Less is more

by John Quiggin on May 28, 2017

Reading the news, I find a lot of items demonstrating a scale of values that makes no sense to me. Some are important in the grand scheme of things, some are less so, but perhaps more relevant to me. I think about writing posts but don’t find the time. So here are a few examples, which you are welcome to chew over.

  • Blowing things and people up is seen as a demonstration of clarity and resolve (unless someone is doing it to us, in which case it’s correctly recognised as cowardly and evil). The most striking recent example (on “our” side) was the instant and near-universal approval of Trump’s bombing of an airfield in Syria, which had no effect at all on events there. In this case, there was some pushback, which is a sign of hope, I guess.
  • The significance of art and artists is determined by the whims of billionaires. Referring to the sale of a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat for over $100 million the New York Times says
    most agree that the Basquiat sale has cemented his place in the revenue pantheon with Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon; confirming that he is not some passing trend; and forcing major museums to acknowledge that, by not having the artist in their collections, they passed over a crucial figure in art history.
    [1]
  • As far as economic research is concerned, less is more. More precisely, an academic economist with a small number of publications in top-rated journals is better regarded by other economists than one with an equal (or even somewhat larger) number of ‘good journal’ publications along with more research published in less prestigious outlets. I can vouch for that, though it’s less of a problem in Australia than in less peripheral locations. I have the impression that the same is true in other fields, but would be interested in comments.

[fn1] To be fair, this is preceded by a brief acknowledgement that “auction prices don’t necessarily translate into intrinsic value”, but there’s no suggestion that any other measure of intrinsic value is worth considering.

{ 65 comments }

1

Sandwichman 05.28.17 at 6:05 am

More is less when the “more” consists of measured outputs without regard to unmeasured inputs and the inputs increase faster than the outputs. Diminishing returns can quickly flip into subtractive production in which the output is of lower value than the unmeasured input.

Diagram

2

J-D 05.28.17 at 7:30 am

A little less than two months ago I made this comment on another blog post here:

It continues to be depressing and disheartening that the spectacle of things (and people) being blown up provides satisfaction to many people, but it’s not new and shouldn’t be surprising. Films with lots of explosions are frequently successful. More generally, violence as a form of entertainment has a long history.

3

William U. 05.28.17 at 9:08 am

Regarding the last point, and speaking as a research physicist: There is plenty of excellent and highly cited research in the “merely good” journals of my field (say, Physical Review E). However, it is not difficult to publish there — in part because referees are not particularly looking to keep you out. No one asks: “does this paper deserve the attention and glamour of PRE?” Referees do generally provide thoughtful comments on the technical content (and your paper can still be rejected, if it is technically flawed.) The whole process can take as a little as two weeks.

To publish in a marquee journal like PNAS or PRL requires running a gantlet of research rivals who are looking for a reason to spike your paper — the most frustrating being the nebulous and subjective “impact and novelty.” They themselves had to deal with this process, and are not going to give you an easy time. This can be protracted and frustrating process — I’ve had a paper under review at PNAS since Christmas… For the effort I’ve put into this PNAS manuscript, I could have already published in PRE two or even three times over.

4

oldster 05.28.17 at 9:49 am

The first two examples strike me as evidence of deep and widespread moral depravity among the political and cultural elites in the US and elsewhere. (The first case also shows widespread depravity among non-elites in the US, to the extent that they shared the reaction that bombing things was “presidential” and to be applauded. I don’t think non-elites in the US are as likely to care about prices at art auctions, though that may simply indicate that they don’t care about art at all, rather than indicating that they have a better grasp on artistic value.)

The third one seems very different. If it is evidence of bad judgment of some sort, it seems like a sort of bad judgment that manifests itself in many areas of human life. Is “dilution effect” a term of art for this? I go to a concert consisting of two exquisite works of chamber music; I come home delighted and full of praise. I go to a concert with the same two works of chamber music played in the same exquisite manner, sandwiched in between a greater volume of mediocre playing and composition; I come home restless and inclined to complain. You offer me a perfect strawberry; I contemplate it with awe and consume it with delight. You offer me a vast table full of stale and badly-prepared food with the same strawberry lost in it somewhere, and I turn away from the whole in disgust.

Ought I, when faced with the table full of mediocre food, seize on the one best thing in it and ignore the rest? Possibly; and possibly this is a good recipe for enjoying life and what it has to offer. But if this seems like sage advice, it is because only sages take it. The human tendency is to average. And while that may be evidence of depravity in some lapsarian sense, it is not the sort of extreme depravity manifested by the first two cases, and it tells us more about human nature than about any particular cultural/political moment.

5

Lee A. Arnold 05.28.17 at 9:58 am

I absolutely love Basquiat but $100 million only confirms the poor fellow’s appropriation into Pikettian capital. –A lesser definition of “crucial figuredom”, and one he himself might have felt wryly more appropriate.

6

BenK 05.28.17 at 10:48 am

I don’t know as much about publishing in economics, but in biology, historically, there has been some adjustment for relative impact, relative importance of the questions, and so on – the things that tended to land articles in high impact publications. People argue about these things all the time, and status anxiety as well as morality and practical concerns play a role in the arguments, but there is no a priori reason to think that a bunch of low impact, competent publications represent the same sort of effort or progress that one high impact article does. The adjustments are flawed, but simply counting noses is at least as bad, probably far worse.

7

Lee A. Arnold 05.28.17 at 10:59 am

Can anyone tell me, is there a clinical word for the combination of short attention span + interior intellectual atomization? Is this on the autism spectrum?

Trump combines it with a separate syndrome, narcissistic personality disorder. Not the same thing. Narcissism would cover his emotional immaturity and insecurity, and his embarrassingly blind egotisms.

Of course all modern U.S. Presidents have been at least slightly narcissistic.

But there is also this other thing in Trump that is quite different: his intellectual disconnection from moment-to-moment, his inability to take in large blocks of coherent information, his reliance upon catchphrases to establish conversational continuity. (There are narcissists who do not suffer from this at all.) A lot of people, including people working in the White House, appear to be frightened that this makes Trump incapable of performing the duties of the Presidency, and makes it likelier that he will make a terrible mistake.

The media has excused this shallow recklessness as merely his entrepreneurial style: he commands a private business empire, he’s worth billions, so it must work?

Of course this media opinion of his success ignores many details of his business history!

But I wonder if it is because lots of people, including writers, do not recognize this unnamed combination of short attention span + interior intellectual atomization. A large portion of the population may have the same syndrome, perhaps in varying degrees as a spectrum, and cannot recognize it in others. The question is, what is it?

8

SusanC 05.28.17 at 11:37 am

More precisely, an academic economist with a small number of publications in top-rated journals is better regarded by other economists than one with an equal (or even somewhat larger) number of ‘good journal’ publications along with more research published in less prestigious outlets.

This is probably true, but (unlike the other things you mention) it isn’t clear that this is a Bad Thing.

Something similar is explicitly part of the exam marking scheme at certain notable universities — completely (or near completely) answering a smaller number of questions is much better than partially answering a larger number of questions.

If you want to pretend this is like an economic model, it’s like a view on how fast the utility function falls off with the ranking of the journal, with a fast falling function corresponding to “you don’t have to go down the list very far before finding a vanity publisher”.

In my department, at least, there’s a running gag about journals that should count for negative points when assessing academic promotions.

9

steven t johnson 05.28.17 at 11:44 am

To the first, does anything by FAIR count as pushback? It’s not like FAIR is a reputable journal.

And as to the third, isn’t scientific reputation, for journals and authors alike, something of a factoid, information similar in quality to audience surveys for Family Feud? That the journals are effectively winnowing the objective quality of papers submitted is what really needs to be demonstrated, isn’t it? How do we know they aren’t all grading on a curve, so to speak? Is winning the intramurals really the same as being an Olympian?

As to the second…it seems to me that non-freely reproducible goods really do have prices determined by supply and demand, as in the marginal utility scheme (for after all, the sizes of the marginal inputs do vary as much as the elasticities, no?) If the results seem fairly arbitrary, wouldn’t that be like saying the leopard has spots? And isn’t the real lesson that utilitarian supply and demand doesn’t immediately present itself as a plausible explanation of stable, rational pricing?

10

SusanC 05.28.17 at 11:53 am

The significance of art and artists is determined by the whims of billionaires

I’m friends with several people who are professional artists. What strikes me about it is that they are viewing themselves as being in a low volume/high unit cost business, where the objective is to sell one painting for a lot of money. (My friends are not nearly as successful at achieving this as Basquiat). While as a research scientist, I act like I’m in a high volume/low unit cost business, where the objective is to come up with something that can be replicated cheaply and in mass volume.

Practically non-one’s going to pay any money for my paintings, but even if I could be granted a wish, I think it would be to have a success in the high volume/low unit cost end of the art market … I’d rather draw a successful comic book than get a painting bought by Saatchi.

(cf. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” etc.)

11

Jake Gibson 05.28.17 at 1:18 pm

Re: Basquiat, I know too little about art to judge the work.
But, concerning the reporting of the price it drew, I find
“cost of everything, value of nothing” echoing in my head.
The breathless Monday reporting of weekend box office receipts
is even more egregrious. Just another way Capitalism corrupts
values.

12

RJB 05.28.17 at 1:47 pm

Consider a researcher with T papers in top journals, M papers in mid-tier journals and L papers in lower-tier journals. In my field (Accounting), reputation is always enhanced by increasing T, but reputational effects of increasing M and L depend a lot on the likely reasons the paper didn’t get into a top journal. Some papers don’t get into top journals because they are unusual (a taste issue) or because they are quite ambitious in ways that force compromises in other ways. Those papers tend to be reputation-enhancing. But many papers don’t get into top journals because they are just what top journals would publish if only they were better executed or had more interesting findings. Those tend not to enhance reputation so much, and if M gets really big, people start thinking that the researcher doesn’t really know how to do good work consistently. The same logic pertains to L, but to a greater degree–you’d better have a really good reason for publishing in lower-tier journals if you want to maintain a top-tier reputation.

13

Pavel A 05.28.17 at 2:07 pm

@OP
Say what you want about Objectivists (and as an ex-Objectivist, I have many negative things to say about them myself), but they do drill in the concept of hierarchy of values pretty throughly. The hierarchy they represent may be junk, but the idea that some things should take precedence over others and that every human being should examine and discriminate between sets of values as a matter of course is kind of important. As it stands, many branches of modern philosophy (or perhaps their pop representations) kind of omit the everyday value of critically exploring and setting up this hierarchy. In other words, I blame PoMo. :p

@4
There is a fascinating and perhaps relevant TED talk by Daniel Khaneman about modern research on the interplay of memory and experience in the context of happiness. The basic gist is that the entire memory of an experience can be altered by the last or most memorable event in that entire experience. i.e. a shorter and painful colonoscopy session with pain near the end is remembered as being more painful than a longer colonoscopy session that was just as painful, and for a longer period, but was less painful near the very end. It’s not averaging as much as it is the ordering of the events in question. The last thing you remember (and maybe the first) will color your experience much more than the rest of it.

In your example, if you had listened to both chamber music pieces at the very end of a series of mediocre pieces, you may not be able to distinguish your memory of the event from one where good piece or no other pieces had been played prior to those final two pieces.

https://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_kahneman_the_riddle_of_experience_vs_memory

Now, in the context of exploring how researchers are judged by publication type and number, I would say that that event takes place almost simultaneously, so it’s less of an issue of memory and more of an issue of “the magical number seven”. If we can only hold a small number of concepts/numbers in our minds at the same time, we’re more likely to focus on small number of “best” things rather than a large number of “good” things. At the very least, a large number of merely “good” publications are more likely to blend together even if the ordering in which we experience reading about these publications is less relevant. Not sure whether this concept has been studied in terms of how we discriminate between items though.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magical_Number_Seven,_Plus_or_Minus_Two

14

RD 05.28.17 at 2:16 pm

“I would have painted it for half that.”
Rebecca Daniels, Helmet Tester
From the Onion.

“…in the REVENUE pantheon.”
From the NYT.

When “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer ” sold for the record $2.3 M,
lines of non-elites formed around the block at the MMA to see it . Certainly not for any artistic value.

15

Scott P. 05.28.17 at 3:36 pm

RJB,

I always find that a fascinating attitude, since I come from a (non-STEM) academic discipline where journals are not rated that way. I mean, there are certainly journals with more cachet and wider distribution, but they publish quite a few mediocre papers, while you can find quite important articles in journals of ‘lesser’ stature. We’ve been asked more than once to provide a ranking of journals in our field comparable to your T, M, and L, and it can’t be done. The idea that we would denigrate a publication because it wasn’t in the ‘right’ journal makes no sense to me (once one winnows out the pay-for-play journals).

16

Plarry 05.28.17 at 4:15 pm

I agree with what many in this thread have said about the publishing comment, e.g., William U @ 3, BenK @ 6. But to amplify, one metric that people might employ (do employ) in judging their impact in the field is how cited they are. An article in top-tier journal might get 2+ times as many citations as an article in a good or mediocre journal, making it well worth the effort to have fewer publications in higher quality venues.

17

Donald Johnson 05.28.17 at 4:30 pm

I am too much of a Philistine to have paid much attention to issue 2, but you are probably right. I suspect you are right on issue 3, but there are economists here so I will leave that one to people who know the issues better.

You are obviously right on the war issue and this one staggers me. The support the US and Great Britain have given the Saudis as they bomb Yemen is a moral disgrace, amounting to complicity in a crime against humanity. There are some American congressspeople in both parties opposed to it, which is good, but it just isn’t the major front page issue it ought to be. There is no excuse for this.

18

dilbert dogbert 05.28.17 at 6:32 pm

19

peterv 05.28.17 at 7:27 pm

“The significance of art and artists is determined by the whims of billionaires.”

Surely this is true of shares also. Keynes famously argued that the stock market was a beauty contest where the goal was to predict which entrant the other investors would deem most beautiful. To the extent that buyers of art are buying for investment purposes, the same is true for art. I am surprised that an economist would take apparent offence at this, given that the buying and selling of art is entirely voluntary, and no one is harmed by its ownership, production, distribution or exchange.

20

novakant 05.28.17 at 9:52 pm

I’m not worried about the art market really:

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/lets-pause-to-appreciate-basquiats-hundred-million-dollar-painting

The point about bombing is true however and it’s a tragedy: doing something means war more often than not – most people lack empathy and imagination, this is true of both parties in the US unfortunately.

21

John Quiggin 05.28.17 at 10:05 pm

A lot of commenters (not all) are missing the point on publications. The comparison is not between one person with few publications in good journals and another with more publications in lesser journals.

It’s between one with a small number of publications in good journals and another with an equal (or even somewhat greater) number of “good” publications AND additional publications in lesser journals.

22

oldster 05.28.17 at 10:26 pm

JQ–you should edit your #19 to put the “not” into the first paragraph (sc. “…the comparison is *not* between…”). Fixed thanks, JQ

Yes, I assumed the wrong thing before clicking the link, but then read this sentence there:
“… we asked subsamples of economists in 44 universities throughout the world to rate either a publication list with only higher rated journals or a list with all of these but with additional publications in nearly as many respected but lower rated journals.”

“…with all these but with additional…” is the crucial part here.

Pavel A–yes, I’m familiar with the Fredrickson-Kahneman “peak-end” rule, and I don’t dispute it. But it seems to me to be an interesting complication of a basic averaging picture, rather than a total rejection of the role of averaging in human experience. (And it invokes some averaging itself.)

23

J-D 05.29.17 at 12:46 am

Pavel A.

There is a fascinating and perhaps relevant TED talk by Daniel Khaneman about modern research on the interplay of memory and experience in the context of happiness. The basic gist is that the entire memory of an experience can be altered by the last or most memorable event in that entire experience. i.e. a shorter and painful colonoscopy session with pain near the end is remembered as being more painful than a longer colonoscopy session that was just as painful, and for a longer period, but was less painful near the very end. It’s not averaging as much as it is the ordering of the events in question. The last thing you remember (and maybe the first) will color your experience much more than the rest of it.

In your example, if you had listened to both chamber music pieces at the very end of a series of mediocre pieces, you may not be able to distinguish your memory of the event from one where good piece or no other pieces had been played prior to those final two pieces.

Another example of this is the extra importance people attach, after a death, to the last encounter with the deceased, feeling good if that last encounter was a positive experience and bad if that last encounter was a negative experience. My relationships with my parents were positive ones, but it isn’t particularly the last times that I saw them that determines that; yet people (including me) do have this tendency to react as if the last encounter has an extra special significance.

24

Pavel A 05.29.17 at 1:20 am

@22

Based on JQ’s correction/restatement, it seems that I was mistaken. I guess this is some form of mental averaging as you’ve originally stated.

25

Tabasco 05.29.17 at 1:28 am

” … and another with an equal (or even somewhat greater) number of “good” publications AND additional publications in lesser journals.”

More information is needed. Are these additional publications in different fields from the “good” publications? If so, they could be seen as evidence of dilettantism, which is a plausible, though not necessarily valid, explanation for lesser regard.

26

TF79 05.29.17 at 2:33 am

Re: the CV paper, I don’t find their defense of the “career time” concern compelling (p13). They claim to not want to “prime” respondents by providing info about career time, but that just leaves lots of room for all sorts of confounding inference. For example, if the “long” CV (with the weak additional pubs) is assumed to be from someone who’s been out longer, that may be viewed differently than a recent graduate who is consistently hitting good journals. That is, unless told otherwise, it’s not crazy to infer that a person with 5 A’s and 5 B’s has been at it longer than someone with 5 A’s, and then the sort of comparisons/ratings in this paper get really muddled up.

27

Joe 05.29.17 at 2:38 am

I think of the economics of painting/sculpture as quite different from those of performing arts (like plays) or of reproduced arts (like novels or albums). E.g., a novelist who seeks to write a masterpiece will want zillions of copies published, and an enthusiastic reader will want to spread the word to as many other readers as possible. But the visual artist and his/her wealthy buyer want there to be one, unique UN-reproducible THING sold at an eye-popping price to that one mega-rich person and available to nobody else. That buyer is not necessarily judging the painting as “great,” but as an investment vehicle that can hold or increase value without having immediate liquidity for creditors. It’s basically a form of asset allocation; artistic greatness is valued only if it drives up the price at resale. The ethics of the field do indeed seem appalling, but the damage seems self-contained… I think? (Any research on this? And would rich art collectors do better on average if they put their bucks in index funds? I’d love it if it were so. And has anyone done a “Trading Places”-like movie about this field?..I’d watch it…)

28

derrida derider 05.29.17 at 3:40 am

George Akerlof is the epitome of academic economists who were like Sraffa – very few publications but each with big impact.

His most famous article (“Markets for Lemons”) couldn’t find a publisher for years among both top and middle level journals because it was too novel, with too big a potential impact (notoriously one referee rejected it with the comment “it must be wrong because if it is right our whole field is wrong”).

Of course, once he had made his name he had no trouble getting anything published in the top journals (though as it happens Akerlof’s subsequent papers were always innovative – not always so among those who’ve made their name with a single famous paper). The strategy worked well for him.

29

J-D 05.29.17 at 5:03 am

Susan C
Perhaps there’s some kind of connection there with the distinction between ‘arts’ and ‘crafts’, or between ‘fine arts’ and ‘decorative arts’?

30

Tom West 05.29.17 at 7:21 am

Another example of this is the extra importance people attach, after a death, to the last encounter with the deceased

I think we cannot help but imagine that what the deceased experienced at death essentially goes on into infinity. The idea of someone being traumatized and then dying shortly thereafter is instinctively far worse that someone living equally long, but suffering the same trauma in the middle.

We also tend to update our memories to the last experience. It’s very hard for someone whose marriage ended in divorce not to consider the entire experience a failure when they may have enjoyed 15 years of happiness first.

31

John Holbo 05.29.17 at 7:58 am

“rejected it with the comment “it must be wrong because if it is right our whole field is wrong”).”

In other words, it must be a lemon because if it’s a peach, then our field can’t tell the difference between peaches and lemons.

32

J-D 05.29.17 at 8:08 am

Tom West

Oh, I understand the instinct all right, but I think it misleads us. It may feel as if a divorce retroactively cancels the value of the marriage, but that’s not a good way of thinking about it.

33

SusanC 05.29.17 at 8:53 am

@29. Yes, the main distiction between a “fine artist” and a “graphic designer” is what end of the market they’re trying to sell to. Some artists may consider themselves to be superior people because they pander to the tastes of rich people, but this value judgment is questionable.

(On the other hand: someone I know who makes gold statues for Very Rich People thunks his clients have terrible taste. I wont mention names to avoid embarassing him and/or his clients, but I think we can all imagine the kind of thing. As far as I know Donald Trump is not one of his clients, but if you were prepared to pay for a HUGE gold statue of The Donald, i know someone who could do it).

34

kidneystones 05.29.17 at 9:32 am

This is an interesting discussion. Bombing people and things seems so wrong as to require no additional comment. That conservatives, ‘realists’ and neoconservatives find justice in the act never surprises me. I’m appalled when ‘liberals’ champion the selective destruction of others – selective as in those unable to respond in kind.

The discussion of cultural capital in material culture is more interesting. I’d caution against the argument of ‘artistic’ value. A great many prized objects originally had value as keys to the afterlife, for example, – ‘realism’ and other attributes mattered far less than their production and veneration – both often social and repeated. Rare and well-crafted artifacts gain great value as gifts. Stealing and looting objects of great value is part of the fun. I’d suggest the Sotheby’s auctions tell us practically nothing about art, but a great deal about art markets and ‘tastes.’ If we discover value in a finger-painting, or a Da Vinci, good for us. It matters about as much as deciding whether we prefer plain, or salted peanuts. I don’t put food in my mouth and then ask a critic to tell me whether I like it. I may like the story the critic tells me about the food, but that’s not the same as the object itself. There’s a reason Turner painted light and Wordsworth wrote about lakes and mountains. The beauty is there. It’s wonderful to see artists transform emotions, ideas, and experiences into sound, texture, and taste. The economics associated with the exercise are another matter entirely.

As for the papers, nothing surprises me about academia any more. Papers that unlock doors are rightly praised. Only a dolt worries about the venue. As for respect – see above.

35

Resident of a Northeastern City 05.29.17 at 11:13 am

I had a Professor in a Humanities discipline who was incredibly prolific and wide ranging in his scholarship, arguably the most distinguished scholar of his generation in a particular area. He taught at 3 different Top-tier Universities. There were two occasions when he was up for consideration for jobs at one school. The first time it went to someone else (also great with a different area of expertise). The second time, according to another Professor who was tenured at that institution at the time, a bunch of people grumbled that it really wasn’t possible for him to do that much work and have it all be high quality work. So the Professor who was telling me about this said that he told everyone to take a small subset of the work and judge him on that alone, and that’s how he got tenure.

36

AcademicLurker 05.29.17 at 12:27 pm

John Quiggin@21.2: I think we need a clearer definition of “lesser journal”.

In my own physics-ish field, there are 1) the top “glamour” journals (Science, Nature, etc.) 2) Solid respectable society level journals (e.g., Physical Review and its offshoots) as well as journals that publish high quality papers in very focused specialties and 3) Z grade journals that are widely agreed to publish a lot of sketchy and/or trivial stuff.

In my field, I can’t imagine that someone with X papers in category 1 would have their reputation diminished by Y papers in category 2. I could possibly imagine their reputation suffering from a lot of papers in category 3.

37

Harry 05.29.17 at 1:52 pm

“It’s between one with a small number of publications in good journals and another with an equal (or even somewhat greater) number of “good” publications AND additional publications in lesser journals.”

Philosophy is too small a discipline for us to be sure about this. But, I’d say that on average that is probably true. Without naming names I can think of people who have quite large numbers of publications in ‘top’ journals, but whose reputations seem to me to be diminished by their prolific publications in lesser venues. This is unfair (but only a little, all such people I can think of nevertheless have pretty good reputations and are treated well), and STUPID (from the perspective of the discipline. I also think Philosophy, being small, is particularly prone to early reputation shaping — 2 or 3 people a year come onto the job market and are stars, and it takes a long time for that effect to fade.

For a long time edited volumes played a significant role — and published genuinely important pieces. I’d say that is less true now than, say, 30 years ago (but that’s very impressionistic).

38

bos 05.29.17 at 2:49 pm

Regarding arts, one of the aspects at play:

Exclusivity. This is something that is beautiful to and prized by the super-wealthy. Having something that others cannot have is worth paying a premium for. This applies to things as mudane as banking services. The quality of service does not vary much from bank to bank, but only one bank can say they are a banker to a particular monarch for instance. Demonstrating that you can buy ex-chancellors of the Exchequer is a variation of this theme practiced by super-wealthy fin institutions.

But the advantage of an art piece over an Osbourne is that the art piece had a re-sale value, so long as there is confidence there will be super-wealthy individuals/trust funds in the future.

39

Joseph Brenner 05.29.17 at 5:39 pm

Just to state the obvious again — Susan Sontag got this this a long time ago — suicide bombers may be crazy, but calling them “cowardly” is itself pretty crazy.

I was looking at some old Edgar Rice Burroughs fiction, and I noted that when our hero indulges in a sneak attack, he’s clearly just using pragmatic guerrilla tactics, but when the opposition does it, they’re sneered at as “cowardly”. That kind of irrational double-standard has faded from popular fiction, now it just belongs to political rhetoric.

40

Joseph Brenner 05.29.17 at 5:45 pm

Thought for the day: the high-end art business– and the “culture” of the rich, in general– may very well be pretty crazy, but isn’t choosing Basquiat as the ground to make this point vaguely racist? If it was a Picasso setting a record, no one would blink, right?

Or could it be just that Basquiat seems *too recent*, and it’s presumed that the age of giants is in the distant past, way back before Warhol?

41

LFC 05.29.17 at 8:34 pm

@40
I think it’s that Basquiat is more recent than Picasso, and I’d be surprised if some kind of critical consensus about Basquiat’s merits being roughly equal to Picasso’s had emerged. These things are completely subjective, but I don’t esp. like the painting that sold for $110 million. YMMV.

42

LFC 05.29.17 at 8:41 pm

bos @38
yes, I think a painting — esp. by an artist who did a small-ish number of them — is a ‘positional good’. That partly accounts for the high prices.

43

engels 05.29.17 at 10:11 pm

calling them “cowardly” is itself pretty crazy

I’ve thought about this and I think I disagree. They’re cowardly because they attack unarmed civilians rather than (other) soldiers.

44

Orange Watch 05.30.17 at 12:54 am

They’re cowardly because they attack unarmed civilians rather than (other) soldiers.

That assumes that the only way to achieve military victory is to kill the opposing military’s personnel. We don’t believe that, nor do we conduct ourselves as such, nor do we count our servicemembers as cowardly for engaging in missions where they put themselves at risk to achieve objectives outside of killing enemy combatants – even when that risk is minimal, and even when we anticipate (oh, but we don’t intend) direct civilian “collateral damage” (to say nothing of when we anticipate, intend, and inflict indirect civilian casualties, or provide material support to allied military operations who directly target civilians, or when we engage in extrajudicial killings (often with civilian collateral damage) of “clearly bad” civilians who really shouldn’t count as civilians at all, amirite?).

All those things are not viewed as cowardly because the servicemembers are putting themselves in harm’s way, even if in some cases the harm they face is carpal tunnel syndrome at a computer monitor stateside. We don’t carefully ascertain whether our military puts itself at risk by facing “peers” before deciding they’re not cowards, and indeed we go out of our way to make our battles asymmetric. But it’s cowardly for the others to put themselves in harm’s way if the risk isn’t in pursuit of a flexibly-defined “honorable” end. It doesn’t really eliminate the double standard to say “our enemies should be standing in an open field in closed ranks waiting to charge at us with their bare hands or else they’re cowards”, which is the reductio this eventually leads to. Cowardly either means risk-adverse or it doesn’t, and in our political discourse it absolutely doesn’t. And that’s the point.

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Sandwichman 05.30.17 at 1:48 am

“They’re cowardly because they attack unarmed civilians rather than (other) soldiers.”

They attack unarmed civilians presumably because massive “security” has taken assassination of heads of state and high public officials out of the equation. Officials protect themselves while leaving civilians increasingly vulnerable. “Unarmed civilians” have become the human shields for the highest government officials.

This in no way excuses the murder of unarmed civilians or denies its cowardice. It is only to highlight the complicity of the authorities in this cowardice.

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Sandwichman 05.30.17 at 1:56 am

Regarding the Basquiat: It is indeed worth $110 million (or $110 billion) because it refers explicitly to where all that loot came from.

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John Quiggin 05.30.17 at 2:17 am

@40 Basquiat is just the most recent example. In the early 1970s, Australia’s National Gallery paid over a million dollars for a Jackson Pollock . They were duly pilloried by the philistine press, but triumphantly vindicated when the estimated value of the work rose to (I think) four million.

More generally, I’d say that, up to and including Picasso, widespread recognition of an artist as great came first, and the market followed. Since then, it’s been increasingly the other way around. As you imply, Warhol’s peak of fame in the 1960s was close to the turning point.

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LFC 05.30.17 at 2:46 am

There’s a 1981 painting by Basquiat called Scull (apparently spelled with the “c”) that I somewhat prefer to the ’82 painting that sold for 110 mill. They are similar, but also have some differences, and I happen to prefer the ’81, which can be seen here:

https://www.wikiart.org/en/jean-michel-basquiat/head

The link labels this painting “neo-expressionist” and I guess there are maybe certain echoes of, say, De Kooning, though I don’t know if that’s the intended reference or if “neo-expressionist” means something specific and identifiable to an art historian. (I suppose it probably does.)

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derrida derider 05.30.17 at 4:35 am

Get yer nomenclature right. A suicide bomber of unarmed civilians is always wicked, often crazy but never cowardly. Those who send him can count as cowardly (as well as wicked, though rarely crazy) because they’ve sent someone to kill and die when they are not willing to do so themselves.
If you use insults that clearly do not apply to your enemy, the insults you should apply lose force.
Of course those who bomb unarmed civilians from a distance are usually wicked, sometimes crazy and ALWAYS cowardly.

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Pavel A 05.30.17 at 4:39 am

@43

I’d say double tapping EMS workers, family members and bystanders with a hellfire missile from twenty thousand feet is pretty cowardly to me. Dropping white phosphorous on neighbourhoods and dispersing depleted uranium into the air is also pretty cowardly. Destabilizing countries until they turn into a bloody mess of a civil war is generally pretty cowardly.

Any time a trained military rides roughshod over the bodies of civilians I know who to call a coward.

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J-D 05.30.17 at 6:35 am

LFC
According to Wikipedia:

Neo-expressionism developed as a reaction against conceptual art and minimal art of the 1970s. Neo-expressionists returned to portraying recognizable objects, such as the human body, (although sometimes in an abstract manner), in a rough and violently emotional way, often using vivid colors.

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SusanC 05.30.17 at 12:39 pm

A posible connection between the art market and scientific journals is that in both cases, there is an avoidance of making a value judgement,

In the case of academia, the basic assumption now seems to be that the people in charge of handing out the money have zero knowledge of the academic subject matter, and rather than actually read the paper to see if its any good, rely on a proxy such as journal publication. Obvious problem: if you have zero knowledge of the subject, you also can’t tell if the journal the paper was published in is a junk journal. (Hence more complex bibliometrics…)
[I exaggerate a bi, but e.g. Academic promotions have to be justified to administrators with no academic expertise]

Similarly, rather than actually making a value judgment about Basquiat’s worth as a painter, journalists resort to seeing how much the painting sold for. This is even less justifiable in the case of painting. It might be reasonable that papers in e.g. Quantum physics can only be evaluated by a small number of technical experts, But – do you really need an expert to tell you whether you like a painting?

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Katsue 05.30.17 at 1:21 pm

Regarding the airfield bombing, in my view the reason that the bombing was praised so much was the signal it sent – that Trump would no longer cooperate with Syria and Russia to fight ISIS* and was now at least potentially in favour of regime change in Syria. Given the status of Iran and Russia as public enemies #1 and #2 in the minds of the Washington establishment, their praise was not very surprising.

* Prior to the bombing, there had been many signs of coordination on the ground, perhaps most obviously the way that Syria and the US stepped in to prevent a Turkish attack on SDF forces in Manbij.

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RD 05.30.17 at 2:27 pm

If attacking civilians is cowardly then who is the greatest coward-
Gen. Curtis LeMay or Harry Truman? Or Eichmann?
Or my Great Uncle who dropped bombs on “hospitals and schools”,
in his words, leading him to a life after WWII of religion in search of forgiveness?

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LFC 05.30.17 at 4:33 pm

p.s. actually the “c” may well just be a typo.

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bruce wilder 05.30.17 at 7:29 pm

Some meandering reflections:

Way back in the 19th century, weren’t there highly organized annual events, exhibiting and judging contemporary art? The Salon de Paris of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and so on.

The rebellion against that system was part of the dramatic narrative of the emergence of modern art. Société anonyme and impressionism, Vienna secession and the revolution in the decorative arts, and so on.

We organize institutions to judge and promote quality and then, being human, we make them sclerotic, undermine them, rebel against them, reform them or start over.

Between the Wars and Post-WWII, a less formal, but still highly structured system emerged around a relative handful of wealthy collectors, galleries, critics and aspiring artists in the Bohemian quarters of Greenwich Village, a cousin to the long-standing Left Bank, with its chaotically evolving community of ex-pats stretching back into the 19th century when Beaux-Arts training brought painters and architects to Paris and continuing as war brought refugees.

That the hammer at a couple of prestigious (dare we also say on the basis of antitrust and other scandal, corrupt?) auction houses seems to be the supreme arbiter is the end of a long evolution.

I suppose my point is that “a scale of values” is not a spontaneous expression of tastes or judgement. It reflects the quality of institutions organized to generate and maintain a scale of values, and to create and put forth persistently a coherent critique and to open a path for reform (or revolution).

If you want to know what has gone wrong with American foreign policy (granting that it started going seriously wrong as soon as FDR was in the grave and continued going wrong despite Eisenhower’s warnings and probably put JFK in his grave), it seems to me that you can look for the rot at the New York Times or the Brookings Institution or the Council on Foreign Relations or the Woodrow Wilson School or the even the CIA (rotten by original design), places with a lot of rot indeed. Shocking I know, but Pinch Sulzberger is not Punch Sulzberger. Atrios at Eschaton “celebrates” the 14th “Happy Suck On This Day!” today and Tommy Friedman, despite his appalling lack of wit and discernment, not to mention his horrific mixed metaphors, remains ensconced in his prestigious place. And, if you hire out your best brains to Haim “Power Rangers” Sabin, as Brookings has shamelessly done, the result is not going to be pretty. Roger Ailes passing gave time to reflect on how The Fairness Doctrine, like Glass-Steagall, did matter after all.

The tragedy of reputation in economics is that people like Akerlof function as packing peanuts for a whole lot of scholarship that makes very little sense, but is given the imprimatur of the best journals. Pick up a leading economics journal from 1970 and I dare say an educated person can read and understand most of the articles (just as anyone can read an Akerlof article and get something out of it); good luck today. The DSGE phenomenon in macroeconomics is a self-licking ice cream cone — driven entirely by the irrational standards of graduate training in leading schools and for publication in leading journals and not at all by any genuine and demonstrable achievement in better understanding the actual economy.

In many ways, I think Chris Hedges, with his Death of the Liberal Class correctly diagnosed the problem: the economic foundation of institutional support for a liberalism with its virtue and integrity intact was sold out from under the liberal intelligentsia by the liberals. Roger Ailes and company were there to manage it for the new owners.

I am an old man and prone, I know, to yelling “get off my lawn” at the kids and generally feeling nostalgic for the days of my youth. The past was not some golden age when truth and justice triumphed, but I think people with the memory of a mayfly who think Hillary Clinton is normal and the CIA a Pillar of the Republic, might consider that the country managed to get itself out of Vietnam, to get Nixon out of the White House, to bring on a revolution in civil rights and the Sexual Revolution. None of those were the accomplishments of majority opinion; they were the accomplishments of a coherent and persistent liberal critique by a minority with secure positions of leadership in academia, the Federal regulatory establishment, journalism, the bar and judiciary, the labor movement, Hollywood and the mainline Churches and a variety of other institutions. Their security was sometimes contested, most famously in Hollywood but also in academia and journalism, but they held on and often more than held on, they secured the commanding heights, so to speak. What especially pissed off the Right about “the liberal media” back in the day was that, although most newspapers were reliably right-wing mouthpieces of their reactionary publishers, the “best” papers by the standards of professional journalism, the agenda-setting papers relied on to manufacture consent, were recognizably liberal (in the American sense) (no doubt not least because reality has a liberal bias).

There’s always a lot of rot in a nation — Adam Smith said something to that effect I am told. We are far from completely gone, but we are in seriously dangerous territory, when a dominant political faction would rather people think Russia hacked the voting machines to elect a Manchurian Candidate than admit that their policy program has destroyed millions of lives and they can freely press their case thru old and new media by means of mindless hysteria. Where is the political will to get out of Afghanistan and stay out of Syria? The sentiment is there and it is hardly an intellectual achievement to see these efforts in Middle East as benighted, but organizing the political will seems out of reach somehow, but organizing hysteria over a Russia Conspiracy is easy.

There are far more prosaic examples of how tenuous is the integrity of the managerial and technical classes. How hard was it to test Flint’s water properly? How many years will go by before the Koch money runs out and PBS’s Nova science documentary series can seriously explore “global warming”? In Europe, how far must the Euro go on without effective reform?

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Alex K. 05.30.17 at 8:22 pm

@SusanC: “My friends are not nearly as successful at achieving this as Basquiat.”

He wasn’t that successful either: the $110-million painting was sold for $19,000 at an auction in 1984. I don’t know how much of that went to the artist. He died young in 1988, joining the 27 Club, which might, cynically speaking, have contributed to the current market value of his work.

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engels 05.30.17 at 8:55 pm

Just for the record, I’m not defending the US military just stating stating my opinion it’s not unreasonable (all other things being equal) to describe an armed attack on unarmed enemy civilians as cowardly.

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kidneystones 05.30.17 at 10:09 pm

@ 56 I suppose my point is that “a scale of values” is not a spontaneous expression of tastes or judgement. It reflects the quality of institutions organized to generate and maintain a scale of values, and to create and put forth persistently a coherent critique and to open a path for reform (or revolution). Quite right.

Thomas Crow’s “Painters and Public Life” is the standard work on the history of the Salon and the motivations behind inviting the ‘public’ to share the experience of judging merit. There’s a large literature on that topic which (unfortunately) often gets lost in quasi-philosophical excursions and only sometimes meets the high bar of Crow’s research and erudition.

Whatever we may wish to believe about the artists of our imagination – cash and the respect (envy) of peers appear to be the principal drivers historically of those producing art – sponsorship is normally part of state or personal status enhancement. Revolutions can be aesthetic as well as exercises in authority. Madame Pompadour and Napoleon are two good examples. Christopher Wren transformed London, but not as much as he would have liked.

I’d be astonished if Basquiat was free of the avarice of Warhol, Bowie, or Jagger. I find it highly unlikely that he’d be anything but delighted to have lived long enough to cash in on his fame. His untimely death adds to the cash and status value of all existing work.

Twas ever thus, btw. Too many historical examples to cite.

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J-D 05.30.17 at 10:21 pm

John Quiggin

In the early 1970s, Australia’s National Gallery paid over a million dollars for a Jackson Pollock . They were duly pilloried by the philistine press, but triumphantly vindicated when the estimated value of the work rose to (I think) four million.

Online I see suggestions of figures two orders of magnitude higher. I assume they mean nominal dollars; if you mean inflation-adjusted dollars, a tripling might be about right.

Wikipedia explains that the gallery director was limited to purchases up to one million, so the personal approval of the PM was required; his involvement contributes to an explanation of the backlash (some people were happy for any stick to beat him with).

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John Quiggin 05.31.17 at 6:22 am

Google suggests a current market value of $350 million, which would make this one of the best commercial investments ever made by an Australian government. But the politically important increase was the one in the few years immediately after the purchase.

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Z 05.31.17 at 9:00 am

@SusanC But – do you really need an expert to tell you whether you like a painting?

A friend of mine wrote her PhD in Art History on a not so well-known American painter of the late 19th century. When I asked her about her job prospects, she listed academic jobs then casually threw “and if everything fails, I can always work in the private sector” and then I discovered that many, many wealthy people and even many more corporations are very willing to give a lot of money to someone in exchange on an advice on, basically, whether they should like a painting (and particularly in the case of corporations, the investment value was apparently clearly a secondary question).

@engels They’re cowardly because they attack unarmed civilians rather than (other) soldiers.

Could it be a question of definition? My (American) English dictionary defines coward as “a person who lacks the courage to do or endure dangerous or unpleasant things” period. By that definition, a suicide bomber cannot be a coward. But another connotation I personally pick up from my own native language when thinking of the word coward is of the abuse of one’s own force to degrade or diminish the weakest. By that definition, a suicide bomber targeting civilians is pretty much a definitional coward. Whether one perceives the second connotation probably explains where one stands on the question.

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Rob Chametzky 05.31.17 at 1:05 pm

“It’s between one with a small number of publications in good journals and another with an equal (or even somewhat greater) number of “good” publications AND additional publications in lesser journals.”

This immediately struck me as akin to/a (sub)species of the (in)famous conjunction fallacy of Kahneman & Tversky

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conjunction_fallacy

I suppose what I like most about this example is that it comes from the behavior of economists. It somehow conjures images of glass-house dwelling physicians self-medicating by hurling rocks about.

–RC

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J-D 05.31.17 at 9:09 pm

I think the level of importance attached to cowardice as an evaluative criterion is itself part of the problem.

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Stephen Calhoun 06.01.17 at 8:29 pm

Hyper-wealthy persons who collect art don’t have to know anything about art. They can afford to have relationships with dealers (galleries,) advisors, and ‘specialists,’ to pad the appearance of being knowledgeable. To find out what artist is trending toward greatness you read the list of most valuable artworks sold last year.

Museums do have to know something about art of course, but, this is mitigated by their Boards and funders–many of whom are hyper-wealthy persons.

The irony is that the top end of the art market, where works sell for $100,000 and more—an expensive artwork is one that sells for $1,000,000 or more–provides an upper class livelihood for, (and for purpose of illustration,) not even one tenth of one percent of working artists. (If that: there are 2,000,000+ artists in the United States.)

Hirst and Koons are better examples of market savvy artists who have figured out how to play the egoic needs of the collector and curator and dealer.

The 99.99% of artists who will never show in a NY or London gallery, have to be concerned with connecting with persons who actually personally love some artwork they created. This is obviously different than the tautological confirmation on offer through: ‘if it costs a great deal it must be great art.’

working artist in Cleveland

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