Thursday, June 5, 2014

Artportunity Cost

Peter Singer is worried about your bad taste (h/t Angus). Near the end of the editorial is this fun passage:
If artists, art critics, and art buyers really had any interest in reducing the widening gap between the rich and the poor, they would be spending their time in developing countries and with indigenous artists, where spending a few thousand dollars on the purchase of works could make a real difference to the wellbeing of whole villages [sic].
At the top of the op-ed, note the names he lists: "Barnett Newman, Francis Bacon, Mark Rothko, and Andy Warhol," each and all household names.

Barnett Newman: b.1905 d.1970
Francis Bacon: b.1909 d.1992
Mark Rothko: b.1903 d.1970 (til Rothko was Latvian)
Andy Warhol: b.1928 d.1987

Each of these artists are deceased, kaput, late, pushing up daisies, ex-parrotesque--dead in other words. The sale of their work is exchange in artifacts, and the prices no longer send useful information to producers. The coordinating function that allocates, say, cut diamonds (where craftspeople can still produce new goods) is absent when people trade the work of dead painters. Without that production signal, the sale of fine art (f-art, for short) is (almost) a pure transfer. The opportunity cost of f-art sales is a bit of research and auction time, plus the value of the alternative uses of labor for gallery curators and very high-end art history specialists. The social costs, in other words, scarcely constitute a rounding error. Mostly, it's just one rich guy forking over tens of millions of dollars to another rich guy. The seller is more at liberty to philanthropate to the tune of the sale price (minus any commissions and fees). Real resources are neither created nor destroyed in this transaction.

That's true for dead artists though. What about the living? My awesome neighbor is a fine artist (f-artist, for short). She, unlike Roy Lichtenstein, can still respond to price incentives. She can paint more, paint harder, and paint with a vengeance if the price is right. It's tough to look at her work and walk away with the impression that she's not doing it out of a deep and abiding love of the medium and her subjects, however. Is it just, is it euvoluntary to put a price on her agápē?

I think it is. I also tend to think of f-art patronage systems as pretty good compared to the alternatives. Under patronage, the f-artist is accountable to the patron, even if the patron has terrible taste. Under public provision (in the US, the National Endowment for the Arts), if there is any accountability for content, it's to grant-issuing bureaucrats. Now, I have nothing against bureaucrats per se, but the problem of spending other people's money is extremely difficult to consistently overcome. Even more difficult perhaps than relying on the private opinions of university professors to chide others on matters of taste.

The alternative to either patronage or public funding is what Cassie G. does: bootstrap her own shop. You can contact her yourself (and if you like acrylics of cute kitties in Miyazakiesque fantasy landscapes, she's your girl) and commission your own painting directly with the artist. It's patronage lite, and managing her online store for prints and sundries is certainly not cost-free. Time spent managing her sales and marketing is time spent away from the easel.

So how about it then? How euvoluntary is the exchange of newly-created f-art? Do patrons have a moral obligation to buy paintings from beleaguered f-artists in developing countries rather than the young lady who lives next door to me? If so, why? Does it matter if the buyer really really really likes Cassie's Kitties and couldn't give one tender rip about painstakingly hand-painted knickknacks from Kuala Lumpur? By what moral lights should trade in imagination be limited by the sensibilities of third parties? And how long must we wait until irked commentators properly understand the differences between costs and transfers?

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?