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Friday, May 05, 2006

The Snout of Clarification

The need to clarify pokes in its always-persistent snout.

I like lots of Picassos. Picasso is a great artist. I'm not even saying I dislike "Dora Maar with Cat." It's just damn ugly, is all. There are dozens if not hundreds of gorgeously beautiful Picassos (like Girl in Mirror, right).

I've lost track of who said this first, but when people say "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like," they're usually wrong on both counts: they know too much that isn't so about art, and they don't know what they like, only what they think they ought to like. (David Vestal said this first to me, but he may have gotten it from someone else.)

Puh-LEEEZ don't pull out that hoary, dopey, inane free-market argument about art: "Art is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it." That's not even strictly true of widgets and commodities, and it's certainly not true of art. (If things were really worth what people were willing to pay for them, there would be no such thing as fraud, and no such thing as advertising.) Art is not a commodity and its market value at any given time represents a hundred things other than its worth—down to, and certainly including, competition between two people in an auction room trying to prove who has more money. Or its opposite, the presence of only one person in an auction room who wants it. Much of the price of art has nothing to do with the value of art. And that can cut both ways.

Finally, art is certainly not just a matter of taste. It is that—and if that's all you want it to be, then that's all it is for you—but it is also a matter of visual aptitude, knowledge, erudition, sophistication, connoisseurship, consensus, fashion, irony, craftsmanship, ideas, and a whole horde of other issues, all or most of which do or can pertain in varying degrees in given cases.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

14 Comments:

Blogger Andy Frazer said...

>Puh-LEEEZ don't pull out that
>hoary, dopey, inane free-market
>argument about art: "Art is worth
>whatever someone is willing to pay
>for it."

Sorry, Mike. But after umpteen Sunday Morning Photographer columns, and all of your blogs, I finally have to disagree with you.

>That's not even strictly true of
>widgets and commodities, and it's
>certainly not true of art. (If
>things were really worth what
>people were willing to pay for
>them, there would be no such thing
>as fraud, and no such thing as
>advertising.)

Fraud and advertising are designed to misrepresent the value of something to someone. If they're willing to pay the post-fraud or post-advertising price, then then the value of that item for that person her risen. They may regret their decision later, at which point the worth (or value) of the item changes again. The value of an item can change between buyers, and between time for a given buyer.

>Art is not a commodity..

Anything that can be traded in a market (even at no cost) is a commodity. Do you have an example of a piece of art that is not a commodity?

>and its market value at any given
>time represents a hundred things
>other than its worth—down to, and
>certainly including, competition
>between two people in an auction
>room trying to prove who has more >money.

The competition between two auction customers is a fundamental part of its worth. And that's why only one customer walks away with it: it's worth more to him than to everyone else in the room.

If I read your statement correctly, you're essentially saying that "value" is not equal to "worth". Maybe that's where we disagree?

Andy Frazer

3:24 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

(Get the drummer ready...)

"Anything that can be traded in a market (even at no cost) is a commodity. Do you have an example of a piece of art that is not a commodity?"

ALL OVER THE HOUSE.

<*rimshot*>

--Mike

4:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The guy who paid $95.2 mil thought it was worth it, and I'm sure he or she is not a victim of fraud or misrepresentation. How does one determine worth? There are plenty of products out there that I think are over priced, but that doesn't mean someone else wont pay the price.

5:40 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Seriously, Andy, I'm aware of the Henry Hazlitt Economics-in-One-Lesson argument, and I know how neat and clean it is and how much it appeals to orderly minds. But to me it's a solipsism. I've just never bought it. I would get around its solipsistic contentiousness by claiming that while price is a legitimate property of a widget, it is not a legitimate or even a "real" property of art.

--Mike

6:10 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Anonymous,
Naw, the guy who paid $95.2 million didn't think it was worth it, he just has too much money and not enough places to put it.

The point from my perspective is that the very concept of "price" for "art" is disreputable and theoretically weak, much as, say, the selling of Papal dispensations for sin in the Middle Ages was theoretically weak, or the way that quantifying the value of the constituent chemicals of the human body is disreputable. While it's true that certain artefacts of art have been successfully commoditized, their status as a commodity is a connection that has been overlaid on the "proposition" of their worth. Where we get into trouble with it is in its buried assumption that a Picasso is "worth more" than a Frank Stella or that one Picasso painting is "worth more" than another--the metaphysics break down. Most people who love art, for instance, will have objects in their homes that might have been expensive right alongside objects that are as "worthless" as junk. It's an illusion to assume that one or the other is necessarily worth more as art. The fact that one might have commodity value and the other not is really something separate.

--Mike

6:25 PM  
Blogger Andy Frazer said...

Mike,

By "all over the house" I assume you're refering to your photographs. But why aren't they a commodity? If you chose to put them all on the market, they would each receive different levels of demand from the market. Some would sell for higher prices than others. Some might get into bidding wars. Even if, hypothetically speaking, none of them sold, they're still responding to market forces and receive identifiable values (worthes).

7:14 PM  
Anonymous ken tanaka said...

In the spirit of intelligent debate I offer the following rebuttal.

"Puh-LEEEZ don't pull out that hoary, dopey, inane free-market argument about art: "Art is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it." That's not even strictly true of widgets and commodities, and it's certainly not true of art. (If things were really worth what people were willing to pay for them, there would be no such thing as fraud, and no such thing as advertising.) Art is not a commodity and its market value at any given time represents a hundred things other than its worth—down to, and certainly including, competition between two people in an auction room trying to prove who has more money."

The key issue I take with this paragraph is the notion of "worth". There's a confusion between the concepts of financial worth and cultural or societal worth. In a free market economy the financial worth of nearly everything is indeed pegged according to what that market will pay to own or use the item. Items of art, like any other fungible items, are indeed financially worth whatever someone is willing to pay to own them at any point in time. That's simply an indisputable fact.

It is, however, true that art is not a "commodity". That is, art is not a bulk raw material (ex: corn, wheat, soy beans, pork, precious metals, et.al.) traded on a commodity exchange. (Commodity trading was my business life many moons ago.) Nobody needs art.

Nevertheless the price of art work is indeed subject to the same influences that establish the price of a futures contract of, say, soy beans; supply and demand. Sotheby's solemn auction rooms operate fundamentally the same as the far less solemn bean pit at the Chicago Board of Trade. They are both (at least today) open outcry markets in which the best price is established through competition among bidders representing a variety of interests (ex: speculation or hedging). Your remark that bidding in art auctions is a matter of proving who has more money is, well, a bit of an outsider's view. Yes, to be sure, there are some bidders who just want to be seen as able to buy expensive items. But you'll notice that in most of the really high value auctions the winning bidders often remain publicly anonymous. They do their bidding through agents such as galleries or private banking representatives. The last thing in the world that many wealthy private bidders want is public notoriety. They have other motivations for buying such works. Some truly love the work or the artist, some don't really care about the art but are seeking investment diversification. (More than a few are corporations with private collections rather individuals.) But to suggest that buyers are just show-offs is "hoary" and "dopey". ;-)

I could well imagine a futures exchange establishing a "Picasso pit" if they thought they could get order flow and abundantly deliverable grade of product.

"Finally, art is certainly not just a matter of taste. It is that—and if that's all you want it to be, then that's all it is for you—but it is also a matter of visual aptitude, knowledge, erudition, sophistication, connoisseurship, consensus, fashion, irony, craftsmanship, ideas, and a whole horde of other issues, all or most of which do or can pertain in varying degrees in given cases."

I think my issue with this paragraph is mainly, again, in matters of terms. Art is certainly not a matter of taste...nor "visual aptitude", "knowledge", "erudition", shoe size, or any other characteristic of its consumers. Art is simply a form of human expression, nothing more or less. Its soft status does not depend on its viewers' perspectives.

Having stated this I concede that the appreciation of various art forms does, indeed, often (but not always) depend on one's background grounding. Many of the artful photographs we (photographers) prize so highly are considered crap by the general public. Many of us might consider the works of Jackson Pollack crap but others can tirelessly look at them for hours on end.

A former curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago once offered photographer Bruce Davidson (relayed by Davidson) the following rather enigmatic but curiously accurate observation: "Anything can be art...but it usually isn't."

7:17 PM  
Anonymous Paul Crovella said...

The dollar, or any other currency for that matter, is just a poor unit of measurement for worth.

11:25 PM  
Blogger Scott Kirkpatrick said...

The problem through this whole discussion is that neither of the words used, "worth" or "value," is really an innate and unchanging quantity, like mass or length. "Worth" seems more aligned to what a market will provide, and that can certainly fluctuate. "Value" sounds like an stable, internally determined quantity, as it is used in economics. It has the problem that it is not visible to others except through the effect that it may be causing on markets. And it carries religious/political overtones galore, as in "family values."

Values change, so MJ has probably passed on his Ansel Adams prints to someone who cares more for them by now.

And by the way, what does "Art" mean? I think this discussion is great fun, but doesn't make the boat move forward.

scott

3:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know much about art. But I know what I hate.

3:50 AM  
Anonymous oneblackline said...

Some people argue that Picasso was aware of the financial commodification of his works, and because of this, he often gave his work to friends and associates for free, to allow the commodifiers a future meal.

Simply put - the financial value of an art work depends on one's financial descriptions of art objects. This is a matter for personal choice, as ideally nobody in our societies are forced to purchase art against their will.

7:59 AM  
Anonymous Ted Kostek said...

In the book "Finite and Infinte Games," James Carse makes a distinction between art and things. He argues that you can own a thing, but you cannot own art. Art, he says, can only be found.

As an aside, he also claims museums aren't make to protect art from society. By making art respectable, museums protect society from art.

Agee makes a similar claim in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Ted,
I have a couple of questions about that book. Can you please contact me? mcjohnston[at]mac[dot]com

Thanks,

--Mike

12:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

> ken tanaka said...
>
> The key issue I take with this
> paragraph is the notion
> of "worth". There's a confusion
> between the concepts of
> financial worth and cultural
> or societal worth.

Exactly! In logic it's referred to as equivocation, and it makes for a bad argument.

2:48 PM  

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