Monday, November 15, 2010

Art and Money

In 2009 Robert Hughes, the art critic, released The Mona Lisa Curse, a documentary about the commoditization of high end art over the last half century or so. He starts by telling of the 1963 visit that the Mona Lisa took to America, with people lining up to catch a seconds-long glimpse of it: “They didn’t come to look at the Mona Lisa. They came in order to have seen it. There is a crucial distinction, since one is reality of experience and the other one is simply phantom. In America the Mona Lisa turned into its own facsimile.” The artistry didn’t matter. All that mattered was having seen the famous object.

From there, Hughes argues, it’s downhill. Art became an investment and the artistry itself no longer mattered. What mattered is that the objects were visible, famous, and desired. As long as the desire increased, there was money to be made the traditional way: buy low, sell high.

What did this happen? I don’t know. But I have a guess about one factor: the amount of money available to spend on high-end art increased more rapidly than the supply.

As Nicholas Kristof has reported in a recent op-ed: “The richest 1 percent of Americans now take home almost 24 percent of income, up from almost 9 percent in 1976.” That’s almost a three-fold increase. That money is not going to be spent on basic living. That money is going to be invested or be spent on luxuries. High end art counts as one or the other, or both.

For the purposes of argument, then, let’s assert that over the last forty years or so, the amount of money available for buying high end art has increased roughly three-fold. What about the supply of art? The Old Masters are all dead, as are many Modern Masters. They can’t produce more works, so the supply of works from them is fixed. If you throw more money at them, all that can happen is that the prices go up.

The supply of product from living artists is not fixed. But I rather doubt that tripling the number of high-end works is as simple as recruiting more artists to the task, or having individual artists produce more works – not that those are easily done. For the works have to be ‘certified’ and ‘branded,’ and that requires a network of dealers, museums, experts, and collectors. It’s not going to be easy to ramp up the creation of certified works in order to keep pace with available money.

The net result, then, is that the prices of individual works will climb rapidly, rapidly enough that art begins to look like a reliable investment. As that happens, art becomes attractive to people who are more interested in investment, and perhaps a bit of art-world celebrity, than in the art itself.

And so art has been converted into a commodity, one that value of which depends on visibility and desire, not on intrinsic quality. Pickled shark anyone?

ADDENDUM, 17Nov10: If you go here you’ll find a table of Bachelor’s degrees conferred in the USA between 1970-71 and 2007-08. Down at the bottom there’s a line for visual and performing arts. Number of degrees conferred in 70-71: 30,394. Number conferred in 07-08: 87,703. That’s almost a three-fold increase over that period. Since there’s no breakdown, there’s no way to tell how many of those were in fine arts, but the overall trend is at least consistent the need to supply more ‘fine’ art  to meet increased demand imposed by more money being available.

This table shows Master’s degrees in the visual and performing arts. 1970-71: 6.675. 2007-08: 14,164. That’s not a three-fold increase, but it’s more than doubling.
For similar remarks, see the conclusion of my post on Graffiti, Signaling, Evolution, and Art.

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