Buy Low, Sell High

John Haber
in New York City

David W. Galenson: Old Masters and Young Geniuses

Robyn Love: The House Museum

"There is no mystery about the causes of the new boom. The rich have done very well over the last decade." Back in 2006, The New York Times was reporting on art prices, not real estate or an economy about to tank. But if the market rules, and its rule has grown increasingly harsh, can an economist still offer a few tips?

David W. Galenson believes he can. As that article in The Times reported, he has a book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses—and his own theory about how to stake one's money on art. Two years later, the economics professor is back in the news, with more hard data on a squishy subject. Then he told buyers to look for genius. In 2008 he tells them how, and the evidence comes straight out of a textbook. It is also not to be trusted. Vincent van Gogh's Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (Courtauld Institute Galleries, 1889)

In the meantime, artists may try to escape the market entirely, through nonprofits, artist collectives, and the Web. Robyn Love, for one, makes her art free. Love has opened her home in Newfoundland as The House Museum. She describes her art as a gift. One might even call it the gift that keeps on giving.

Each visitor receives not only "the gift of admission," but also something tangible from the museum gift shop, "which is actually a drawer in a bureau in the living room. Has she created an escape from market models and a model for art's future—or an artist's imaginings of communities long past? Galenson's paean to markets as the decider of artistic genius hides other gifts and other connections, starting with his own appearance in The New York Times. It is not so easy to stop money from talking. Maybe the best that art can do is to critique its value.

Old economics and young markets

Would you sell art to save a museum or a life? For now, art prices still climb, and so do reputations for a handful of celebrity artists. When Damien Hirst sets a death's head in diamonds, do not ask whether he is celebrating, criticizing, trembling, or cashing in. Perhaps he is serious enough about his art not to know. Cai Guo-Qiang and Takashi Murakami, too, have taken the glories of capitalism as their theme, and museums have responded this very summer with simultaneous blockbusters.

For now, too, The Times still has it right, even in a recession. The rich have done very well, and only a few markets in luxury goods—such as large Manhattan condos and art—have held steady. So much for the theory that tax cuts and deregulation go to jobs and greater earnings for most Americans. At least wealth has trickled down a little, to auction houses. At issue, however, is not solely how markets bolster or corrupt artists, with art schools as certification of professionalism and value. This time, the question is how well markets explain art.

The quote offers an economist's version of art pricing. It comes from an article two years' back about an economics professor at the University of Chicago, long home of the late Milton Friedman and famed for its dedication to free markets. Which high-end bids have gone out of sight, like the $17.4 million for an Andy Warhol well into his celebrity phase and Warhol's influence? Some names carry a great deal of weight, Galenson argues, but not all their works will hold up equally well. Consider, he says, the stage in the artist's career.

Based on a broad study of sale prices, he divides artists and poets into "young geniuses" and "late bloomers," those who burn out like rock stars and those who survive to become aging prophets. The first, like Vincent van Gogh or Pablo Picasso, trust their instincts to break with convention. Others, like Paul Cézanne or Jackson Pollock, approach a painting or, indeed, a lifetime as a never complete experiment. Buy the work of artists in their prime, Galenson concludes—but only by artists who shake things up before peaking out. Buy late work, but only by artists who do their most valuable work in old age.

If I may add my own handy categories, an economist becomes an authority by crunching data and a cultural guru by making wild generalizations. In fact, unlike artists, economists today can gain a reputation for both at once. All this bodes well indeed for Galenson, so buy now. After all, he has the seal of approval of pop journalism's master of the art, Malcolm Gladwell. In an era that reveres money, "freakonomics" rules the media.

But can textbook economics describe a dizzying art boom? And can self-stabilizing markets account for striking innovation? Does it make sense to speak of free markets at all, when so many public and private institutions have a role in shaping what art, careers, and exhibitions? Does it matter that artists mostly never share the benefits? I shall argue that the real trade secrets involve other connections, including the media coverage to certify them as fact.

Old masters and market fundamentalists

Galenson's theory sounds suspiciously empty, like advice to buy low and sell high. By all means, buy late work by artists who do their best work late. One still has to classify each artist correctly. Rembrandt looked washed up after an impressive start. John Berger's The Success and Failure of Picasso describes an artist who blew it after Cubism, Alfred Barr asserted a contrary view with his classic Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art, and their accounts of Picasso battle it out even today.

To take just Galenson's examples, van Gogh grew more audacious to the end, while some Pollock fans dislike his last years—with their leaner, more figurative black traces. His mature technique, the drip, also involves both impulse and repeated, conscious self-editing. Neither van Gogh nor Pollock really peaked anyway, except by the sad accident of an early death. Conversely, Cézanne reached his slow but momentous break with the past by abandoning an early expressive style that all but boasted of genius. If I may add an example of my own, William Butler Yeats wrote his finest and most modern poetry in old age. Yet he did so by reflecting on his early fame and the steady achievement of "a sixty-year-old smiling public man."

As these examples show, the model breaks down in principle as well as practice, because it cannot describe how art gets made. Innovation and experiment alike depend on borrowings from oneself and others. This summer's best exhibitions again show the problem. J. M. W. Turner was the youngest member ever of the Royal Academy, and if he had died young, art history would remember him as a prodigy rather than as a lifelong experimenter and a precursor of modern art. Louise Bourgeois has joined, broken with, and influenced more movements than I can count, but only by pursuing the same ghosts for her ninety-six years.

Galenson's book takes the circular reasoning of all market fundamentalists. If the market decides, the outcome works, so the market always decides correctly, producing not just efficiency but optimal rewards to all. Two years later, he again simplifies connections between innovation, influence, and importance. Again, too, he reduces all three to what economists know how to measure—money. Postmodernists may worry when art knows "The Price of Everything," but at least someone is keeping the books.

Before, Galenson promised a sure-fire way to predict value—figure out which artists have one-time discoveries and which experiment for a lifetime. In his latest attempt to rank art, he counts textbook reproductions of Modernism. His counts prove, he believes, that those matter most who innovate the most. But is this really about confronting soft-headed artists and liberal academics with hard-nosed data? Or does this, too, use mathematics to hide truisms about individualism and innovation? Covering the economist again in 2008, The Times finally includes contrary voices—and they are telling.

Galenson's critics include Arthur C. Danto, the philosopher and critic. They note how old habits, cost, and sheer availability govern textbook choices—and, often as not, fail to track innovations well at all. As a textbook editor myself, I would point to Galenson's small sample size, owing to a relatively small course with a relatively small number of successful texts. This is not rocks for jocks. Once again, too, his choice of evidence creates a circular argument: textbooks include what people most wish to teach, and a teacher most wishes to explain changes in art and how they occur.

Markets and museum islands

In sum, Galenson's bimodal sales distribution echoes the same modern myths that helped change art and, over time, given it cultural cachet. The struggling genius and the restless experimenter reflect two tales of Modernism's origins—and capitalism's. The tales could not easily hold up, once Postmodernism buried the avant-garde. Yet artistic creativity never did quite accord with Romantic ideals of the expressive genius or market ideals of individualism. Not even successful careers fit the mold.

Market models, then, cannot explain how people recognize, interpret, and understand art. They have a way of leaving other things out, too, such as the cycle of boom and bust itself. By definition, sudden and transient price shifts mean market failure: supply and demand are not meeting in that glorious middle. And that cycle has causes that economics alone cannot fully critique.

For example, artists have attained new audiences, institutions, and celebrity, while elites invest more readily than before in mass entertainment. Without that perspective, one cannot explain why the rich have put so much of their money into contemporary art—especially into artists as accessible and interested in mass culture as Jeff Koons. And with that perspective, one can start to piece out real parallels between fine art and other aspects of contemporary culture. Once art fell into straightforward categories known as genres. Now it falls into just a few blockbusters and a larger number of niche markets. If one recognizes the parallels to music and the movies, one can see Galenson as telling one to ignore the indies while benefiting from the aura of Burning Man and mumblecore.

Market models also leave out broad support for public art. One can see that support in a wealth of 2008 summer sculpture. One can see it when audiences become part of the work of art, from The Gates to an everyday gallery installation. That does not require players with pure motives, and postmodern critics have a point when they ask who sets the standards for success. Government, nonprofits, and the public act, at least unwittingly, in concert with dealers. They all help careers by drawing new audiences to art, and artists. And works of art move among them all.

New York's public and private partnerships, some formal and some systemic, may never approach Europe's commitment to urban spaces. While London renews art on the South Bank, and Berlin fills its "museum island," the reopened New Museum commands prime real estate between Soho shops and the gentrifying Lower East Side. Parks flourish here, too—but only when donors live close enough to care. Across the FDR drive from housing projects and an empty lot, East River Park is taking years to restore a promenade literally crumbling into the water. Just south lie crowded sites for Olafur Elias son's waterfalls and tourists crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. These worlds may meet, but they do not necessarily share the wealth.

At the same time, art's special place between public display and private experience goes beyond site and geography. One can see it in the inspiration art gives and takes from public matters. That makes cultural centers an urban necessity, even as Ground Zero banished art. It also inspires political art, along with controvery and censorship in reply. Art's financial entanglements should startle an idealist like me, but its public side should flabbergast a cost accountant as well.

Priceless

Could the alternative to a market model lie in abolishing markets altogether? Robyn Love bases her art on the contributions of those who live and work at a site, and her House Museum creates a series of transformations—of a rural enclave into a work of art, of the work into a museum, and of the art world into something diverse and respectful enough to contain it. In turn, she asks of her visitors a gift of their own, quite aside from their presence. "I will never," she concedes, "be an art star millionaire. Oh, well." However, "the upside to this system, and there is an upside, is that my work is now officially priceless."

Robyn Love's The House Museum (photo by the artist, 2007)Love traces her impulse to a 1979 book by Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. Hyde notes that one already speaks of an artist's talents as a gift and of a talented artist as gifts. And, Love adds, "an item ceases to be a gift if it is not given away." At ArtBistro, another Web site to which I contribute, working artists responded with everything from outrage to admiration. "It empowers," one wrote, "the artist who is giving the work away, and it empowers the person who receives the work." It also sums up a nasty problem, said another—"that art has little or no intrinsic value."

One should take art as a gift as more than an ideal. It is integral to the work, just as when Rirkrit Tiravanija serves food in a gallery, Jenny Holzer projects poetry onto Rockefeller Center, or street artists interfere with private property and private lives. Still, this model for art clearly has a truth for others. It might even have a truth particular to contemporary art. Oscar Wilde helped usher in modernity when he said that "all art is utterly useless." Many artists now, too, are discovering connections to things that have not always had value as art, including household crafts.

However, art's lack of intrinsic value also echoes a tenet of capitalism regarding any commodity. For a believer in free markets, market value is the only value, while for a Marxist surplus value has replaced use value. Either way, it should come as no surprise that "useless" art sells, often for big money. Sure, that has demoralized art and artists. However, it does not help to affirm the premises of the market while accepting one's exclusion from its rewards.

It seems just a tad hoity-toity to tell others that they do not need the money. Hey, if I had a choice, you would be paying me to read this, and I do not aspire to the status of "art star millionaire." Nor can one escape capitalism so easily by invoking a lost barter economy. For a while, digital artists pointed to distribution over the Internet as an escape from the system. Soon enough the system absorbed digital art, and museum exhibitions now routinely end in a gift shop.

I write online for nothing, not altogether willingly, in order to have creative freedom. That marks me as arrogant (and overtired) rather than generous, but critics are like that. And yet, as Marcel Mauss teased out in the anthropologist's Essay on the Gift, perhaps every gift comes with a cost—and not solely to the giver. A gift is by definition one-sided, which makes it a way of establishing social bonds but also an incomplete channel of communication. The obligation adds to the stress of some family holidays, and it has plenty of people tired of Tiravanija's pretence of curry and idealism. One can still admire Love's gesture, and one can still admire with her a world of art that stretches "from Bauhaus to our house," without minding a few knockoffs and millionaires along the way.

Money talks

Struggling to earn a living while struggling to make art does not enable or empower anyone. It has killed off more than its share of individuals, careers, and art. For that reason alone, a healthy society ought to value and remunerate art, including Love's. A gift alone cannot bring freedom. At best, it emphasizes how much depends on giving—how both artist and audience contribute to a work of art and to each other. Unfortunately, free-market models disguise how much giving is going on behind the scenes, too.

No market model can account for inspiration, values, power and patronage, and whatever else enters into art. Market forces might, however, help answer a real question about the articles with which I began: just what has given an obscure model of art history sudden and repeated attention? The answer says more about market success than market efficiency. It also says a lot about why an artist may fear both.

Money does talk, much as free-market advocates believe, but it does not talk freely. That explains why The Times continues to offer free publicity for an economist with his own idea of what art is worth. A web of personal and commercial connections keeps markets alive. And that same web gives media play to a few odd voices like Galenson's, rather than, say, to artists with a house in Newfoundland. Am I making fun again of The Times and David Galenson? You bet your life—or your tax-deferred savings.

The Times depends on advertising from galleries, museums, and Galenson's publisher—and, I suppose, contacts with economists who may end up in positions of authority elsewhere. Is it an accident that their ideology equates judgments about contemporary art with prices and museum revenues? Some dealers happily proclaim that success is all that matters, and they happen to be the same ones not terribly dependent on supporting new talent and older artists' struggles. Meanwhile, reporters nurture their own set of contacts, for personal and professional reasons. Laziness is not always a drawback, when one has deadlines to meet.

Ideology enters in another way as well. The national audience for a major newspaper still distrusts and fears innovation in the arts, even as it idealizes individual effort—and even as artists imagine "the last newspaper." The same factors govern Morley Safer's assaults on contemporary art on Sixty Minutes. Those who think that a child could paint a Jackson Pollock naturally sneer at those who put expertise above markets. Critics and historians may think otherwise, but they do not pay the bills.

Museums and other art institutions cannot step outside the money chain, but art can always watch it unravel. With Love, one may not escape markets either, but one receives the intimate gifts of her design sense, a local history, and her own history as well. With Galenson, the gifts merely put the market under suspicion. "The art historians and art critics won't look at my work," he laments. "They just assume I'm an idiot." I doubt it, merely a smart economist.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

David W. Galenson's Old Masters and Young Geniuses was published in 2006 by Princeton University Press, and "The Art of Pricing Great Art" appeared in The New York Times on November 15 of that year. "A Textbook Example of Ranking Artworks" appeared in the paper on August 4, 2008. Robyn Love's "What Is Your Work Worth: Everything or Nothing?" first appeared on ArtBistro on November 25, 2007. This article continues an ongoing theme of this Web site, the impact of the art market on the shape of contemporary art.

 

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