Thursday, June 19, 2008

Reproduction: Celebrity and Survival

Postmodernist critics such as Benjamin and Baudrillard lament the loss of originality, authenticity, and ultimately the primacy of reality as we have moved well beyond the print matrix to the film Matrix [PLATE 58], including the development of all of the mass-media technologies along the way: motion pictures, recording, radio, television, and most recently the computer.[1] Yet the inevitability of this "withering of aura" or "precession of simulacra" from advances in reproduction technologies seems greatly exaggerated. There are always unanticipated opportunities for resistance, critique, and change, no matter how intellectually compelling such philosophical arguments may be (even if they do inspire a major motion picture). Physical reality and the contradictions of daily life will continue to intrude upon our perceptions for at least the foreseeable future, despite the popularity of reality TV and video games. Especially in the tradition-bound marketplace for fine art, the tenacious value of originality retains its grip. The diversity of reality is incorrigible: a plethora of cultural choices remain even if finding alternatives has become difficult work.

That said, artist resistance to the evolution of mass media has generally proven futile. As actor Ben Gazzara recounts: "When I was in the theater, there was a snobbery about doing motion pictures. Motion pictures were beneath us. Then when I got into motion pictures, television was beneath us. And it's on and on and on. Now it doesn't matter any more."[2] Commercial success and the common self-interests of artists and their producers motivated these developments. The evolution of United Artists Corporation is a case in point. Four motion-picture celebrities (Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith) co-founded UA in 1919 as a distribution company to challenge the power that major studios had over independent artists [PLATE 59]. By the 1950s, however, UA had grown into just another major Hollywood studio, and was gobbled up by Transamerica in 1967 then MGM in 1981, which in turn was purchased by a Sony-led consortium in 2005. Multinational media mega-mergers are daunting indeed, centralizing control of so much of what is seen and heard throughout the world, and further concentrating artist labor market disparities.[3]

The game of cultural reproduction produces clear winners, while generally hiding its losers. This evolutionary process provides a highly distorted view of the arts economy, even if a totally simulated hyper-real existence remains a philosophical and sci-fi fantasy. Arts and entertainment presents a classic winner-take-all economy.[4] Reproduction plays a central role in this game of survival. It broadcasts the success of winners, creating celebrities who model how artists live, what they do, and who they are. Such omnipresent imagery not only dramatically affects public perceptions of arts, entertainment, and artists, but even the perceptions of professional artists themselves who play the game from the inside. Media reproduced survival bias manipulates the psyches and ambitions of everyone who pursues an art career. The fact that such economics fail to provide a livelihood for nearly all working artists does nothing to stop the ever expanding enrollment in fine art departments, which already award 20,000 undergraduate and 3,000 graduate degrees in visual arts each year.[5] On the contrary, the charismatic myth of the "starving artist" inspires ever increasing levels of artistic production.[6] These motivations are so ingrained in Western Culture that only the King James Bible [PLATE 60] provides adequate description: "for many are called, but few are chosen," with deep implications for individual morality, work ethic, sacrifice, and spiritual reward.[7]

The market responds in specific ways to this surplus of artistic productivity. Celebrity culture combined with an appreciation model of aesthetic value focuses art-world transactions on the extremes of "neophilia" and necrophilia. Charles Saatchi is credited with coining the former to describe his habit of searching out new talent in art schools.[8] The recent dominance of conceptual art dovetails precisely with the phenomenon of the hot "emerging" artist and the explosion of the "new". The demand for novelty is usually met by artists early in their careers, often without subsequent significant innovation. This has led observers to claim contemporary art is flooded with masterpieces but few masters. [9] It has also fueled the fastest price rise at auction for works by contemporary artists compared with all other art in recent years, and focused collecting on speculation early in artist careers, since this increases the likelihood of catching the largest winnings.[10] A range of new financial derivatives and even a pension fund have been based on these odds.[11] The biggest payoff in such a model comes with an early demise of the artist, not only because the "death effect" limits supply, but even more so because the publicity surrounding such tragedy heightens the "nostalgia effect" and hence prices.[12] In the long run, the market pays more dearly for the work of dead artists than it rewards those still alive and "emerging". Which brings us back to reproduction: it is all about birth, death, and survival of the "fittest" in the canons of art history.

1. Larry Wachowski and Andy Wachowski. Matrix Revolutions. 2003.
Movie poster. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc.

3. King James Bible. Genealogy 1. 1611.
R. Barker, London. The standard English version for 350 years, incorporating translations by Tyndale, Matthew, and Coverdale as well as other sources. This is a page from the "She" (corrected) issue in which Ruth 3:15 reads: "and she went into the city." Courtesy of The Regents of the University of Michigan, Papyrus Collection.

[1] Wachowski and Wachowski 1999.
[2] Gazzara 2004.
[3] Bagdikian 2000; Richardson and Figueroa 2004.
[4] Frank and Cook 1995.
[5] Derived from National Center for Education Statistics 2001, table 258.
[6] Røyseng, Mangset, and Borgen 2004.
[7] Matthew 22:14.
[8] Spiegler, February 2004.
[9] Galenson 2003, p. 20.
[10] 2004b, pp. VI-VII.
[11] Porter 2004; White 2004.
[12] Matheson and Baade 2003.

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