Rhea Myers

Portrait of The Artist as Homo Economicus


David Galenson seems to be part of the wave of culturally triumphant economic explainers who are dining out on neoliberalism’s success since that nasty business with Keynesianism in the 70s meant the economic paradigm had to be reset. They definitely have it right this time, it’s a science. You know, like Marxism was.

Galenson’s mission is to bring the explanatory pixie-dust of market economic analysis to art. The NY Times article linked above contains a number of extraordinary claims about art inspired by Galenson’s latest book. Not all are made by Galenson, but they do not contradict the quotes from him. I am hoping that Galenson’s book has been misrepresented by the article, but the article itself requires addressing.

Galenson apparently claims that markets and conceptual innovation are what differentiates Twentieth Century art from previous art. But markets in art have existed since classical times. Particularly wherever a merchant class has emerged but also with nobles and royalty. Courts are, in economic terms, markets. And the competition of different dynasties, courts or worthies for the scarce resources of artistic production constituted a monopoly only in so much as everyone who buys a can of coke does.

Michael Rushton goes further than Galenson by claiming that innovation requires markets. If there was no innovation in art prior to the existence of markets then the historical emergence of cave art is inexplicable, and tribal art must be an haullucination.

Galenson seems to claim that quantitative methods or market economics have not often been applied to art and that art history is hostile to them. This is ahistorical. There is a long history of Marxist analyses of art history, and the history of aesthetics is largely a history of economic class and economic development. The question of who pays for art, and how the sale price of a work of art relates to its aesthetic worth, is not a new one.

Galenson follows these claims with a quick count of image frequency in recent art history textbooks in order to establish the most important works of the twentieth century. But text books are not the same as the museums, journals, catalogues or collections that create the importance of works of art that these books report. Applying simple quantitative methods to this tertiary information renders them both information destroying and parasitic. At best they can prove only that someone else has proved something somewhere else.

Books were chosen because actual great art does not come to market often enough to provide useful data for quantitative analysis of what the market determines great art to be. Read that sentence again. It is fortunate indeed that Galenson didn’t have to rely on the art market to provide the information he needs to prove that markets are the producers of great works. But is there not a problem with a thesis when attempting to follow it through disproves it on a practical level?

Economics can tell us much about the sociology and history of art, as it always has. Galenson is wrong if he thinks that he is bringing new cargo to the art world. And his premises and methodology are bogus.

That said, let us suppose for a moment that Galenson is right. What would Galensonist art look like?

Since it cannot be measured by sales, it need not be expensive. No Damien Hirst skull bonds for hedge fund managers and oil oligarchs to use to out-pace the market for lesser commodities, you could sell an unmade bed as long as you get in the next art textbook. Since the interior structure of the work is irrelevant, it need not be aesthetic. Easy reproducability is more valuable than beauty or internal complexity. Since it must get in the textbooks it needs to be popular, but this need not be because of its artistic worth. It could illustrate fashionable theory or trends, and/or be produced by an artist who is good at parties.

Galenson’s artist is Tracy Emin. He is welcome to her.

The post-historical Hegelian idealism of market economics is anti-humanistic. But art is part of the human condition. It is no surprise that the figures an economist is interested in are numeric rather than compositional. The problem is that art considered quantitatively has no interior, yet it is the content of art that makes it “great”.

The failure of Galenson’s project is the failure of neoliberalism laid bare without the concealing effects of economic transition or state intervention. Markets cannot provide Galenson with the material he needs to fulfill his project. It’s a good thing we don’t have to rely on them for anything more important. Such as, say, food or energy…