Thursday, June 19, 2008

Reproduction: The Myth of Overexposure


If early celebrity is key to artist financial survival, and reproduction is key to celebrity, why would reproduction continue to have such negative connotations in the contemporary world of fine art? It partly boils down to conventional economics: the law of supply and demand dictates greater quantities yield lower prices, and, in the end lower quality and reputation, the ultimate art-world taboo.[1] There are also psychological layers of fear involved: loss of aura, originality, authenticity, and identity, selling out, and catering to consumer preferences. Many artists cannot abide the notion of their work as a reproducible commodity, equating "going commercial" with sin. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu links this notion to a kind of magical pre-capitalist accumulation of symbolic capital.[2] Artists motivated by non-pecuniary benefits are more likely to pursue avant-garde work that is detached from market demand, causing a secular rupture between high and low culture.[3] The less reproducible is a work of art, the greater the incentive to find the highest bidder. The inverse of this tendency dominates the market for fine art. The entire industry is organized around capturing the most elite collectors, which requires an illusion of scarcity in the midst of overabundance. In this case, Baudrillard was right: myth creates reality, price creates demand. But bubbles can always burst if the right pin is applied.

The visual arts stand out as the most peculiar sector of the arts and entertainment industry when considering reproduction as key to celebrity and survival. There is an historical "path dependence" to the visual arts' exceptionalism, evoking the quirky tale of how the keyboard came by its inefficient QWERTY configuration in order to prevent typewriter keys from jamming [PLATE 61].[4] The cultural evolution of the visual arts industry in America is far more complex than that of the keyboard, and assessing impacts on artists requires more than a words-per-minute measure. Its most distinguishing characteristic relative to the other arts can be summed up in a word: "underexposure", that is, the lack of reproduction, publicity, and celebrity compared with other arts sectors and with visual arts in other countries.

There are many more visual artists working in the United States than any other kind of artist (including musicians, actors, directors, authors, dancers, etc.), yet the organizational infrastructure and market for visual arts is miniscule compared with the other arts.[5] The "art world establishment," as generally perceived, is dominated by museums, dealers, and auction houses, the largest of which are non-profit organizations (such as the Metropolitan Museum), privately-held corporations (such as Christies International Plc.), and family-run businesses (think of any Chelsea gallery). The visual arts in their entirety contribute just four percent of the revenues generated by the arts and entertainment industry.[6] Revenues from the three largest visual arts organizations (Sotheby's, the Metropolitan Museum, and MoMA) are less than one percent of the revenues from the three largest media corporations dominating film, publishing, and music (Time Warner, Viacom, and Disney).[7]

Most visual art depreciates in value, just like automobiles and almost every other commodity in the economy, but the entire fine art market is geared to the fraction of a percent expected to appreciate.[8] That means that most art produced by living artists has no transaction value whatsoever. For original works such as paintings, the higher the price the more likely it will appreciate in value over time, with works in the top 1.5% of auction prices, that is individual pieces worth well over $100,000, appreciating by the highest percentages [PLATE 62]. [9] Only a few dozen living American artists can claim such resale values. Yet there are nearly a half-million professional visual artists in America and more than five million Americans who display their art in public.[10] The promise of appreciation, and hence the benefit of the entire fine art market as it is currently constituted is a fantasy for all but a fraction of a percent of practicing visual artists.

There is a substantial literature on the poor labor conditions of artists: higher unemployment, lower earnings, lower returns per educational investment, fewer transferable skills, greatest earnings inequality, and highest rates of moonlighting.[11] Such conditions are starkest for visual artists, with its most extreme imbalance of labor supply and market demand. Average sales of art for 96 percent of the working visual artists total less than $600 per year. Add to that an average of $100 per artist in total direct grant funds from all federal, state, local, and private sources.[12] Only three percent of working artists, or roughly 20,000 people, succeeds in selling an average of $20,000 worth of work a year. Only 3,000 artists, roughly six-tenths of a percent of all working artists, are represented by New York City galleries. These privileged artists take in an average of approximately $75,000 per year from sales. Only 400 independent visual artists are successful enough to be able to hire more than one employee each. These celebrity artists make more than a half-million dollars per year in sales. The top independent U.S. artist alone commands at least four percent of all the money visual artists make in the United States. Art market sales are roughly four times more concentrated than what occurs in U.S. retail as a whole.[13]

Economic concentration is the hallmark of arts and entertainment, but stardom in the rest of the arts generates sufficient revenues to float massive corporations and hundreds of thousands of supporting cast and crew members.[14] This is accomplished by popular consumption of mass reproductions of artistic work.[15] In the visual arts market, in contrast, priority is given to exclusive ownership of original works by a handful of art stars. While favorable critical reviews boost attention in all of the arts, there is a complete disconnect in the primary measure of acclaim between the visual arts and the rest of the arts. For the latter, the number of units that sell defines success (books, CDs, DVDs, videos, tickets, etc.). All that matters in the visual arts, on the other hand, is who buys the work. The closest the visual arts gets to mass reproduction and publicity is advertisements for blockbuster museum shows (mostly for dead artists) and international art fairs (mostly for the aforementioned elite collectors), as well as the assortment of glossy fine art magazines.

ARTnews boasts being "the largest circulation of any fine-art magazine in the world" [PLATE 63]. Its 83,000+ subscribers have an average income of more than $200,000, have been collecting art for an average of 17 years, and have accumulated collections worth an average of $183,000. [16] Far from being anything remotely resembling a mass audience, this is precisely the ultra-elite universe of international collectors. Compare this to Rolling Stone, the largest circulation magazine in the music industry, with nearly 1.3 million subscribers—fifteen times the ARTnews readership [PLATE 64].[17] Total earnings of everyone who lives in nearly half of households with the mostly young-adult Rolling Stone readers are less than $50,000.[18] Is contemporary visual art inherently only of interest to rich people? Is contemporary music inherently an order of magnitude more popular? Or have these contemporaneous disciplines of art production merely evolved within different self-imposed cultural constraints, steeped in contrary attitudes about the value of various kinds of audience exposure and acclaim? Condé Nast's announcement in 2004 that it was planning to unveil an art magazine for the masses suggests that at least certain leading publishers and editors think the 60-million Americans who visit art exhibitions each year (more than attend professional sporting events) hint at a far larger greater potential market.[19] Unfortunately, the 2005 resignation of the project's spearhead, then editorial director James Truman, leaves the venture in limbo as of this writing.[20]

Living celebrities in all of the other arts are household names; not so for visual artists. Britney Spears may have to worry about overexposure as part of her brand management strategy, but such concerns for visual artists border on absurdity.[21] Obscurity is the real threat. Despite the unshakable myth of the working artist toiling alone, greatness is a rare posthumous discovery. The former is ubiquitous, the latter less likely than a lottery jackpot. New York Times culture writer Christopher Reardon points to William Congdon [PLATE 65], the last surviving member of the New York School, who died in monastic seclusion on the outskirts of Milan in 1998, as the classic "case study in how to derail a promising artistic career" by favoring solitary artistic integrity over fame.[22] The impact of underexposure also reaches to the very heights of accomplishment and prestige in the visual arts. Christies' 2001 sale of Bruce Nauman's 1967 wax and plaster sculpture Henry Moore Bound to Fail [PLATE 66] for nearly $10 million makes him the single most expensive living visual artist at the start of the Twenty-First Century. Yet how many Americans have even heard of or could recognize Nauman or his work? The visual arts' institutional focus on originality and its deep-seated antipathy towards the kinds of mass reproduction required for popular exposure are the very elements limiting its market reach and ultimately starving the majority of working artists.

One more symptom of underexposure: only visual artists have no organized labor representation. The rest of the arts have matured as industries and grown in scale to support a multitude powerful unions: Actors Equity, American Dance Guild, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, American Guild of Musical Artists, American Guild of Variety Artists, American Musicians Federation, National Writers Union, Screen Actors Guild, Writers Guild of America, etc. The closest such organization for visual artists is the Graphic Artists Guild, which is geared towards design and illustration professional rather than the varied fine artists.[23] (Hence its membership base is omitted from the labor statistics presented above.) Ironically, the very origins of labor associations began with artisan guilds dating from Roman to Medieval times. With "gild" at their Anglo-Saxon etymological root, such organizations point directly back to Europe's first engravers and printmakers, who were commonly goldsmiths [PLATE 67]. At one extreme, to see the day-to-day value of such organizations for working artists, just compare the manifold protections of a standard "U5" acting contract for speaking under five lines on TV to the utter lack of legal safeguards from a standard consignment form for entrusting a gallery with tens of thousands of dollars worth of visual art inventory. On the other extreme, one need only look to the Fortieth President of the United States [PLATE 68] (or the current governor of California) to see what power such organizational development can truly muster. The political and economic power of reproduction has been all but lost on the visual arts with its overwhelming focus on individualism and originality.


1. Mad Editors. The QWERTY Mad. 1991.
New York, NY: Warner Books Inc. http://www.collectmad.com/collectibles/qwertymw.htm



2. Pablo Ruiz Picasso. Boy with a Pipe. 1905.
Oil on canvas, signed Picasso (lower left), 39 1/4 by 32 in / 99.7 by 81.3 cm. On May 5, 2004, the work was auctioned at Sotheby's - New York for $104,168,000, the highest price ever paid at that point for a single work of art. It was purchased by an anonymous buyer from the Greentree Foundation's Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney. http://www.artchive.com/artchive/p/picasso/picasso_boy_with_pipe.jpg




3. ARTnews. Cover: Great Underrated Artists. 2005.
Volume 104, Number 1. January. http://artnews.com/images/covers/ACF1FBB.gif



4. Rolling Stone. Cover: 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. 2004.
Number 963, December 9. http://m1.buysub.com/wcsstore/RollingStone/images/R963coverct.jpg



5. William Congdon. La Madonna Del Presepio. 1984.
579x864 cm. SS. Pietro e Paolo alla Cascinazza, Milano http://www.christusrex.org/www2/art/congdon.htm



6. Bruce Nauman. Henry Moore Bound to Fail. 1967.
Plaster with wax, 26 x 24 x ca. 4 in. Sold for $9.9 million at Christie's New York, May 17, 2001. http://www.thecityreview.com/s01ccon1c.gif



7. Jan van Eyck. Portrait of Jan De Leeuw. 1436.
Oil on panel, 7.5" x 9.5" / (19.0cm x 24.0cm). De Leeuw was dean of the influential Goldsmith's Guild in Bruges. The origins of printing are intricately entwined with goldsmiths' tools and guilds. Albrecht Dürer would have first encountered the burin (or engraver) in his father's goldsmith shop; even Johann Gutenberg was affiliated with the goldsmith guild of Strassburg. Courtesy of Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. http://www.artchive.com/artchive/v/van_eyck/eyck_leeuw.jpg



8. Ronald Reagan. Testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee as President of the Screen Actors Guild. 1947.
October 25. Hand-tinted by Bennett Hall © 1999. Courtesy of Ronald Reagan Library and the Business Image Group, San Francisco, CA. http://businessimagegroup.com/presidentialimages.com/Reagan.html#Anchor-56321


[1] Heilbrun and Gray 2001, p. 176; Mutch nd.
[2] Bourdieu 1980.
[3] Cowen and Tabarrok 2000.
[4] Krugman 1995; Leibowitz and Margolis 1995.
[5] Bureau of Labor Statistics 2004; Nichols 2004.
[6] Goldman 2005.
[7] Combined 2001 revenues of $744 million for the top three visual arts organizations (Sotheby's $336M, Metropolitan Museum $240M, MoMA $168M) vs. $75 billion for the primary media segments of the top three media arts organizations (Time Warner $40B, Viacom $19B, Disney $16B). Albarran and Mierzejewska 2004; Philanthropic Research, Inc. 2004; Steiner 2002.

[8] Heilbrun and Gray 2001, p. 181.
[9] Artprice.com 2002.
[10] Bureau of Labor Statistics 2001; National Endowment for the Arts 2004; Nichols 2004; Goldman 2005.
[11] Alper and Wassall 2004.
[12] Galligan and Cherbo 2004.
[13] Goldman 2005.
[14] Rosen 1981.
[15] Adler 2005.
[16] ARTnews 2005.
[17] Adage.com 2005.
[18] At least according to RollingStone.com user profiles. RollingStone.com 2005.
[19] Carr 2004; National Endowment for the Arts 2004.
[20] Carr 2005.
[21] Frost 2004; Menkes 2004.
[22] Reardon 1999.
[23] Graphic Artists Guild 2003.

1 comment:

Jeremy said...

I think reproduction has allowed for the masses in general to become more familiar with art and it's influence in the world. I didn't start looking at art until my sister began showing it to me on a Link fine arts magazine I am just now learning how to appreciate it and using it as a medium to better understand my life.