The Art Market

A 1986 sculpture by Jeff Koons just sold for $91.1 million. Why is art so expensive? “The short answer,” Gaby Del Valle writes, “is that most art isn’t.”

The high-end art market is “driven by a small group of wealthy collectors who pay astronomical prices for works made by an even smaller group of artists, who are in turn represented by a small number of high-profile galleries.” A few newcomers break through, but first they’ve got to find a gallery to represent their work. Gallerists shop for promising new talent at MFA programs.

As Roberto Ferdman observes, “only one out of every 10 art school graduates goes on to earn his or her living as an artist. So spending, say, $120,000 on an art education is often more of an extended luxury than an investment in an adolescent’s future.” Galleries sell mostly to the ultra-rich, for whom spending a few million on a painting signals their good taste in luxury goods while also providing them with a potentially lucrative investment if the market goes up for the artist whose work they’ve acquired.

 

 

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The Power of No

no
– So far this one-word tweet on @dril, dated 15 Sept 2008, has generated 55,675 retweets and 90,837 likes.

Eileen Chou summarizes her key research findings in the title of her 2018 journal article: “Naysaying and Negativity Promote Initial Power Establishment and Leadership Endorsement.” The rationale:

Humans evolved as social animals, reliant on power hierarchies to preserve order. Power is a means of influencing others through the control of rewards and punishments. Therefore it’s adaptive for humans to be attuned to cues that signal power; e.g. expansive posture, height, the tendency to spring into action. Naysaying seems to be another signifier of power. Why? For one thing, powerful people are perceived as primarily concerned with getting things done, so they focus more on identifying and correcting mistakes that hinder success than on making people feel good. Two, powerful people are regarded as less constrained by conventional norms that serve to preserve group solidarity through mutual agreeableness, in part because powerful people can reshape group norms.

Do people view naysayers as more powerful than cheerleaders? The participants in Chou’s experiments did. In the multivariate structural model derived from her empirical findings, people regard others’ negative judgments as indicative of their being free agents, able to express their true opinions unconstrained by social expectations. The free exercise of agency in turn implies the ability to wield social power over those whom they criticize. Consequently, people expect a naysayer to be a more effective leader than a cheerleader, even when the naysayer isn’t perceived as being more competent. People voluntarily follow the naysayers’ leadership, even if that means subjecting themselves to the naysayer’s negative judgment of themselves.

Chou’s experiments support the idea that people perceive naysayers as more powerful than cheerleaders. What about the naysayers themselves: do they feel more powerful? Chou conducted some additional studies in which participants were asked to invent arguments for or against some proposition about which they held no a priori opinions; e.g., positive or negative reviews for an imaginary restaurant. Afterward, the negative reviewers reported feeling more powerful than did the positive reviewers.

A positive feedback loop is activated here: Expressing a negative judgment not only makes you feel more powerful; it also causes other people to regard you as more powerful. Once you’ve been rewarded for your negativity, you’re more likely to repeat your performance, becoming a chronic naysayer and rising in the social power hierarchy.

Trump. Disagreeable workers who get higher-income and higher-status positions than their equally competent but more agreeable counterparts (Judge, Livingston, & Hurst, 2012). Publishers that reject 99% of submitted manuscripts without explanation and that are acknowledged as elite cultural tastemakers by the rejectees themselves…

Open-Access Scholarly E-Journals

Academic publishing is moving toward a major overhaul.

Traditionally, scholars have submitted their manuscripts to journals. Submissions are evaluated for rigor, excellence, and potential impact; only those manuscripts that pass muster are published in the journals. Universities and other institutions subscribe to the journals, thereby purchasing access to the journals’ contents for anyone affiliated with the institution.

In the paper-and-ink era the academic publishers were saddled with the expenses of printing and warehousing and distributing the journals. By now though the printed journal has been rendered all but obsolete by online publication. Distribution is now nearly free and instantaneous. Access too: instead of traipsing to the library and poring through the archives hoping to find the volume you’re looking for, now you can read articles online from anywhere, any time.

The publishers don’t create journal content: that’s the work of the scholars, who get paid by the institutions with which they’re affiliated and by the granting agencies supporting their projects. The publishers don’t vet the submitted manuscripts either: that’s done by peer reviewers, who aren’t paid for their efforts. So: if variable costs are absorbed by the scholars, and if fixed costs are eliminated by e-publishing, and if reader access is no longer constrained by physical access to the printed journal, why not just make journals open-access, free for any and all to read regardless of institutional affiliation?

The publishers still incur some costs: they have to wrangle the talent, format and copy-edit the texts, and ensure that the online interfaces are working smoothly. But why pass those costs on to the readers? Authors of published articles don’t benefit from restricting access — the wider the distribution net, the the greater the potential readership, impact, recognition, reward. Equipped with online publishing tools, the authors already shoulder most of the editing and formatting load. Open-access journals are already changing the publishing ecologies of scholarly disciplines. to varying degrees — why not fully shift to that model, cutting out the added expenses and distribution bottlenecks imposed by for-profit publishing companies? Or, even more quickly and efficiently, why not have the authors self-publish their articles, submitting them to an independent peer review board whose findings are likewise published and open to public discussion? Whatever remaining administrative expenses are incurred in publishing and distributing online open access research can be covered by the institutions financing the authors’ work, which also benefit from widespread distribution.

**Here’s an article that came out today spotlighting some of the efforts that academic institutions and scholars (collectively and individually) are taking to circumvent the access paywalls and bottlenecks imposed by the academic publishing industry.**

So that’s the trajectory in scholarly publishing. Are there implications for the publication of fictional texts? Not surprisingly, I’ve got some thoughts… next time.

Race to the Bottom

Before launching this website I wrote five “Postcapitalist Fiction” pamphlets, establishing a framing context for what I’d hoped would become a writers’ collaborative experiment in anarcho-collectivist publishing. In November 2017, as part of this website’s second-ever post, I quoted from the first pamphlet, called “Writing Precariously”:

I read somewhere that, on average, a published novelist earns about $11 thousand per book: not enough to make a living, as everyone agrees. Again, the average is skewed sharply toward the right end of the distribution by the one percent, the heavyweight celebrity authors who bring in six or seven figures for each new release. [The median is around $6K: half the writers make less than that per published novel, half make more.]

Those findings came from a survey of writers conducted in 2009 by The Authors Guild. A new survey just came out, updating the numbers. Over that ten-year span, authors’ annual median income from book revenues has dropped from $6K to $3K. The decline is especially steep for literary fiction. Self-published revenues have doubled over the past ten years; still, the median is under $2K per year. What about other writing-related sources of revenue — teaching, editing, speaking engagements, book reviews? That revenue stream too generates around $3K per year median income — also a decline from ten years ago

“Among the factors contributing to the pressure on authorship, the Guild cited the growing dominance of Amazon over the marketplace, lower royalties and advances for mid-list books (which publishers report comes from losses they are forced to pass on), including the extremely low royalties paid on the increasing number of deeply discounted sales and the 25 percent of net ebook royalty. The blockbuster mentality of publishers who grant celebrity writers massive advances and markets them wildly at the expense of the working writers is also certainly a factor.”

The Guild’s report notes dire consequences not just for writers but for society at large. Some specific proposals for turning things around are offered, though no doubt the Guild made recommendations ten years ago when the situation, already desperate, was twice as good as it is today.

MFA as Luxury Resort

Since 2011, enrollment in US universities has dropped 10 percent, and the decline is expected to accelerate. It’s not because fewer high school graduates are attending college, or because fewer college students stick around long enough to graduate. It’s because the pool of potential applicants is slowly draining.

The overall US population continues to rise, but that’s due almost entirely to an increasing average lifespan, resulting in a decreasing death rate. The birthrate, by contrast, has been declining for a decade. The replacement fertility rate for keeping the long-term population on an even keel is 2.1 children per woman; as of 2017 the US fertility rate was 1.76, accelerating the downward trend that began ten years earlier.

Enrollment in MFA programs is also dropping. What’s the replacement fertility rate for MFA faculty, where they’re spawning new hires at a rate that equals their retirement rate? I don’t have the data, so I’ll estimate. Let’s say that on average a professor spends 30 years on the job. As long as the average MFA professor reproduces one MFA teaching candidate over the course of his or her career, staffing equilibrium is maintained.

Pretty clearly MFA programs are vastly exceeding the professorial replacement rate. Let’s guess that a typical MFA program has a faculty-student ratio of 4 to 1, which would mean that each MFA faculty member produces 4 MFA graduates per year. Over the course of a career that’s 4 x 30 = 120 MFA grads. What percentage of those graduates would want to teach in an MFA program? Practically nobody is able to make a living solely from writing or painting or acting, so teaching is a good fall-back career move. Let’s be conservative and say 20 percent of MFA grads would want to teach in an MFA program: so that’s 120 x .2 = 24 potential replacements spawned by each MFA prof over a career — 24 times the replacement fertility rate. So only 1 in 24 = 4% of MFA graduates who want to teach in an MFA program will get hired to do so. Wait till next year? Oh wait, enrollments are declining, so fewer of the retirees will need to be replaced. Teach undergrad? Same problem. High school?

While the overall US economy has been growing at around a 2 percent rate annually, the global luxury sector is growing at around 5 percent per year, as a consequence of increasing income and wealth stratification. Is the MFA a luxury spend? It’s expensive, and most graduates won’t recoup the expenditure via lifetime earnings. It’s a consumer good, like a BMW SUV. If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it. Or maybe enrolling in an MFA program is more like a long-term stay at a luxury resort, the guests serviced by a horde of lackeys making minimum wage or less.

This line of thinking is where I began Ficticities. And now here it comes back around, the return of the repressed, the line curving into a circle.

 

The Democratic Party’s Incredible Concern for the Future

If you’re like me, you’re incredibly concerned for the future of our nation.

That’s how Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez begins his personalized “Dear John” letter introducing the Official 2019 Democratic Party Survey. I’m not a card-carrying party member but my father John Sr. was — the Survey form even includes his DNC membership number in the upper left corner — and I still get mail meant for him even though he passed away nearly five years ago.

If you’re like me — pulling the empathy string; incredibly concerned — heightening the affect; our nation — invoking tribal identification and ownership. The future — not the present, which is already a source of concern; not the past, as in “make America great again.” The future is, presumably, a code word for progressive.

I’m not accustomed to posting on political topics here on Ficticities. But the future is fictional, a temporal vector that exists only in the imagination. Not just thinking about, worrying about, and predicting the future but actively attempting to shape an alternative future according to policy specifications — that’s a kind of Ficticity, the attempt to craft a future ecosystem whose reality depends not solely on material conditions and forces but also on collective imagining. So I’m curious about the contours of this ficticitous future that’s purportedly being shaped by DNC operatives and Party members.

The Survey consists of ten structured questionnaire items, followed by a short free-form space in which you, the respondent, are invited to share your ideas on how the DNC and Democratic candidates can win in future elections. The survey wraps up with an appeal for financial contribution — A gift of $25 would be a tremendous help!.

But back to the top. What sorts of future-oriented question are posed in this survey? Most interestingly to me, do the questions reflect the futuristic concerns and plans animating the progressive wing of the Party? I used to write questionnaires for a living so I know that, by posing questions about certain topics while simply ignoring other topics, a survey can bias the results even without cheating on data collection and analysis. Each question in the Party Survey follows a similar format: Which of the following items is most important to you, do you find most troubling, etc.? Respondents have about 10 options for each question to choose from, with the opportunity to check up to 3 or 4 options for each question. So the general impression is that it’s a fairly comprehensive and open-ended instrument for polling the Party membership. But I’m particularly interested in options that aren’t included in the checklists  — options that are either ignored or suppressed in an attempt to mold the Party platform.

First question: Which domestic issues are most important to you? Okay, without looking at the options, what are the domestic issues of particular importance to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party? Here are a few off the top of my head:

  1. Achieve universal healthcare via Medicare for all or some other single-payer system.
  2. Reduce climate change via rapid transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
  3. Reduce economic stratification and increase equality by raising taxes on the ultra-high income brackets and/or on the ultra-wealthy.
  4. Reduce discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation.
  5. Open borders for immigrants.
  6. Make college education free.
  7. Establish guaranteed universal income.

No doubt there are more progressive planks, but that ought to do for present purposes. Also, these seven issues are merely progressive, modifying the status quo incrementally. They’re not radical agenda items in the sense of overhauling the political or economic system, not full-on socialistic or communistic or direct-democracy anarchistic.

Now let’s look at the actual response options listed in that first survey question about domestic issues. How well do the options address my sample menu of seven left-wing concerns?

Universal healthcare and single-payer. There are two relevant Survey response options. The first, Securing universal health care and reducing prescription drug costs, goes partway, but it stops short of the single-payer idea. Universal healthcare could be achieved via patchwork changes in the status quo combination of private sector employer-financed insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, and out-of-pocket. It could be argued that universal health care is a concern whereas single-payer is a specific policy intervention for addressing that concern. Maybe so, but reducing prescription drug costs is a specific intervention, and it’s bundled into the Survey response. The second Survey response relevant to universal healthcare, Protecting Medicare from privatization, again reinforces the status quo rather than calling for systemic redesign.

Climate change. Relevant Survey response option: Combating climate change, building a clean energy economy, and securing environmental justice. Okay, that’s pretty good, though something like “averting imminent climate change disaster” might be more reflective of being incredibly concerned for the future. What about building a clean energy economy: does that mean creating government jobs in wind and solar, or extending subsidies and low-cost government loans to for-profit energy companies? Probably the latter. And what is environmental justice?

Redistribute wealth. The Survey item says Raising wages and restoring economic opportunity for the middle class. That’s not a progressive position.

Equal opportunity. Guaranteeing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights is okay. No mention is made of women or race.

Open borders. The offered response — Fixing our broken immigration system and ensuring families aren’t separated at the border — is decidedly middle-of-the-road.

Free college education. Relevant Survey item: making debt-free college a reality. It’s gesturing in the right direction, though debt-free isn’t the same thing as free-free

Guaranteed universal income. This is an issue that’s not addressed in the Survey responses.

What other issues are addressed in the Survey response options? Voting rights, gun laws, reproductive rights, Social Security, public schools, criminal justice and incarceration — mostly these are calls for securing prior gains while extending them incrementally. To be fair, there is room at the bottom called Other, which is fill-in-the-blank rather than checkbox. But the blank space is big enough to write in maybe half a dozen words.

I’ll not continue with the rest of the Survey questions and response items. The general tenor is clear: the Democratic Party road to the future will be built largely from middle-of-the-road planks, with limited gestures directed toward the left wing. I wish I’d kept last year’s Survey so I could compare response options to see if there’s been any discernible leftward tilt. My recollection though is that the 2018 Survey was pretty similar to the 2019 edition.

Clearly the DMC’s main agenda is getting Democratic candidates elected. The 2018 elections saw a swing to a Democratic majority in the House. While some progressives won, they did so in districts that were already strongly progressive; for the most part the shift in balance of power was achieved through nominating and electing moderates. Trump’s popularity remains strong among his core constituents, but it has declined across the board since he took office. For the most part Trump won by taking states that nearly always vote Republican in presidential elections, while taking enough swing states — WI, MI, PA — to achieve Electoral College majority. Given Trump’s declining popularity, the DNC probably figures that it can recapture those key swing states, plus a few more, merely by riding along with popular disenchantment with Trump and his cronies. There’s no need to champion a radically more progressive agenda when the moderate platform is likely to turn the trick. Trot out a few media-savvy and attractive progressives who can placate the left wing of the Party, keeping them from splintering off into third-party territory. Find at least one presidential candidate who conveys a modicum of charismatic appeal. But the Party’s tacit expectation is that the future is going to look a lot like the present and the past. Based on recent trends it’ll likely be the Dems’ turn next time around. Play it safe, hit the swing states with moderation, and start planning the inaugural gala.

Reciprocal Attention Economy

More rummaging through the attic… In a recent post I noted that my old blog Ktismatics gets about ten times as many hits per day as does Ficticities, even though I’ve not written a new Ktismatics post in nearly five years. Take yesterday for example: as of 2:30pm there had been 1 page view here at Ficticities and 31 page views at Ktismatics. Though disappointed that my new stuff hasn’t garnered much of an audience, I do find it gratifying to discover that texts I wrote years ago continue to attract readers.

What sorts of texts are they? Between October 2006 and March 2014 – the seven and a half years during which Ktismatics was an active blog – I put up 977 posts. Here are Ktismatics’s greatest hits for 2018, the top fifteen posts in terms of numbers of views so far this year.

  1. Derrida and the Metaphysics of Presence (842 views). Accumulating far more hits than any others, this post explains in layman’s terms a theory expounded by philosopher Jacques Derrida.
  2. Charolastra Manifesto (519 views). This post reproduces a document that appears in Y Tu Mamá También, a 2001 film by Cuarón.
  3. The Shining by Kubrick, 1980 (414 views). Five screengrabs from the movie, with 105 comments discussing it.
  4. Does Atonement the Movie Betray the Book? (410 views). A bit of a critique of the 2007 cinematic treatment of McEwan’s 2001 novel.
  5. The Divine Irreference of Images (293 views). This, the third post I ever wrote, refers to and expands on the first subheading in the first chapter of philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s 1994 Simulacra and Simulation.
  6. Mors Ontologica (225 views). This title refers to the chemical name of a street drug called Substance D in Philip Dick’s 1977 A Scanner Darkly.; the post compares Dick’s book favorably with the 2006 movie The Departed by Scorsese.
  7. Melancholia by Von Trier, 2011 (191 views). Three screengrabs with 187 comments discussing the movie.
  8. WR: Mysteries of the Organism by Makavejev, 1971 (182 views). Five screengrabs with 21 comments discussing the movie.
  9. The Color Purple by Spielberg, 1985 (170 views). Five annotated screengrabs with 23 comments discussing the movie.
  10. Office Space by Judge, 1999 (167 views). Five screengrabs, no comments.
  11. Mythical Truth, Mythical Reality (149 views) Here I was critiquing the possibility that a text can be true without being factually accurate.
  12. The Unconscious God of Lacan (148 views). An exploration of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s famous contention that God isn’t dead; he’s unconscious.
  13. The Science of the Concrete (144 views). Refers to and elaborates on the first chapter of Claude Levi-Strauss’s Savage Minds.
  14. Doppelgänger Theory in Colossians 3 and Romans 6 (142 views). An exegetical investigation of the Apostle Paul’s contrast between the “old man” and the “new man.”
  15. Coraline by Selleck, 2009 (142 views). Four screengrabs with 26 comments discussing the movie.

It’s notable that 9 of the 15 biggest hitters, 8 of the top 10, are about movies. Fandom. Four interact with philosophical texts — more fandom. One interprets Biblical text — still more fandom. The only post from this year’s 15 greatest hits that isn’t explicitly about a particular movie or text is number 11, the one exploring mythic truth, a concept that refers to particular kinds of text, especially religious ones.

In more than one Ktistmatics post I made reference to Jonathan Beller’s 2006 The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle. From page 181:

Increasingly, part of the value of the commodity, be it a painting or a Hollywood star, comes from the amount of (unpaid-for) visual attention it has absorbed.

When I wrote a post about Y Tu Mamá También I was doing unpaid labor, directing readers’ attention to the movie, to the director, to the producer and distributor. But the movie is also doing free work for me, drawing its fans’ attention to my post, to my blog, to me. Reciprocal attention economy.

In grad school I did some predictive statistical modeling of how often published scientific research articles are likely to be cited in subsequent years’ publications. Bottom line: if you cite a lot of studies, and a lot of other researchers also cite those same studies, then your study is likely to be cited frequently in turn. In my last post I quoted a passage from A Separation, a 2017 novel by Katie Kitamura. On the book’s back cover are four blurbs by novelists, each attributed to so-and-so, author of Such-and-Such. I’d read all four of those blurbists’ featured such-and-suches: if you like those novels, you’ll like this one, and vice versa. Reciprocal attention economy.