Thursday, June 19, 2008

Reproduction: Spawning the Unexpected

Technological change certainly does not provide a materialist guarantee of economic or political transformation; on the contrary, advances in information systems often reinforce existing power relations and exacerbate inequalities.[1] Nevertheless, technological innovation can offer significant and surprising opportunities, depending on who masters the new tools and to what ends they are applied.

Digital technology can have widely inequitable benefits and harms for various interests in the production and consumption of arts. The recording, publishing, and movie industries have gone to great lengths to crack down on file sharing and other forms of unauthorized copying—from securing legislative protections to suing college students. The Pew Internet and American Life Project, on the other hand, finds most paid and unpaid artists and musicians think such peer-to-peer distribution "has had a positive effect on their creative lives and careers."[2] The dual paramount economic concerns of efficiency and equity are the basis for these conflicting positions. The bottom-line question is: how to maximize profit without limiting distribution? The fairness question is: how to distribute equitably the captured economic value of intellectual property? Technology is rapidly changing the answers to such questions, challenging conventional wisdom about reproduction and profitability.

The existing paradigm for selling artistic output depends primarily upon three factors: celebrity (scarcity of talent), volume (maximum individual consumption), and price (gauged to maximize volume for entertainment and to appreciate for fine art). Celebrity artists and the businesses that represent them benefit from the winner-take-all scarcity model that limits facile access to multiple distribution channels by artists and consumers. The market rewards the added value of curatorial and commercial services that select, fashion, and differentiate hits from flops. Brands and celebrity are here to stay. Yet new technologies enable consumers to play a more direct role in such processes of sifting, identity, and branding.[3] This is the complex future of "aura" in the age of digital reproduction. The majority of artists and consumers stand to benefit from the new opportunities that digital technologies offer for accessing infinite copies of infinite artistic variations.[4]

A class structure with a definite materialist basis divides the interests of celebrity and emerging artists, but there are also commonalities and American-style fluidity that foil permanent proscriptions for change. These distinct interests are often oppositional, but they can also coexist and prosper in unexpected ways. More than a dozen international celebrity musical acts [PLATE 79], for example, participated in a Wired Magazine CD that allows free file-sharing of their tracks through an innovative license from Creative Commons, the non-profit founded by leading copyright activist Lawrence Lessig of Stanford Law School.[5] American artists and arts organizations must adjust individualist priorities to appreciate the benefits of such novel legal and commercial constructs. This is a matter of moving beyond the deployment of reproduction technologies for creating celebrity and managing brands, to expanding markets with innovative strategies for negotiating unlimited selection. New technologies allow artistic creativity and public appreciation to grow simultaneously at the rarified heights of celebrity scarcity and the murky depths of amateur-to-amateur abundance.[6]

Such market-expanding impacts can be strangely counterintuitive. Blogs increase book consumption.[7] iPods increase record consumption.[8] At the lower end of gavel prices, original paintings and sculpture usually decline in value, but that is also the price range for the most profitable multiples and prints. At the opposite end of the market, the most expensive original art appreciates the fastest (as also happens with real estate); whereas, the rarest, most valuable prints are least profitable.[9] You can find $40,000 Picasso crayon drawings languishing online, while a Damien Hirst "Opium" print that was snapped up for $750 online in 2000 fetches $10,000 at Sotheby's in 2004 [PLATE 80].[10] Greater reproduction often yields higher values and faster appreciation of originals, because advertising increases the aura of celebrity—be it the Mona Lisa or a soap star. Celebrity rarity is so good for business that it encourages not only mass production but free goods as well, confounding a simple quantity-versus-price calculus.[11] Reproduction highlights its own difference from the real thing, and can educate wider audiences about how mysteriously priceless an authentic experience of the latter can be.[12] It also brings us just a bit closer the limelight's lure.

When Ecast CEO Robbie Vann-Adibé asks "what percentage of the top 10,000 titles in any online media store will rent or sell at least once a month," the answer he is looking for is 99 percent.[13] "Long tails" (infinite shelf-space), "mavens" (tastemakers), "memes" (contagious ideas), "mediated shopping" (choice experts), "culture jamming" (media sabotage), "podcasting" (distributed narrow-casting), "DRM" (digital rights management), "HSS" (hit-predicting software), "syndication" (web content sharing)—the economic, sociologic, and political implications of infinite reproduction and access require a brave new vocabulary to describe, as well as new formulations and theories for understanding.[14]

1. Anthony Mandler. The Remix Masters. 2004.
Photograph. The Beastie Boys, from left: MCA (Adam Yauch), Mike D (Michael Diamond), and Adrock (Adam Horovitz). Published in Wired Magazine, Issue 12.11 - November 2004. Courtesy of Wired Magazine.

2. Damien Hirst. Opium. 2000.
Lamda print, edition of 500, signed, 48 x 43 cm / 18.9 x 16.9 in. Courtesy of Gallery Tagboat, London.

[1] Goldman 1992.
[2] Madden 2004; Webb 2004.
[3] Neumeier 2003.
[4] Tompkins 2004.
[5] Goetz 2004.
[6] Hunter and Lastowka 2004.
[7] Kurlantzick 2004.
[8] The Economist 2004; Veiga 2004.
[9] Artprice 2002; Artprice 2004a.
[10] Enterprise North East 2004; Gordon Blankinship 2005.
[11] Williams and Dash 2005.
[12] Kieran 2004; James 2005.
[13] Anderson October 2004.
[14] Anderson December 30, 2004; Dery 1993; Gladwell 2000; Humphries 2004; Postrel 2004; Tatchell 2005.

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