Summer math camp

The three co-founders of Artworldsalon intersected in London last week. Two of them went on to ogle Damien Hirst’s diamond studded skull, about which a report shall soon follow, and which is undeniably the talk of the town. Visitors particularly seem to appreciate the gesamtkunstwerk atmosphere. It’s not just the skull but the full-court theatre around it, including the thuggish Mafia-style security guards. More on that carnival attraction from the eyewitnesses who saw it.

The real eye candy for me this summer in London was at the National Gallery, which has organized a spellbinding show of Dutch portraiture, a true diamond gem of an exhibit. A less noticed visual art event awaits at Heathrow airport. A slick video about security procedures now playing on a row of flat-panels right above the baggage X-ray machines is a sight to behold. It looks like it was produced by Matthew Barney in collaboration with the people who make Apple’s iPhone commercials. Slow-motion shots from edgy avant-garde camera angles (e.g. bird’s eye view of gorgeous passenger walking through metal detector) capture models of attractively blended origin as they glide through the ritualistic passage of belt removal, laptop opening, and body frisking. Their dignified countenance and beatific smiles radiate an inner calm, as though they were being cleansed; suspicions erased, innocence reasserted.

Anyway, on to matters at hand. One of the delights of airplane time is the freedom to read even the smallest articles in The Economist, including the little teaser for their blog, Free exchange, which on June 26 posted a fascinating roundup of variables shown empirically to influence the prices of paintings. Quoting from Tyler Cowen’s latest book, Discover your Inner Economist, they posit the following relationships:

“1 Landscapes can triple in value when there are horses or figures in the foreground. Evidence of industry usually lowers a picture’s value.

2 A still life with flowers is worth more than one with fruit. Roses stand at the top of the flower hierarchy. Chrysanthemums and lupines (seen as working class) stand at the bottom.

3 There is a price hierarchy for animals. Purebred dogs help a picture more than mongrels do. Spaniels are worth more than collies. Racehorses are worth more than carthorses. When it comes to game birds the following rule of thumb holds: the more expensive it is to shoot the bird, the more the bird adds to the value of the painting. A grouse is worth more than a mallard, and the painter should show the animal from the front, not the back.

4 Water adds value to a picture, but only if it is calm. Shipwrecks are a no-no.

5 Round and oval works are extremely unpopular with buyers.

6 An 18th-century Francois Boucher nude sketch of a woman can be worth ten times more than a comparable sketch of a man.”

Great stuff. But the best is last. As already reported on artwordsalon, the most basic determinant of art prices is size, and for reasons more complex than one would assume. Here the Economist lapses into conjecture, but their hypothesis is worth repeating, of only to see if it generates debate here:

“For any given artist, the bigger the painting, the higher the price tag in the gallery … This may seem a dumb selling strategy: why not charge more for the paintings which appear to be the best? (The gallery is supposed to be a judge of good and bad, after all.) The answer seems to be that if the gallery indicates by its pricing which paintings it believes to be “good”, interest in the “bad” ones will be so diminished, that the gallery is better off pretending that all paintings in a show are equally good.”

1 thought on “Summer math camp”

  1. As Andras mentioned, Marc and I had a quiet look at the Hirst skull at the WhiteCube in London. I was fully expecting to be underwhelmed. Another piece of Hirst showmanship was not something I had any great need to see. But I was pleasantly surprised. Carefully ensconced in its own, invitation only, black cube room within White Cube’s Mason’s Yard gallery, the diamond skull gently shimmered in it’s perspex case. I am not sure I go along with Rudi Fuchs’ “glory itself”, but it works as a piece. I was allowed to take some pix but am not permitted to publish them here. If you are interested, ask me to show them to you next time we meet. Though I personally preferred the beautifully crafted cabinets of fish skeletons downstairs…

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