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Hogarth judge

February 2018



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Hogarth judge

The bullshit artist

Walter asked elsewhere, about the discovery of a new drawing, in pastels and ink, apparently by Leonardo da Vinci:
My own tastes aside, however, what is it that makes the same picture, displaying the same techniques, the same subtleties, the same insights, that was once valued at under $20,000 now worth nine figures in pounds...aside from its suspected authorship? And why should that make a difference?

It probably has less to do with any rational theory of aesthetics, but a lot to do with semi-rational ideas about economics.

Art has ever been a province for "conspicuous consumption". Its value is contingent on the inherent scarcity of rare and unique objects. Since the supply of Leonardos is very inelastic (new ones are "made" by discovering that Leonardo might have painted some old picture), it's a seller's market, and those who would own one must compete against every other such person.

It's been argued several times, and fairly convincingly, that mass production lies behind the artistic charlatanism of the twentieth century. When mass production put conventionally pretty pictures in the hands of hoi polloi, rarefied tastes had to substitute for rare unique objects. You no longer could prove your membership in the monied, leisure class by obtaining privileged access to unique objects. Instead, you had to prove your membership by demonstrating that you had enough leisure, money, and dubious education to stay au courant with the latest fads and isms. In this environment, all other artists took a back seat to the bullshit artist.

Fortunately, old master paintings are largely immune to the new economies, since they're inherently scarce. As such, they're still allowed to be pretty, and don't require a lot of "theory" to appreciate.