The Arts

Tyler Cowen talks to Emily Moore

by on October 25, 2013 at 12:37 pm in Economics, The Arts | Permalink

Here I am interviewed in Tank magazine about my article “An Economic Theory of Avant-Garde and Popular Art, or High and Low Culture,” co-authored with Alex.  Excerpt:

EM: Your essay contains one of the most interesting footnotes I’ve ever read: “The interactions between the quantity and subjective quality of art are similar to the interactions analysed by Becker and Lewis (1973) between the quantity and quality 
of children.”

TC: Becker’s work considered how families might regard “more investment in each child” as a replacement for “having lots of children”, and that is indeed a common substitution as economic development proceeds. Analytically, we can think of artworks as similar to children in this regard. Quality, in the sense of an artist pleasing himself or herself, can substitute for quantity. Syd Barrett perhaps knew he had nowhere left to go, aesthetically. Proust and Cervantes didn’t need to write so many other works, perhaps because they felt satisfied with how thoroughly they expressed their visions through what they did. Balzac took a different course and achieved a different kind of creative satisfaction, yet precisely for that reason he may resonate less with people today than the more idiosyncratic visions of Proust or Cervantes.

The original article you will find here.

Banksy Comments on the Nobel Prize?

by on October 15, 2013 at 10:22 am in Economics, The Arts | Permalink

Mashable: Street artist Banksy set up a stall in New York’s Central Park Saturday, selling his original pieces — worth tens of thousands of dollars each — for $60.

The event was documented on video and posted on Banksy’s website. It took several hours for the first artwork to be sold, to a lady who managed to negotiate a 50% discount for two small canvases. There were only two more buyers, and by 6 p.m. the stall was closed with total earnings of $420.

For comparison, in 2007 Banksy’s work “Space Girl & Bird” was purchased for $578,000, and in 2008 his canvas “Keep it Spotless” was sold for $1,870,000.

What would Fama, Shiller and Hansen say about these asset prices?

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. (Fashions and fads can help the latter explanation a long but there still needs to be an expectation of a future sucker buyer.)

Or perhaps Banksy is commenting on an earlier Nobel winner.

This is from Peter Aspden’s FT ten point guide to mastering the contemporary art market:

So you quite like the look of something, and you ask how much it costs. “Two,” may be the reply. The air of vagueness is a test. You will know, from your studies of the artist in question, whether that means £2 (no), £200 (unlikely), £200,000, or £2m. But if the gallerist’s assistant is American, she (almost always a she) may be talking dollars. Don’t ask. Make a rough calculation in your head that covers all possible options. Any physical reaction is ill-advised, other than the barely perceptible raising of an eyebrow. Finally, ask if she will accept roubles. You’re on the front foot now.

Keep in mind that art sellers very often have preferences over the quality of buyers they sell to.  Higher quality buyers lead to referrals, perceived gallery quality, and also do more to boost the artist’s reputation, which in turn helps the value of the gallery’s inventory.

The notice is here.  Camerer is an economist at CalTech, a founding pioneer of neuroeconomics, and a former child prodigy, the standard set of links on him is here.  You can follow Colin on Twitter here.

And don’t neglect these three winners (among others):

— Jeremy Denk, 43, New York City. Writer and concert pianist who combines his skills to help readers and listeners to better appreciate classical music.

— Angela Duckworth, 43, Philadelphia. Research psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania helping to transform understanding of just what roles self-control and grit play in educational achievement.  [TC: Duckworth's home page is here and her research focuses on conscientiousness as a major factor behind educational success]

— Vijay Iyer, 41, New York City. Jazz pianist, composer and bandleader and writer reconceptualizing the genre through compositions for his ensembles, as well as cross-disciplinary collaborations and scholarly writing.

Someone just paid David Rees, of Beacon, N.Y., $35 to sharpen a pencil.

“I think people think: ‘Wow, I can’t believe he actually did it,’” Rees said. “I wasn’t sure what would happen when I sent this guy my money.”

Now before you write him off as some con-artist whittling away on pre-packaged No. 2s from a farmhouse upstate you should know Rees is a sharp guy.  He considers himself an artisanal pencil sharpener.

“Internet commenters have definitely made this argument before,” Rees said. “Now, a pencil is a completely transparent communication tool. There’s no secret to it.”

As for his pencils, he began sharpening those after leaving a job as a political cartoonist to work for the 2010 Census, where he spent all day recording his findings with a No. 2 pencil.

“I thought there’s got to be a way to get paid to sharpen pencils for people,” he said.

1,804 flawlessly sharpened mostly No. 2 pencils later, Rees has penned a book on his art form, collected an arsenal of different sharpeners, and taught classes to students who sharpen better than he does.

The article is here.  And yet our artisan is not happy:

When Rees started, he hoped every busted tip would lead the writer to pay for a sharpening. Instead, most customers order David’s pencil points and display them as artwork.

“The whole point of the business is to remind people to appreciate yellow, No. 2 pencils because they’re really cool and interesting,” he said. “And to make a ton of money.”

But at this point, work feels like work.

“You do anything long enough for money, it just starts to become a job,” he said.

So as he nears the nice round number of 2,000 sharpenings, Rees suggested that soon he’d like to clean out his sharpeners for good, leaving the world a much duller place.

His website sells his book and sharpened pencils. The books ship quickly, the pencils take approximately six weeks to ship, and cost more than the book.

As I argue in Average is Over, marketing — in the broad sense of that term — is a growth sector for the future.  You might recall that three years ago he was charging only $15 per pencil.

For the pointer I thank Samir Varma.

My favorite things Minnesota

by on September 7, 2013 at 1:15 am in History, Music, The Arts, Uncategorized | Permalink

I am here for but a short time, speaking at the university, but here is what comes to mind:

1. Folk singer: Is that what he is?  Bringing it All Back Home remains my favorite Dylan album, of many candidates.

2. Rock music: The Replacements were pretty awesome for a short while.  The Artist Formerly Known as Prince has an impressive body of work, with Sign of the Times as my favorite or maybe Dirty Mind, though when viewed as a whole I find the corpus of work rather numbing and even somewhat off-putting.  Bob Mould I like but do not love, the peaks are too low.

3. Jazz: The Bad Plus come to mind.

4. Writer: Must I go with F. Scott Fitzgerald?  I don’t like his work very much, so Ole Rolvaag is my choice.

5. Coen Brothers movie: Raising Arizona or Fargo.   The more serious ones strike me as too grim.

6. Director: George Roy Hill, how about A Little Romance?

7. Columnist: The underrated Thomas Friedman, who ought to be considered one of the world’s leading conservative columnists but is not.

8. Scientist: Norman Borlaug.  I hope you all know who he is by now.

9. Advice columnist: Ann Landers, most of the time she was right, much better and sharper than her sister Dear Abby, plus she coined better phrases.

What else? Garrison Keillor belongs somewhere, even though he isn’t funny.  Thorstein Veblen is often unreadable but on status competition, and its Darwinian roots, he was way ahead of his time.

Overall this is a very strong state, and on top of that I feel I am missing some significant contributors with this list.  Are there painters or sculptors of note from Minnesota?  I can’t think of any.

From Amsterdam:

The Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam has developed high-quality 3D reproductions of some of its finest paintings, with what it describes as the most advanced copying technique ever seen. Axel Rüger, the museum’s director, said: “It really is the next generation of reproductions because they go into the third dimension. If you’re a layman, they are pretty indistinguishable [from the originals]. Of course, if you’re a connoisseur and you look more closely, you can see the difference.”

Each reproduction is priced £22,000 – somewhat more than the cost of a postcard or poster. But the museum is hoping to increase access to pictures which, if they were sold, would go for tens of millions of pounds to Russian oligarchs or American billionaires.

The 3D scanning technique has so far reproduced Almond Blossom(1890), Sunflowers (1889), The Harvest (1888), Wheatfield under Thunderclouds (1890) and Boulevard de Clichy (1887). Further ventures into Van Gogh’s back catalogue are planned.

Over the internet it is hard to tell how good they are, but I would bet $50 I cannot be fooled, not yet at least.  And even if I could be fooled, I wouldn’t pay that much for one.  The article is here, with one photo, and of course Alex and I analyzed this scenario some time ago.

The pointer is from Ted Gioia, one of my favorite people on Twitter.

How to eat well in Jakarta

by on August 20, 2013 at 6:24 am in Food and Drink, Science, The Arts | Permalink

There are three main tiers for eating: the stalls, the food courts and restaurants in the fancy malls, and the fancy restaurants and buffets in the fancy hotels.

Oddly, standard stand-alone “restaurants” play less of a role here than in any other major city I know.  (Stand-alone stores are also less important, could it be that the hot weather and traffic encourages a clumping of retail visits into large malls?)  And the very small restaurants can be good, but overall I think they are dominated by the stalls.

When it comes to the stalls, you will stumble upon a bunch and then you can simply choose what looks good.  Stalls in the better parts of town appear more salubrious and indeed probably are.

The food courts are good, and clean, but too homogenized for my taste.  Plastic trays reign.

The fancy buffets I would never go to if I lived here, but they are a good way to sample many dishes during the course of a meal.  I recommend them for tourists and newcomers.  The key to eating well from them is to choose those dishes which require outside aid for their assembly.

The key question is then the optimal ratio of stalls to fancy buffets, and that depends on how many days you have in town.  The fancy buffets are also better for some of the fancier dishes, for instance as might involve lamb or crabs, or for dishes from other regions of the country.

And that is how you eat well in Jakarta.  Knowledge of specific restaurants is not the key here.

I do not think it will revolutionize the art world:

Amazon has just announced that it’s partnered up with over 150 galleries and art dealers across the US to sell you fine art through its new initiative Amazon Art.

The site offers over 40,000 original works of fine art, showcasing 4,500 artists. That, perhaps unsurprisingly, makes it the largest online collection of art directly available from galleries and dealers. Partners in the project include Paddle8 in New York, the McLoughlin Gallery in San Francisco, and the Catherine Person Gallery in Seattle.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon—which will reportedly take a 5 to 20 percent cut on all sales—was planning to launch the new service. At the time, it seemed that plenty of galleries thought that selling art online via Amazon may be distasteful. Clearly, that negative feeling hasn’t stopped Bezos & Co..

Given Amazon’s last attempt at selling art—a project with Sotheby’s back in 2000 — only lasted 16 months, it’ll be interesting to see how the initiative works out.

I expect the real business here to come in posters, lower quality lithographs, and screen prints, not fine art per se.  And sold on a commodity basis.  There is nothing wrong with that, but I don’t think it will amount to much more aesthetic importance than say Amazon selling tennis balls or lawnmowers.

Should you buy this mediocre Mary Cassatt lithograph for “Price: $185,000.00 + $4.49 shipping”?  (Jeff, is WaPo charging you $250 million plus $4.49 shipping?  I don’t think so. )

One enduring feature of the art world is that a given piece will sell for much more in one context rather than another.  The same painting that might sell for 5k from a lower tier dealer won’t command more than 2k on eBay, if that.  Yet it could sell for 10k, as a bargain item, relatively speaking, if it ended up in the right NYC gallery (which it probably wouldn’t).  Where does Amazon stand in this hierarchy?  It doesn’t look promising.

Their Warhols are weak and overpriced, even if you like Warhol.  Are they so sure that this rather grisly Monet is actually the real thing?  I say the reviews of that item get it right.  At least the shipping is free and you can leave feedback.

I’ve browsed the “above 10k” category and virtually all of it seems a) aesthetically absymal and b) drastically overpriced.  It looks like dealers trying to unload unwanted, hard to sell inventory at sucker prices.  I’m guessing that many of these are being sold at multiples of three or four over auction price histories.  Is this unexceptional John Frost worth even a third of the 150k asking price?  Maybe not.

Amazon wouldn’t sell you a kitchen blender that doesn’t work, or that was triple the appropriate cost, so why should they sully their good name by hawking art purchase mistakes?  If you’ve built the best web site in the history of the world, which they have, you may decide that quality control should not be tossed out the window.  Much as I admire their shipping practices, what makes Amazon work for me is simply that they sell better stuff and a wider variety at cheaper prices.  Why give that formula up by treading into a market where such an approach won’t make any money?  Why compete in a market where an awesomely speedy physical delivery network means next to nothing?

Overall, I don’t see the advantage of Amazon over eBay in this market segment.  One nice thing about eBay is that you can see if anyone else is bidding and also that surprise quality items pop up on a relatively frequent basis, due to a fully decentralized supply network.  You also can hope for extreme bargains and indeed I have snagged a few in my time.  On the new Amazon project, supply is restricted to a relatively small number of bogus, mainstream galleries, about 150 of them according to the publicity.

eBay has the advantage with “free for all,” and good galleries and auction houses have the advantage when it comes to certification and pricing reliability.  I don’t see the intermediate niche that Amazon is supposed to be trying to fill.

I’m a big fan of Jeff Bezos buying The Washington Post, but if you’re looking for the case against that move, just click on that Monet purchase and see what happens.

This is a tough one, and I admit failure in advance, and yes I will call upon the diaspora in this case.  But even that doesn’t much help me.  Here goes:

1. Popular music: M.I.A., with Arular and then Kala being my favorite works by her.

2. Science fiction writer, lived in: Arthur C. Clarke lived there for over fifty years.

3. Author: Michael Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka, I like but do not love his work.  Two quite recent Sri Lankan novels are Michelle de Kretser, Questions of Travel, and Ru Freeman, On Sal Mal Lane, both noteworthy.

4. Movie, set in: I can’t think of one.  Bridge on the River Kwai was filmed here.

5. Architect: Geoffrey Bawa, some images are here.

Is Lal Jayawardena the most famous Sri Lankan economist?  And I have had excellent Sri Lankan food in Germany, most of all in Berlin.  There is a takeaways Sri Lankan place in Derwood, Maryland, Spice Lanka, which I have yet to try.  When I was much younger, the Sri Lankan chess player Sunil Weeramantry was always very cordial to me.  And my grandmother had a Sri Lankan friend who, when I was a small boy, used to bring us cashews.  I liked him.  I think of the music — perhaps unfairly — as falling into the “raucous, influenced by cinema, good jolly fun but I’m not going to buy it” category, but I would gladly receive your better-informed recommendations in the comments.

Sorry people, I’ll try harder next time.  I don’t follow cricket and I know virtually nothing about cinema here, I hope to learn more.

The subtitle of the article is:

A Chinese museum has been forced to close after claims that its 40,000-strong collection of supposedly ancient relics was almost entirely composed of fakes.

Here is one good excerpt:

Wei Yingjun, the museum’s chief consultant, conceded the museum did not have the proper provincial authorizations to operate but said he was “quite positive” that at least 80 of the museum’s 40,000 objects had been confirmed as authentic.

“I’m positive that we do have authentic items in the museum.”

Here is another bit:

Mr Wei said that objects of “dubious” origin had been “marked very clearly” so as not to mislead visitors and vowed to sue Mr Ma, the whistle-blowing writer, for blackening the museum’s name.

“He [acted] like the head of a rebel group during the Cultural Revolution – leading a bunch of Red Guards and making chaos,” Mr Wei claimed.

Shao Baoming, the deputy curator, said “at least half of the exhibits” were authentic while the owner, Wang Zonquan, claimed that “even the gods cannot tell whether the exhibits are fake or not,” the Shanghai Daily reported.

China is in the midst of a museum boom, and it is believed that eighty percent of the fossils in Chinese museums are fake.

Here is a very good piece by Kate Mckenzie on the Chinese economy.

And so the journey continues.

Let’s put the Scottish Enlightenment aside and turn to some more recent creations.  Here goes:

1. Novel: Alasdair Gray, Lanark.  Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod deserve notice as well.  I don’t relate to Trainspotting.  I understand the case for Robert Louis Stevenson and would wish to jump on board, but usually I lose interest before the end of his books.

2. Painter: Henry Raeburn was part of the Scottish Enlightenment I think.  So where to turn?  Ken Currie?  Scotland is not strong in this category.

3. Classical music: Umm…William Primrose was a strong violist.

4. Architect: Charles Rennie MacIntosh, especially the library.

5. Inventor: James Watt, but there is lots and lots of competition here.

6. Actor: How about Sean Connery?  Don’t forget Zardoz.

7. Movie: Gregory’s Girl.

8. Movie, set in Scotland: The Queen.

9. Popular music: David Byrne was born in Scotland.  I know the Cocteau Twins, Boards of Canada, Franz Ferdinand, and others, they are OK but I do not love them.  Dire Straits and Annie Lennox deserve mention, but overall I suspect many of you rate this group higher than I do.  Jesus and Mary Chain?  While we’re at it, there is Ewan McLennan and Bert Jansch, both of whom I enjoy.

The bottom line: These are people of intellect (remember the Enlightenment!) and also people of action.  For explorers and inventors the record is extremely strong.  Yet for music and some of the arts the contributions are rather faint.

My favorite things Iceland

by on July 13, 2013 at 2:14 am in History, The Arts | Permalink

1. Saga: First choice goes to Njal’s Saga.  It’s the clearest and crispest of the lot.

2. Novel, modern: How about Audur Ava Olafsdottir’s The Greenhouse?  This is a boom area.  There are one hundred twenty Icelandic novels translated into German each year [correction of earlier estimate].

3. Popular music: Sigur Ros, Agaetis Byrjun.  This CD has a transcendental and also anthemic sound, even if the group never quite lived up to their initial promise.  Bjork albums I usually find pretentious and I would rather listen to her earlier group The Sugar Cubes.

4. Annual tournament: Ram groping.

5. Sea bird: The puffin, followed by the guillemot.

6. Video: Daniel Tammet learns how to speak Icelandic in a week.  That’s hard.

7. Economist: Erik Brynjolfsson, although I do not believe he was born in Iceland.

8. Movie: Maybe 101 Reyjkavik?  I have yet to see The Deep.

9. Movie, set in: Die Another Day, an underrated Bond movie in my view.

10. Vista: How about Höfn?

I am excited that we are arriving this morning.  And as for the food, don’t forget the glories of skyr.

Kickstarter and the NEA

by on July 9, 2013 at 7:26 am in The Arts, Web/Tech | Permalink

Indeed, people have been saying since last year that Kickstarter funds more art-related projects than the NEA. And it’s true! For 2012, the NEA had a total federal appropriation of $146 million, of which 80 percent went toward grants. Kickstarter funded roughly $323.6 million of art-related projects if you include all design and video-related projects, which make up $200 million of the total.

That is from Katherine Boyle.  Note that the actual comparison has less weight on the NEA side than this portrait might suggest.  The NEA itself notes: “Forty percent of the NEA’s funds go to the 56 state and jurisdictional arts agencies and the six regional arts organizations in support of arts projects in thousands of communities across the country…”  To be sure, these are “grants,” but there is still room in the process for overhead — that ogre of non-profit work — to intervene as yet another grant has to be made.

Whither the poet laureate?

by on June 19, 2013 at 1:22 pm in Current Affairs, The Arts | Permalink

Perhaps he could write such poems in his spare time.  Or perhaps better not?:

Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate, wondering aloud why the government never asks him to write poems, has inadvertently answered his own question.

“I wish that my government had asked me to write poetry about immigration policy, about Idle No More, about Canada’s complicity in the Middle East, the Enbridge pipeline,” Fred Wah, a Saskatchewan-born poet now living in Vancouver, recently told an audience at an Edmonton literary festival.

“I haven’t been asked to do any of those things.”

…He warned that the taxpayer-funded position risks becoming “homogenized and diluted,” and expressed frustration that during his two-year term in Ottawa he’s been asked to produce just one work — a “mediocre” poem about Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee.

That’s the British Queen Elizabeth by the way, not the Queen Elizabeth who sits on the Bangalore city council.  Here is more, via Pierre Lemieux on Facebook.