Category: The Arts

Supply curves slope upwards

You might think that the labor supply of the dead is fairly inelastic. Well, it is not so simple as meets the eye:

These days, the icon of Renaissance art is Florence’s greatest single brand and the global Michelangelo market is booming. You might imagine that as the years go by, the chances of finding a long-lost Michelangelo would shrink. But no. As one expert has observed, as the price tag on the world’s greatest artists keeps soaring, so, miraculously, more hidden Michelangelo gems keep being discovered.

There is more:

According to Wallace, the rate at which Michelangelo finds are turning up – including documents, drawings, and even a candlestick – has gone from one every two years a century ago to two a year on average from 1996 onwards. In the past year, he observes, three finds have been attributed to Michelangelo, most recently a small wooden statue of Christ, which went on display at the Horne museum in Florence earlier this month.

Now here is the clincher:

Some of the most highly publicised finds have subsequently “been shot down in flames” as they fail to withstand the scrutiny of the world’s experts, says Timothy Clifford, Michelangelo expert and director of National Galleries of Scotland.

Here is the full story. Most Renaissance artists did a wide variety of anonymous small commissions, especially in their early years. So there probably are “unknown Michelangelos” out there; it is less clear that we will ever know what came from his hand.

What makes a painting more valuable

Many of the results are not surprising. Light colors sell better than dark colors, happy portrait subjects sell better than widows, and horizontal pictures are easier to hang over the fireplace. Here are a few other points of note:

1. Landscapes can as much as triple in value when there are horses or figures in the foreground. Evidence of industry usually lowers a picture’s value.

2. A still life with flowers is worth more than one with fruit. Roses stand at the top of the flower hierarchy, chrysanthemums and lupins (seen as working class) stand at the bottom.

3. There is a hierarchy for animals as well. Purebred dogs help a picture more than mongrels do. Spaniels are worth more than collies. Racehorses are worth more than carthorses. When it comes to gamebirds, the following rule of thumb holds. The more expensive it is to shoot the bird, the more it adds to the value of a painting. A grouse is worth more than a mallard, and you had better show the animal from the front, not the back.

4. Water adds value to a picture, but only if it is calm. Shipwrecks are a no-no.

5. Round and oval works are extremely unpopular with buyers.

6. A Boucher nude sketch of a woman can be worth ten times more than a comparable sketch of a man.

The bottom line: Buyers prefer artworks which in some manner reflect high status.

For the full story, see “Why some Pictures Go For More Than Others,” in the May 2004 issue of The Art Newspaper.

Union-busting as cultural policy?

Once again the French are at strike:

Protesting French actors and technicians, who prompted the cancellation of most summer arts festivals last year and forced the resignation of the French culture minister this spring, are now threatening to disrupt the Cannes film festival next month. They want to pressure the government to bow to their demands on unemployment benefits.

On Monday the protesters muscled their way into a Paris theater where the annual Molière theater prizes were being awarded. Amid raucous scenes, that ceremony was held without lights or microphones. Across town they also forced “Il Trovatore” to be given in concert version at the Bastille Opera.

Here is more background:

The protesters want to revoke an agreement, reached in June by three unions and the national employers’ association in France, that reduces unemployment benefits for about 100,000 self-employed artists and technicians. The employers said that an earlier agreement was being widely abused and cost them $1 billion a year. Two leftist unions, which refused to sign the deal, have been leading the protests. Before the June agreement, if employees worked 507 hours during a 12-month period they were guaranteed 12 months of unemployment benefits. Now they must work 507 hours in 11 months to earn 8 months of unemployment benefits.

In theory the unemployment fund for cultural workers is managed exclusively by employers and representatives of artists and technicians. But inevitably the government has been drawn into the fray, with the wrath of protesters frequently directed at Jean-Jacques Aillagon, who was the culture minister until March 31. His successor, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, is caught between the employers’ refusal to cede and the countdown to Cannes.

Instead of all those subsidies and quotas, why don’t they just bring the unions in line? Here is the full story. Here is a post on how well the French can run a strike. To be continued…

How well do art books sell?

The answer is simple, art books do not sell many copies. Not counting photography books and “how to” books, the bestselling art book of 2003 was Ross King’s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, which sold 55,693 copies. In the U.S. only four other art books sold over ten thousand copies, again excluding photography and how to books. The amazing fact, from my point of view, is just how many art books you will find in your average Borders or Barnes & Noble. Of course many end up returned to the publisher. The copies get you in the door to buy The da Vinci Code there rather than in Wal-Mart.

Despite having a much smaller population, the British show a greater interest in art books. The bestselling art book in the U.K., a Titian catalog, topped the 60,000 mark.

From the April 2004 issue of The Art Newspaper, “Big Market but Few Books Bought,” not yet on-line.

Short art

The higher the wage rate, the more valuable is time. Some people will use their greater wealth to consume more leisure, others will run around and look harried.

Surely the arts should adapt to serve this second category of customer. We are all familiar with channel-surfing, or the two-minute pop song, but how about “high culture” in bite-sized portions?

“There’s no hard and fast reason why an opera has to be colossal or epic in scale,” says director David Pountney. “An opera is simply a narrative idea expressed through music. Length is immaterial – I have seen several successful operas that are barely 10 minutes long.”

In fact, 10 minutes sounds Wagnerian in comparison with Peter Reynolds’s Sands of Time. At three minutes and 34 seconds, it is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s shortest opera. “The librettist, Simon Rees, came up with the idea of an opera whose duration should match the boiling of an egg,” says Reynolds. “So we created a domestic scenario of a couple having an argument over breakfast. It starts with the sand-timer being turned, and ends with the egg coming out of the saucepan.” [I’ve added the link to this quotation]

Then there is always Samuel Beckett:

…the shortest of all Beckett works, the notoriously ephemeral Breath, consists of a set of printed instructions that take longer to read than to perform. Richard Gregory, of the company Quarantine, recently produced the work at Newcastle Playhouse, and came up with an ingenious solution for extending its 30-second duration. They did it twice. “I think we spent about a fortnight, all told, preparing a piece that was over in under a minute,” says Gregory.

And here is a nice short (truly short) story:

Augusto Monterroso’s El Dinosaurio reads in its entirety: “Upon waking the dinosaur was still there.”

Addendum: If your tastes run in the other direction, here is a version of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, slowed to down to last twenty-four hours. And go to the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, where you can see Douglas Gordon’s “24 Hour Psycho”, the classic Hitchcock movie but at much slower speed.

An impossibly crude theory of museums

The ever-insightful David Nishimura asks why museums are so strongly discouraged from selling works in their inventories. I have seen (informal) estimates that U.S. museums display no more than five percent of their collections over a few years. Nishimura asks:

In fact, museums often end up with stuff that they cannot exhibit or that is of little or no relevance to what they are all about (it’s not only relatives who end up receiving gifts that are better intentioned than chosen!). Storage space is another issue, as is the cost of insurance.

Museums also evolve over time. Nearly all older American museums, for example, started out with collections of European paintings of decidedly mediocre quality. Skip forward a few generations, and those museums’ galleries are at an entirely different level — the legacy of wealthy patrons, vastly improved connoisseurship, and the dispersal of so many old European collections. And so what was once exemplary is now the stuff sold in bulk by third-rank auction houses. Is it so bad that such works be sold off, especially if the proceeds can be used to acquire better items not well represented in the collection?

In practice, museum directors who “deaccession” artworks come under heavy criticism. Why? Here is where a very crude theory, too crude to possibly be true, comes in.

Stop thinking of visitors as the museum’s customers. Instead the customers are the donors. Donating a picture is like spending money. The donor gives a Picasso to MOMA, in return purchasing the feeling of “having given a Picasso to MOMA.” This yields tax, networking, and other privileges in this life, as well as a long-term legacy. Museums, in turn, take some care to attract viewers, so that their real customers — the donors — have greater feelings of satisfaction about the whole enterprise.

In this “model,” selling off artworks makes customers (donors) nervous. “How do I know they won’t sell off my [sic] Picasso once I’ve died?” It is only a slight reassurance to respond: “We only sell off the second-rate pictures in our inventory.” So museums sit on their huge and growing stashes of art. In this manner they signal their trustworthiness to future donors.

Under some assumptions this outcome is roughly efficient. Donating a picture to a vault is how that donor wishes to “spend” her resources. The donor may self-deceive into thinking that the donated work is a masterpiece. By the time the truth is revealed, she has passed away. Subsequently selling the work to a museum in Topeka would damage future donors more than it would benefit Kansas viewers. The museum community, of course, does not like to admit that its donors are the primary customers (how would viewers and government funders feel?), so it must present other reasons why deaccessioning is bad. At the same time the museum faces a “time consistency” problem, and would like nothing more than to sell off its dross.

The policy bottom line: Government funding eases museum needs for funds, and makes it easier for museums to keep pictures in vaults. The funding subsidizes the legacies of dead donors, eases time consistency problems for future donors, and limits the real supply of art, to the detriment of viewers. That’s just in this fantasy model of course, not in the real world.

Is it a Vermeer or not?

You judge. Here are some scholarly takes, pro and con, along with more photos. It doesn’t look right to me, but many art experts now say yes. About three million pounds is at stake, according to The Telegraph. Since there are only about 35 other Vermeers in existence, and the last one was sold eighty years ago, I suspect it will go for more, no matter what the doubts.

My take: Researchers spent about ten years studying the picture. If it takes so long to tell the difference, spend your money elsewhere.

The French can compete

When the barricades that France’s protectionist auctioneers had erected to prevent the reform of their art market were finally stormed in late 2001, it seemed as though revolution was in the air. Many people believed that “les Anglo-Saxons”, as the French refer to Sotheby’s and Christie’s, were about to sweep their smaller, local competitors aside.

The logic was simple. The 456 licensed French auctioneers (commissaires-priseurs), who had been legally protected against foreign competition since 1556, would be no match for the two international giants now that the latter were allowed to hold sales in France for the first time. However, the reality has proved very different and in less than two and a half years Paris has evolved into the world’s most unpredictable and fiercely competitive art market centre.

And how can the French possibly compete?

The local auctioneers have survived by using their contacts, particularly among lawyers who arrange estate sales, and in some cases by reorganising and bringing in outside investors, which the law reforming the market allowed them to do for the first time. ArtCurial is a new creation, an alliance of three well-known French auctioneers – Francis Briest, Hervé Poulain and Remy Le Fur – with the Dassault aviation and newspaper dynasty and the Monaco real estate millionaire and art collector Michel Pastor. Its main specialities are modern art and vintage cars, and last year it came in third behind Christie’s and Tajan [another French firm] with sales of £41.7 million.

My take: European culture isn’t dead, it is simply oversubsidized and overprotected. Here is the full story. Here is an article about how the French have an unjustified fear of being bought out by foreigners.

Note also that Coca-Cola has postponed and possibly shelved its plans to compete with the leading French mineral waters. The British version of the product, Fasani (a terrible name, no?), turned out to be purified tap water. It is now an open question whether the French release will ever see the light of day.

Addendum: Daniel Drezner points out that McDonald’s is more popular in France than elsewhere in Europe. I blame expensive French food, high labor costs through regulation, and bizarre opening hours (i.e., your favorite place is usually closed). But if you think that French haute cuisine has been harmed, you haven’t eaten in Helene Darroze, where last night I had one of the finest meals of my life.

Are video games art?

Some time ago I asked whether video and computer games would provide the next artistic explosion. I concluded: “I’m still waiting to see the payoff.”

The New York Times ($) has nominated one such game, as an aesthetically worthy experience, click on the link if you are curious. The game combines elements of music, travelogue, diaries, narrative, and digitally constructed artwork. One of the artworks has been included in the recent Whitney Biennial.

My take: Judge for yourself, but for me it is an interesting novelty more than a sustaining attraction. That being said, I didn’t like Faulkner at first either.

Cuban art

Before leaving for Paris I had the chance to give a talk on Latin American art in Tucson. While preparing I spent some time browsing Google Images for fun. One of my favorite Cuban painters is the expressionist Tomas Sanchez, I like the lusciousness of how he paints forests.


Here is another Sanchez. Manuel Mendive has a more primitivist style, here is my favorite Mendive. If you would like something more avant-garde, try Jose Bedia.

Here is one place to buy some reasonably priced Cuban art.

And how about the economics in Cuba?

State-run galleries sell selected works to tourists and pay artists a percentage, but successful artists like Sandra Ramos and The Carpinteros (Dagoberto Rodriques and Marco Castillo) prefer to deal directly with collectors, inviting them into their homes and studios where they do business in dollars that allow them to support their entire families. The opening week of the biennial is a feeding frenzy of foreign buying with collectors arriving in tours organised by US museums or European travel agencies. (The US allows importation of Cuban art and educational materials.)
With such considerable interest in the biennial, the State has been quick to recognise the potential of the market: an art auction at the biennial raised more than $100,000 to benefit a children’s cancer hospital, with an anonymous collector from Monaco paying $11,000 for a drawing by Kcho, an artist whose signature motif is a simple boat that might be interpreted as an allusion to Cubans’ efforts to escape the island. Somehow Kcho has been co-opted as a quasi-official artist, painting backdrops for Castro speeches and occupying a huge government house.

The bottom line: Censorship or not, if you tax everything else heavily, a good deal of talent will go into the art market. Alex and I wrote about this in our paper An Economic Theory of Avant-Garde and Popular Art, or High and Low Culture (PDF).

A bloody fool

Istvan Kantor has been banned from many of the finest museums for scrawling a large X in his own blood on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and other galleries. (NYTimes)

Thus it might not seem surprising that On March 10, Kantor found himself once again being escorted by several security guards at Canada’s National Gallery. Except this time, Kantor was being escorted into the building to receive the Governor General’s award in visual and media arts, one of the highest artistic awards in Canada. Along with the award came more than $12,000 in taxpayer funds.

Kantor’s other artistic achievements? “A video showing two performers slashing the throats of two cats and wearing their bleeding bodies as hats.” Also a peformance ensemble featuring fornicating file cabinets.

I try to keep an open mind about the avant-garde, really I do, but it’s this sort of nonsense that gives Jesse Helms a good name.

Make your TV a work of art

That’s right, put a digital copy of a masterpiece as a screensaver on your TV:

An expensive new digital television is big, beautiful, flat and can hang on the wall. Some might even consider the set a piece of art.

RGB Labs charges for subscriptions to images such as The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre Auguste Renoir.

So why not display Picasso, Renoir, Monet and other masters on the screen itself?

Three companies have recently formed to help consumers do just that…

[One of them] Chandler’s company, Dream City, has acquired licensing rights to more than 1,000 pieces of art, including masterpieces from Cézanne, Van Gogh and Picasso. He sells them in $14.95, 30-piece collections as screensavers. A Web site offers step-by-step instructions on how to connect a PC to the TV and run a slide-show loop on your big screen.

The core idea came from Bill Gates:

Microsoft (MSFT) Chairman Bill Gates has displayed art on wall-mounted PC screens at his home for years. That’s where Chandler got the idea for Dream City.

He put a frame around a monitor hooked to an old PC, hung it on the wall and showed family photographs and art.

“At parties, people just stood there, mesmerized,” Chandler says. “I realized there was a business there.”

Here is the whole story, which includes a Renoir image on a big TV screen.

My take: The idea is a promising start, but I am repelled by the idea of copies of classic paintings in my living room. Looking at lower quality reproductions would depress me. It would also make me wonder why I cannot find anything more personal, more current, and more alive to enjoy. I am keener on the idea of art created especially for this medium, let’s hope that is forthcoming.

Addendum: Michael Giesbrecht writes: “You’re in luck, Tyler! Literally hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces of art, created especially for this medium, are taken to market each year, and have been for quite some time. Check out In the common vernacular, the medium is referred to as a “movie”. Many of them look great displayed on wall-mounted digital television screens.” You can put up a static image from these movies quite easily. I love Renoir but on my screen I want Blade Runner.