Posted by Jay Livingston
Social context influences how we judge and respond to a piece of art (or anything else for that matter). That was the message of the previous post in this blog. It was based on a Washington Post article, “Pearls Before Breakfast,” about virtuoso Joshua Bell busking in the DC metro. Everybody who was in on the stunt thought that people would recognize Bell or that at the very least, some would recognize the quality of the performance. In fact, almost nobody stopped to listen, and many commuters, when interviewed later, didn’t even recall that there was a violinist in the station that morning.
But one person wasn’t surprised and did realize the importance of context—Mark Leithauser, curator at the National Gallery of Art.
Let’s say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It’s a $5 million painting. And it's one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: “Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.”
One reason for the art curator’s wisdom might be that in his field, the connection between artistic value and monetary value is so tenuous. And he knows it. Monetary value is based on what collectors are willing to pay. They’ll pay $5 million because that canvas is a genuine Kelly. The same canvas painted by a nobody would be bring only $150.
Of course, if someone decided to hang the nobody’s canvas in a major museum or an upscale gallery, its price would skyrocket. Location, location, location.
It’s not about the art, it’s about economics. And in this case, as in Father Guido Sarducci’s Five Minute University, all you need to know about economics is “supply ana demand.” Here’s a Kelly print.
It costs $8,000 signed. Unsigned, it might go for less than $1,000. It’s from a limited edition, the supply is limited to 45. If Kelly had printed and signed several hundred, it would still be the same piece of art and have the same artistic value. But it’s price would be less.
(Maybe you think you yourself could produce these works with a $1.89 roll of masking tape and three cans of paint. But that just shows what Philistines we are.)
People who work in the art world probably take it for granted that judgments and evaluations will be influenced by extrinsics — rarity, authorship, a signature, and location— rather than the intrinsic qualities of the painting. It’s a lesson the rest of us, social scientists included, are continually learning.