Taste v. Price (why critics don’t matter, Ch. 36)

Margaux.jpgHammad Nasar finished off the previous thread with a statement which many of us take to be gospel, namely, that when it comes to art, or really to any offering from the culture industry, the most expensive product is not the “best” product, it is simply the most expensive. So remains open that space for “critical judgment” which, most would agree, is a necessary condition for criticism to function in the first place.

But are we fooling ourselves? Are our judgments–aesthetic, critical and otherwise–more determined by price than we know? The Art Newspaper seems to think so: Anna Somers Cocks’ has written a short piece on a recent study by Cal Tech scientist, Antonio Rangel, who hooked up a group of volunteers to an MRI machine and measured the pleasure centers of their brains while they tasted various wines of different quality and, most importantly, expense. Over and over again, the volunteers “enjoyed” the expensive wines more, even when the price tags had been switched and the ’82 Margaux turned out to be an ’07 Bin 28.

The parallel to art is both obvious and ill-fitting, which is presumably why Cocks only draws the conclusion that the Rangel effect (actually the Rangel-Veblen effect, given Thorstein Veblen’s economic theorization of it back at the turn of the twentieth century) will contribute to the retraction of the art market once the powers that be are finally able to utter the word “recession” in public. But do we really need Rangel to confirm for us that people “like” their art less (or anything for that matter) when it’s perceived to be losing value? More interesting might be the possibility of a parallel study which could address the physiological effect of positive or negative criticism on the pleasure centers of the brain. For example, what happens when someone tells you the ’82 Margaux tastes no different than that ’07 Bin 28? What does price get you then? Call it the “sucker” study. Don’t we think the art world could use one?

3 thoughts on “Taste v. Price (why critics don’t matter, Ch. 36)”

  1. What art does and what the market does are two different things. Maybe we could say that those who value a work of art merely for its economic value will find this aspect of it agreeable when it is economically valuable, disagreeable when it is not. This has little to do with aesthetic judgment. In Kant’s words, “When I speak of the agreeable, I am not granting mere approval: the agreeable produces an inclination. Indeed, what is agreeable in the liveliest way requires no judgment at all about the character of the object, as we can see in people who aim at nothing but enjoyment (this is the word we use to mark the intensity of the gratification): They like to dispense with all judging.” (Critique of Judgment, #3.)

    In terms of what can actually be measured as “aesthetic phenomena,” descriptions of varying kinds can be generated about wine or about a work of art, but I would make a distinction here. Clement Greenberg described Modernist painting as flat, this we can see, but in his historical analysis of painting he describes Modernist painting’s achievement as that of being flat. This is visible criteria of a rather basic material sort, cast into an art historical narrative, and as a critical term Modernist “flatness” gains real purchase.

    We are no longer in such simple territory, where visible material properties lend themselves so easily to an art historical narrative. Greenberg hemmed and hawed over subjectivity, withdrawing over any real statements about an “optical third dimension” that somehow included “the personal.” Harold Rosenberg was there first, but it really took Michael Fried to step in and develop a theory of subjectivity, albeit in the baggy and negative guise of “theatricality.”

    Despite Fried’s condemnation of theatricality, it is a critical term that immediately took on positive power and continues to sell a lot of work, as anyone who has read many artist’s and gallery pr statements can tell you. But we can become poorly and insufficiently attached to critical words of judgment – such as ‘Modernist flatness” and “theatricality” – they often become no more than search terms and sales pitch fodder, losing their real meaning. because the market needs them The real value of art criticism is to generate meaningful discourse around the objects that have inspired words to arrive on the scene at all, and I hold this apart from responding to something that is merely agreeable or disagreeable – it is an investment of a different order. Again, Kant: “Fine art, on the other hand, is a way of presenting that is purposive on its own and that furthers, even though without a purpose, the culture of our mental powers to facilitate social communication.” (#44)

  2. A hilarious version of the same “blindfold test” appeared in the Washington Post, which convinced Joshua Bell, the virtuoso violinist, to perform in a Washington DC subway station on his $3.5 million Stradivari. He played for 45 minutes, during which more than a thousand people walked on by. His take was $35 — or about half of a middling concert ticket. Read it here

  3. Very funny article Andras. Of course, the Washington Post hedged their bets in the way they set up this prank. Dashing virtuoso playing priceless Strad. Busy metro station during rush hour, full of busy office workers. As expected, the preoccupied yahoos generally scurried right past the diamond in their midst. It was the collision but decidedly not the admixture of two distinct worlds: the workaday and the artistic.

    But framing and routine do account for a lot in our perception of art. When we buy a ticket for a concert at the Library of Congress, we are both choosing the moment to be entertained/elevated and also accepting the institutional imprimatur. We are secure in our cultural bonafides. Art is easier to enjoy when it arrives in context.

    On the other hand, those stories of an aficionado finding a Picasso at a garage sale, or the newest supermodel being snatched off the street by a keen-eyed agent, just won’t go away.

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