Saturday, August 16, 2008

Value Judgments

UPDATE (8/18): If you're skeptical about my suggestion that art historians don't like to see their value judgments as market-based, see this very interesting article from the New York Times. (Hat tip to Thoughtlights.) I have some music-related thoughts about the article as well. Maybe they'll appear soon. [Done!]

Time for some late-summer off-the-cuff musing on topics that are out of my league.

Geoff Edgers writes about concerns that the University of Iowa might consider selling a $150 million Jackson Pollock painting to help cover flood damage costs. It doesn't look like something that's likely to happen, but it was news to me that such an act (identified by the frightening term "deaccessioning"!!) would be considered so controversial.

Here's where I should pause to admit that I'm not really a visual art guy. I mean, I have nothing against painting/sculptures/drawings, etc., but they simply don't communicate to me on a level anything like the way music does. When Terry Teachout, whose wide-ranging arts blog I really enjoy, "strongly suggest"s to his readers that they get themselves to a particular exhibit, I find myself unmoved, literally and figuratively. I even have the low-class thought that I'd be just as happy to view the images online. (Hey, I've got a nice, big, flat color monitor. Paintings look great there. And before you tell me all about texture and space and light, let me suggest that if I walked back into the Renaissance and said, "Hey painters, look at this incredibly flat, wonderfully glowing picture I just 'painted,'" I bet they'd be pretty impressed. And then I'd tell them, "Oh, and I just sent it to my friend on the other side of this flat world, and now he's looking at it, except it's even bigger because he's got a 26"-inch monitor - er, canvas.")

OK, I think I've embarrassed myself sufficiently there. So, anyway, I certainly understand that a museum shouldn't sell its holdings thoughtlessly, especially if selling an object violates a donor agreement. I don't really even have an opinion on the Iowa matter, but it just amuses me that artworld values get so caught up in supply-and-demand market values. Whatever one thinks of Pollock's work, I can't imagine a non-market value sense in which this painting would be considered so much more "valuable" than, say, a good painting by a well-trained artist or a mass-produced reproduction of the very same Pollock. (It is a big painting, so it's not like the reproduction would be a $15 poster, but I'm guessing it would come in well under $150,000,000. )

I suppose that art people would say it's not a market issue, it's a historical one - this painting is a unique historical object that thus has special meaning. Of course, that's also a market-based argument, since the "uniqueness" is basically a supply-demand value. It's just a little ways down the continuum from someone paying millions of dollars for a baseball that happened to be hit for a milestone home run. In simplest terms, a lot of people would like to own this specific painting, and there's just one of them. Doesn't that account for an enormous percentage of its monetary value?

So, the museum "code of conduct" apparently says "don't go out and deaccession just to save/make money," but the artistic objection there is hardly just one of "artistic value comes first." To the contrary, it's very much a market-driven way of thinking because the perceived artistic value is so closely tied to market value. Which I suppose is obvious to art people, but I find it amusing because the high-mindedness maybe isn't so high-minded. At the end of the day, I think I'd be just as happy to cash in on the Pollock and diversify with . . . well, that's the problem with me addressing this topic. I wouldn't spend it on paintings at all - or flood damage. I'd probably buy a baseball team. (Whoops, it looks like even the Rays would cost me more than a Pollock, and their stock is certainly rising.)

Let's just move on to more inane musings about value. I'm keeping up with the Olympics and seeing all the Michael Phelps mania, and I know what's he doing is amazing, but there's this annoying part of me that keeps saying, "so he's a split second faster than those other really fast guys? So what?" And yet his fame will be far out of proportion to those small victory margins - the guys who are really fast will mostly remain anonymous; the guy who's just a little bit faster will become superfamous. Why? Supply and demand. He becomes unique by being just that little bit better that puts his accomplishments in very short supply. Which means he can sell Wheaties. Otherwise, he's really not much different than the other guys.

I'll admit my other basic problem with so many of these Olympic speed sports (swimming, running, etc.) is that they're kind of like having a piano competition that consists only of scale-playing. Fast scales are interesting on a certain level, but I'd rather see a pianist put those skills to more complex musical use, just as I'd rather see athletes put their skills to use in a game like baseball or football. And, speaking of music, the classical music world gets caught up in market values all the time, whether it's paying exponentially more to see a name-brand performer or pretending that every little country dance that Mozart wrote is special because it can be attached to a composer whose name is unique. Of course, then that means the market gets oversaturated with Mozart and . . . but that's a topic for another day.

POSTSCRIPT: So, I wrote all of the above, and then I saw Michael Phelps win the 100m butterfly in absolutely astonishing, miraculous fashion. So, I take it all back. I'm now going to devote my life to owning a Jackson Pollock - even if it's just a drip.

POSTSCRIPT 2: No, I'm not a Marxist or anything like that. I'm pretty much fine with market-based economies, but I'm intrigued by how easily those economies end up shaping our value systems. I realize that's probably a stupidly circular argument because value is basically a market concept, but the point is that people like to pretend that there's such a thing as objective aesthetic value - I'm skeptical. AND, as I pointed out here, it's easy to take for granted spectacularly wonderful things that are readily available. Let me close with this spectacularly stupid question, that actually makes a pretty decent point: "Is a $100 bottle of wine really better than a perfectly carbonated glass of coca-cola?" Or, to send you off to a great Malcolm Gladwell article, "is a gourmet ketchup really better than Heinz?"

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