Category: The Arts

Is there a glass ceiling for female artists?

Using a unique data set consisting of the population of fine art auctions from 2000 to 2017 for Western artists, we provide strong empirical evidence for a glass ceiling for female artists. First, we show that female artists are less likely to transition from the primary (gallery) into the secondary (auction) market. This glass ceiling results in a selection mechanism which is manifested in an average premium of 6% for artworks by female artists. Second, this premium is driven by a small number of women located at the top of the market and turns into a discount when we account for the number of artworks sold. The superstar effect, where a small number of individuals absorbs the majority of industry revenues, is amplified for the group of female artists. Third, at the top 0.1% of the market artworks by female artists are traded at a discount of 9%. Moreover, the very top 0.03% of the market, where 41% of the revenues are concentrated, are still entirely off limits for women. Overall, we find two glass ceilings for women pursuing an artistic career. While the first one is located at the starting point of a female artist’s career, the second one can be found at the transition into the superstar league of the market and remains yet impermeable. Our study has wide-reaching implications for industries characterized by a superstar effect and a strong concentration of men relative to women.

That is the abstract of a new paper by Fabian Y.R.P. Bocart, Marina Gertsberg, and Rachel A. J. Pownal, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Recently I’ve been enjoying @womensart1, a good way to see interesting artworks that otherwise don’t get so much attention.  And here is my older essay “Why Women Succeed, and Fail, in the Arts.”

*Between Quran & Kafka: West-Eastern Affinities*

That is another truly splendid book by Navid Kermani.  Imagine deep and thoughtful essays on Goethe and Islam, Kleist and love, Shiite passion plays, Wagner and empathy, and why he doesn’t so much sympathize with King Lear, all from a George Steiner brand of polymath.  As I’ve mentioned before, Kermani is ethnically Persian but was born and grew up in Germany.  Imagine a devout Muslim absorbing and internalizing the best of German classical literary culture, including Lessing, Zweig, Benjamin, Mann, and much more.  He recreates a version of that tradition that otherwise would be inaccessible to us.  And might he now be Germany’s best and most important public intellectual?

I’d like to put forward a simple hypothesis.  Tune down the yappers.  Read and study Kermani, Michel Houllebecq, Bruno Maçães, Ross Douthat, and assorted others.  Once I wrote: “Remember people, the influential thinkers of the next generation will be the religious ones…whether you like it or not.”  This is what I meant, and I don’t even know if the second and third writers on my list believe in God.

Here is my previous post on Kermani.

*A Life of My Own*, by Claire Tomalin

This new memoir is one of my very favorite books of the year, and perhaps you recall Tomalin’s famous biographies of Hardy, Pepys, Dickens, Nelly Ternan, and Jane Austen.  This time it is her life.  The story is hard to excerpt, but here is one bit:

The day [for our lunch] came, and I realized I was feeling wobbly.  I resolved to take no notice and things started well.  We chatted and surveyed our menus.  I chose fish, and even as I ordered it I knew it was a mistake.  We talked on; I felt my stomach heave.  I knew Vidia [Naipaul] to be the most fastidious of men.  What should I do?  I rose carefully to my feet, excused myself in a calm voice and said I would be back in a moment.  I managed to make my way through it I ran as fast as my feet would carry me along the corridor to the Ladies, where I threw up with great violence.  I washed my face in cold water, combed my hair, powdered my nose, gave myself a shake and returned.

Vidia looked at me and said, “You did that very well.”

Strongly recommended.

*Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity*

Imagine a German-born, ethnically Iranian (Sunni?) Muslim — Navid Kermani — wandering around the religious art of Western Europe and telling you what he really thinks, in fairly analytical terms.  I am very much enjoying this book, here is one excerpt:

One reason why the zest that Catholic art has for Jesus’s suffering leaves such a bad taste in my mouth is no doubt because I am familiar wit it, and unfamiliar with it, from Shia.  I am familiar with it because the celebration of martyrdom in Shia is just as excessive, bordering on the pornographic, and I am unfamiliar with it because, in my grandfather’s faith, which was more influential than any other point of reference in my own religious upbringing, precisely this aspect of Shia played no part, indeed was rejected as folk belief and superstitition, a dissuasion from making the world a better place instead of just lamenting its condition.  [Guido] Reni does not glorify pain; he doesn’t show it at all.  He accomplishes what other crucifixion scenes only suggest: he transposes suffering from the physical to the metaphysical.

And this:

If the Greatest Master of Sufism claims that the contemplation of God is most perfect in women, the Christians’ images confirm it.

Definitely recommended (for some of you), and I have ordered many more of Kermani’s books.

The new Chetty, et.al. paper on innovation and inventors

The authors are Alex Bell, Raj Chetty, Xavier Jaravel, Neviana Petkova, and John Van Reenen, here is the abstract:

We characterize the factors that determine who becomes an inventor in America by using deidentified data on 1.2 million inventors from patent records linked to tax records. We establish three sets of results. First, children from high-income (top 1%) families are ten times as likely to become inventors as those from below-median income families. There are similarly large gaps by race and gender. Differences in innate ability, as measured by test scores in early childhood, explain relatively little of these gaps. Second, exposure to innovation during childhood has significant causal effects on children’s propensities to become inventors. Growing up in a neighborhood or family with a high innovation rate in a specific technology class leads to a higher probability of patenting in exactly the same technology class. These exposure effects are gender-specific: girls are more likely to become inventors in a particular technology class if they grow up in an area with more female inventors in that technology class. Third, the financial returns to inventions are extremely skewed and highly correlated with their scientific impact, as measured by citations. Consistent with the importance of exposure effects and contrary to standard models of career selection, women and disadvantaged youth are as under-represented among high-impact inventors as they are among inventors as a whole. We develop a simple model of inventors’ careers that matches these empirical results. The model implies that increasing exposure to innovation in childhood may have larger impacts on innovation than increasing the financial incentives to innovate, for instance by cutting tax rates. In particular, there are many “lost Einsteins” – individuals who would have had highly impactful inventions had they been exposed to innovation.

Here is the paper, here are the slides (best place to start), here is a David Leonhardt column on it.

Florence!  Motown!  Kuna molas!  David Hume knew this!  The work looks very interesting, though I doubt if the main effect is actually channeled through absolute income, as evidenced by the immediately afore-mentioned examples.  Also, I don’t think their tax analysis quite holds up once you see intermediaries as needing to cover fixed costs for the innovators.  Taxing profits from innovation then lowers the number of potential innovators quite a bit, by discouraging investment from the intermediaries.

Let them sell the Norman Rockwells

The Berkshire Museum, yes.  They were going to sell 40 paintings at Sotheby’s, including two very special Norman Rockwells, but at the last minute a court decision halted the sale, claiming (with only thin justification) that the sale would violate the museum’s trusts.  That is the setting of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

The sad truth is that the people running the Berkshire Museum just don’t care that much about American art any more, at least not from an institutional point of view. Given that reality, it’s actually better if they are not entrusted with important artworks.

The court’s decision now means it will be hard to pull off the sale with fully clear rights to the titles, although the court’s judgment will be re-examined in December. Both the uncertainty and the surrounding negative publicity will scare off buyers and may spoil the market for a long time to come.

There is much more at the link.  The argument against selling, of course, is that in a world of frequent sales all museums will find it hard to make credibly binding commitments to their donors, who often do not want their donated works recycled in the marketplace.  But the equilibrium of zero selling is one that will destroy a great deal of value in the art world.  Note that this problem will become increasingly relevant as the clock ticks and the number and inappropriateness of past museum commitments piles up.  If nothing else, sooner or later insolvency sets in.  Rust never sleeps.  And so on.

Should churches really own all that land in the downturns of major American cities?

My Conversation with Sujatha Gidla

Here is the transcript and podcast, I enjoyed this chat very much.  Here is part of the opening summary:

Sujatha Gidla was an untouchable in India, but moved to the United States at the age of 26 and is now the first Indian woman to be employed as a conductor on the New York City Subway. In her memoir Ants Among Elephants, she explores the antiquities of her mother, her uncles, and other members of her family against modern India’s landscape.

Our conversation considered the nature and persistence of caste, gender issues in India, her time as a revolutionary, New York City lifestyle and neighborhoods and dining, religion, living in America versus living in India, Bob Dylan and Dalit music, American identity politics, the nature of Marxism, Halldor Laxness, and why she left her job at the Bank of New York to become a New York City subway conductor, among other topics.

Here is one sequence:

GIDLA: Actually, the only relation I have with my family members is political views.

[laughter]

GIDLA: If we have to connect on familial links, we will always be fighting and killing each other. All that we talk about with my mother is politics and untouchability and caste and Modi and things like that.

It’s the same thing with my sister also. This is where we connect. Otherwise, we are like enemies. My brother, we’re completely alienated from each other, firstly because he goes to church now. We never used to go to church before. He’s into this Iacocca. Is there a name . . . ?

COWEN: Iacocca?

GIDLA: Yeah.

COWEN: Lee Iacocca?

GIDLA: Yeah.

COWEN: The former Chrysler chairman?

GIDLA: Yeah. He reads that kind of books.

COWEN: Management books.

GIDLA: He’s into that kind of stuff.

COWEN: You don’t?

GIDLA: No.

GIDLA: He read Freakonomics and he liked it. I don’t relate to that stuff.

And this toward the end:

COWEN: Your most touching memory of your mother?

GIDLA: I don’t know. When I was arrested, she was very worried. She said, “I wish I could take you back into my womb.”

Strongly recommended.  I was pleased to see that Publisher’s Weekly named Sujatha Gidla’s book as one of the ten best of 2017, you can order it here.

Mind the gap bring back retail deregulate building

Mandatory parking requirements, sidewalks, curb cuts, fire lanes, on site stormwater management, handicapped accessibility, draught tolerant native plantings… It’s a very long list that totaled $340,000 worth of work. They only paid $245,000 for the entire property. And that’s before they even started bringing the building itself up to code for their intended use. Guess what? They decided not to open the bakery or brewery. Big surprise.

Here is much more, from Johnny at Granola Shotgun, one of the best pieces of the year, with superb photos, lovely twists and turns in the narrative, hat tip goes to Anecdotal.

Here are all posts by Johnny, “I’m an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape, from small rural towns to skyscrapers and everything in between. I travel often, conduct interviews with people of interest, and gather photos and video of places worth talking about. The good, the bad, and the ugly – it’s all fascinating to me.” — a new master of the medium.

All the world in New York City

Two exhibits in Manhattan, taken collectively, offer what might be this year’s most rewarding aesthetic and learning experience.  I stated a while ago that for the first time in a long time (possibly ever), America has a peer country in China.  The contemporary Chinese art overview in the Guggenheim is the single best demonstration of this point I have seen, and the show is further evidence that China already may have surpassed the United States in the visual arts.  Read this NYT review: “…a powerful, unmissable event, and an invaluable window onto a world of contemporary art, politics and history that we still, decades on, barely know.”  This is not complacent art, and some of it was so disturbing it had to be removed before the show opened (NB: the Chinese were not the ones censoring).

At the still underrated Morgan Library, you will find Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection, in two large rooms.  Are drawings and watercolors better than paintings?  Per dollar spent, for sure.  I cannot think of a better, more easily digestible survey of the brilliant visual intelligences behind the last few centuries of Western art.  This NYT review also has quality visuals.

*Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919*

Written by Mike Wallace, and weighing in at almost 1200 pp., this is one of the best books of the year.  Every page has interesting material.  You could pull out just the bits on the origins of the subway, or the development of the arts and entertainment, or immigration, and still have one of the best books of the year.  From one Amazon review:

The narratives are well-honed and to the point. There is not one ounce of journalistic fluff. There are no fanciful digressions into fads and fashions of the day. There is no imaginary dialogue, unlike the situation found in some “history books” written by mere poseurs.

And:

Simply put this is another masterpiece deserving the highest accolades. Tremendously rich in anecdotes it is superbly written. If you grew-up in New York, particularly in the outer boroughs, the book will have a special meaning for you as you see the physical, cultural and human development of your neighborhood. My favorite sections were on the development of the ‘arteries and ligaments’ of the city; the radicals among the Jewish immigrants, and New York in World War I.

I have read only a few hundred pages of it, and may not read it all, but am likely to read more than half of it.  Strongly recommended, it’s also one of the best books on American history period.  You can order it here.

The Economics of Attention

David Evans on the economics of attention:

In 2016, 437 billion hours, worth $7.1 trillion dollars, were exchanged in the
attention market in the US based on conservative estimates reported above. Attention
platforms paid for that time with content and then sold advertisers access to portions of that
time. As a result, advertisers were able to deliver messages to consumers that those
consumers would probably not have accepted in the absence of the barter of content for
their time. Consumers often don’t like getting these messages. But by agreeing to receive
them they make markets more competitive.


The economics of attention markets focuses on three features. First it focuses on
time as the key dimension of competition since it is what is being bought and sold. Second,
it focuses on content since it plays a central role in acquiring time, embedding advertising
messages, and operating efficient attention platforms. And third it focuses on the scarcity of
time and the implications of that for competition among attention platforms.

The $7.1 trillion estimate for the value of content seems too high. The high value comes from Evans assuming that the marginal wage is higher than the average so the average wage which he uses to calculate the value of time is, if anything, an underestimate while for most people I think the marginal wage is lower than the average (many people don’t even have jobs) so the average is an over-estimate. Brynjolfsson and Oh, however, using somewhat different methods estimate the consumer surplus from television as 10% of GDP and from the internet of 6% GDP or combined about $3 trillion at current levels. Either way the attention economy is very large and understudied relative to its importance.

Is Leonardo da Vinci overrated?

The Mona Lisa is not the best artwork ever, and as a painter I am not sure Leonardo is much better than either Mantegna or Piero della Francesca, neither of whom is much known to the general public, much less Titian.  He has no work as stunning as Michelangelo’s David, and too many of his commissions he left unfinished or he never started them.  The Notebooks display a fertile imagination, but do not contain much real knowledge of use, except on the aortic valve, nor did they boost gdp, nor are they worth reading.  Much of his science is weak on theory, even relative to his time.  In Milan he was too content to serve as court impresario, and he seemed to have no idea of how to apply his own talents in accord with comparative advantage.

His ability to take an idea and turn it into a memorable sketch was his most remarkable ability, and in this he is without peer.

Plus he painted “woman as gorgon” very very well, but with a sweetness too.

I can recommend Walter Isaacson’s new book on Leonardo as a wonderful introduction, but it does not change my mind on these points.