and set a video in motion, caveat emptor.  Via Colin Camerer.  If all markets were run on this basis, what is it you would take home at the end of the day?  And who would be taking you home?

Facebook manipulated the emotions of hundreds of thousands of its users, and found that they would pass on happy or sad emotions, it has said. The experiment, for which researchers did not gain specific consent, has provoked criticism from users with privacy and ethical concerns.

For one week in 2012, Facebook skewed nearly 700,000 users’ news feeds to either be happier or sadder than normal. The experiment found that after the experiment was over users’ tended to post positive or negative comments according to the skew that was given to their newsfeed.

The research has provoked distress because of the manipulation involved.

Clearly plenty of ads try to manipulative us with positive emotions, and without telling us.  There are also plenty of sad songs, or for that matter sad movies and sad advertisements, again running an agenda for their own manipulative purposes.  Is the problem with Facebook its market power?  Or is the the sheer and unavoidable transparency of the notion that Facebook is inducing us to pass along similar emotions to our network of contacts, thus making us manipulators too, and in a way which is hard to us to avoid thinking about?  What would Robin Hanson say?

Note by the way that “The effect the study documents is very small, as little as one-tenth of a percent of an observed change.”  How much that eventually dwindles, explodes, or dampens out in the longer run I would say is still not known to us.  My intuition however is that we see a lot of longer-run dampening and also intertemporal substitution of emotions, meaning this is pretty close to a non-event.

The initial link is here.  The underlying study is here.  Other readings on the topic are here.

I hope you’re not too sad about this post [smiley face]!

Who are the wealthiest artists?

by on June 22, 2014 at 6:11 am in Economics, The Arts | Permalink

Here are two examples you don’t usually think of:

Then there are a couple of names who are totally unknown to most people, even in the art world. These are the richest artists you’ve never heard of: graffiti artist David Choe painted the Facebook headquarters in 2007 and was rewarded with stock, which now makes him worth about $200m. The Welshman Andrew Vicari has made an estimated $142m from supplying portraits and paintings of horses, battle and genre scenes to Middle Easterners, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

The longer article, by Georgina Adam, cites the Thompson estimate that there are about seventy-five “superstar” artists who regularly earn in seven figures.  And here is the new Georgina Adam book Big Bucks: The Explosion of the Art Market in the 21st Century.

Artistic musts

by on June 11, 2014 at 2:33 am in Books, Film, Music, Television, The Arts | Permalink

Not long ago, a group of people were sitting around a New York City Laotian restaurant and a challenge was made.  The challenge was to create a list of a particular kind, drawing upon the wisdom of the groups.  The producer of the dare (not myself, the person wishes to remain anonymous) put it like this:

…these are MUSTS, not “here’s something I like.”  You aren’t recommending, you are obligating.  That is a much larger responsibility and I urge you to use it with extreme caution.  Also, adding to the list constitutes a commitment to take in the list [emphasis added by TC], with the one caveat.

There is currently no food or visual art on the list.  We briefly discussed adding some food but I think it was going to get out of hand, plus Amazon can’t drone you tacos from Tyler’s favorite gas-station Mexican restaurant.  If the food or visual art is in NYC and readily accessible it could be considered.

Yes, we all obliged ourselves to consume the resulting list.  And what did we put on it?

Primer (movie)
[I am going to remove Upstream Color from the list.  I think it's a better movie than Primer, and I would watch it again twice back to back right now, but it's less of a cultural touchstone. ]

The Power Broker (book)

Nature’s Metropolis, especially Chapter 3 (book)

“Blink” (episode of Dr. Who from TV)

Before Sunrise trilogy (movies)

A State of Wonder: The Complete Goldberg Variations 1955 & 1981 (music)

The Forever War (book)

A Deepness in the Sky (book)
[Redacted and I agree that the first book, A Fire Upon the Deep, is excellent but not as good as this.  All voices say the third book is a pass]

Prisoners of War (TV series, Israeli)

Loveless (music, 1991 album by My Bloody Valentine)

The Lives of Others (movie)
[there was some controversy around this one]

Thought of You (animated short)

Persona (movie, Ingmar Bergman)

The Godfather (movie)

Beethoven String Quartet Opus 132 (music)

What would you add to such a list?  Of course from this list I do not endorse every pick, but I can report that I do not have “too much extra work to do.”

The worst book blurb I have read

by on May 26, 2014 at 3:41 pm in Books, The Arts | Permalink

Get this:

“The written equivalent of a Botticelli.”

That is from an advertisement for Antony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See.

The book has stellar Amazon reviews, and the MSM reviews are quite positive (or here), and yet I bought it only with reluctance, more to satisfy my curiosity than because I think I will enjoy or finish it.

What exactly is so bad about that blurb?  After all, I like Botticelli.  I like Botticelli a lot.  But if they are targeting readers who think such a book can be compared meaningfully to Botticelli, or who would be impressed by such a designation…then I start to worry.  And that one piece of Bayesian information weighs more heavily in my mind than all the praise for the work I have encountered.

The author is Don Thompson and the subtitle is Back Stories and Peculiar Economics from the World of Contemporary Art.  It is a very enjoyable book on the economics of the contemporary art world, here is one bit:

The size of his art empire allows Gagosian to take full advantage of the economic oddity that when an artist is hot, the relationship of supply and demand reverses.  If an artist creates enough work to show simultaneously in several galleries and at several art fairs, greater buzz produces higher prices.  Each show, each fair, each art magazine mention produces more critical appraisal, more buzz, and more collectors on the waiting list.  The reassurance of the dealer is reinforced by the behavior of the crowd.  Greater supply produces greater demand.

Andy Warhol was one of the artists who understood this best.

Here is a well-written piece by Epicurean Dealmaker (ED) on the arts and economic inequality.   Another response is here from Salon, also see the pieces that ED links to, such as Henry Farrell (and more here and Matt here).  Unfortunately, ED cannot get beyond his preferred framing of the problem in terms of inequality and inequality alone.  He has “inequality on the brain.”

Here is the nub of the critique:

Cowen takes a detour to praise the cultural dynamism and productivity of 19th Century France, which he claims results from the substantial socioeconomic inequality of the period. This is a pivot too far.

ED fails to note that:

1. Much of the artistic creativity of the 19th century stemmed from its wealth creation, not from its inequality per se.  He specifies a setting where a robber baron stole from a working man, and supposes I am defending the theft by arguing it brought us some good art.  That is an imaginary creation of ED.  The very passage from me he cites refers to the virtues of wealth but does not refer to inequality.

2. For much of the latter three-quarters of the 19th century, consumption inequality appears to have declined.  Oops.

3. Many of his intemperate statements about the history of art are wrong or doubtful or exaggerated and have been answered or at least contested, including in the five books I have written on the economics of the arts, including In Praise of Commercial Culture.

4. Let’s not talk about “the arts.”  Reproducible and non-reproducible art forms will respond very differently to income inequality, as Alex and I argued in the SEJ.  Cooking is yet another story, if we are going to call that art.

5. Piketty himself neglects the “wealth can generate additional TFP” possibility, and that remains a significant hole in his argument.

Overall this ED post is a good example of how easily and quickly one can go awry by an obsession with framing everything in terms of inequality.  It also shows the drawbacks of a relative unfamiliarity with the basic literature, including for that matter the recent book by Piketty.

Here is a new result, although it is based on surveys rather than market data:

It’s no secret that salespeople at upscale shops can be a little snobbish, if not outright rude, the researchers note. Consumer complaints recently have pressured some luxury retailers to train their staffs to be more approachable; Louis Vuitton even went as far as decorating the entrance of its Beverly Hills store with a smiling cartoon apple in 2007. But if luxury retailers want to continue to rake in the dough, they actually should do the exact opposite, the study found. The ruder the salesperson the better.

In four online surveys, Ward and Dahl had participants imagine interactions with different types of salespeople under a bunch of different conditions. Variables included the imagined store’s level of luxury, the extent of the salesperson’s haughtiness, how well the salesperson represented the store’s brand, and how closely participants themselves related with the brand. The results:

  • Rejection makes people want to buy luxury goods. A salesperson’s condescending attitude has little effect on consumers’ desire to buy more affordable brands like Gap and American Eagle, though.
  • Rejection is stronger when salespeople convincingly embody brands in the way they act and dress. Sloppy salespeople aren’t as intimidating. 
  • People who really want to own a particular brand are even more influenced by rejection. Instead of switching their loyalties, customers just become more attached.
  • Rejection works best in the short term. While great at pressuring people into buying something in the moment, dismissive staff may still alienate customers in the long run.

The results fall into a long line of research that demonstrates the extent to which rejection can jar our fragile self-conceptions.

The article is based on:

…a forthcoming study in theJournal of Consumer Research,Morgan Ward of Southern Methodist University and Darren Dahl of the Sauder School of Business…

The pointer is from Roman Hardgrave.

Everyone reads One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera but actually my favorites are some of the early short fiction and also News of a Kidnapping [Noticio de un Secuestro], plus the unfinished autobiography.

The NYT obituary is here.

Fortunately, costs are easier to estimate, and those for displaying a painting derive largely from its market value. Consider “The Wedding Dance,” a 16th-century work by the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Detroit museum visitors have enjoyed this painting since 1930. How much would it cost to preserve that privilege for future generations?

A tidy sum, as it turns out. According to Christie’s, this canvas alone could fetch up to $200 million. Once interest rates return to normal levels — say, 6 percent — the forgone interest on that amount would be approximately $12 million a year.

If we assume that the museum would be open 2,000 hours a year, and ignore the cost of gallery space and other indirect expenses, the cost of keeping the painting on display would be more than $6,000 an hour. Assuming that an average of five people would view it per hour, all year long, it would still cost more than $1,200 an hour to provide the experience for each visitor.

That is from Robert H. Frank.

After a mere week or so at work, it can no longer be said that Catherine Rampell is the most underrated force in economics writing and journalism (or can it?).  Here is her post on which are the most expensive schools.  It is art and music schools, when you take all relevant costs and financial aid into account.  Excerpt:

Now here’s a list of the top 10 most expensive four-year private nonprofits, after subtracting the average amount of government and institutional grant/scholarship aid at each institution:

1. School of the Art Institute of Chicago

2. Ringling College of Art and Design

3. The Boston Conservatory

4. Berklee College of Music

5. California Institute of the Arts

Do see the earlier MR post “Artists grew up in households w/typically higher incomes than doctors did.”  What does this imply about the competitiveness of the sector?  About our models of child-rearing?

Sentences to ponder

by on March 19, 2014 at 12:01 pm in Data Source, Medicine, The Arts | Permalink

Artists grew up in households w/typically higher incomes than doctors did…

There is more information here, along with a picture, and the original story here.

Addendum:  Cowen and Tabarrok once wrote on this topic.