Go forth and multiply

By Felix Salmon
August 28, 2013
Izabella Kaminska delivered a typically sparkling essay yesterday, riffing off a Tyler Cowen post headlined "Will accurate 3-D reproductions disrupt art markets?"

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Izabella Kaminska delivered a typically sparkling essay yesterday, riffing off a Tyler Cowen post headlined “Will accurate 3-D reproductions disrupt art markets?”. The science of reproduction is getting better, you see, with paintings now able to be reproduced in three, rather than just two, dimensions; already reproduction Van Goghs — in a limited edition of 260 — are being sold for $34,000 apiece.

Kaminska reckons that she knows where this is likely to lead:

Some time soon it is highly likely that the naked eye will no longer be able to differentiate between reproductions and originals, and that the only way to know for sure which is which will be to carbon date or test the materials microscopically…

If things are not scarce, there is no rivalrous consumption… Value then becomes entirely an eye of the beholder thing. In logical terms the value of the Mona Lisa should collapse, especially so if the clue to authenticity is lost or diluted entirely. If the painting stays valued it’s because a narrative, myth of belief system has been attached to that particular version of the object — much as happens with sacred relics or superstitious charms.

I think that Kaminska is wrong about this: improvements in reproduction technology neither have in the past nor will in the future have any particularly deleterious effect on art values. If anything, the opposite is true, for reasons I’ll come to in a minute. That said, they do change the kind of art which gets produced, in interesting ways.

But first, let’s look at those Van Gogh reproductions. Let’s say that the value of the original is $170 million — that means the reproduction is being sold for roughly 1/5000 the value of the original. The massive gap between the two figures — at least three orders of magnitude — has nothing to do with the ability of Tyler Cowen or anybody else to be able to discern, with their naked eye, the difference between the original and the reproduction. If the reproduction was perfect, its value would not rise significantly from the current $34,000 — not so long as the original remained the possession of, and on exhibit at, the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.

When paintings become worth millions of dollars, it’s not because of some intrinsic aesthetic value. If it was, then known fakes would be valuable, rather than worthless, and outfits like Artisoo would be serious operations, rather than laughingstocks. We value certain objects because they are handmade; because of whose hand made them; and because they are historically important. This is the unique actual painting that Vincent Van Gogh painted in a certain month in 1890, these are his actual brushstrokes, his actual paint; this is a key part of the oeuvre which changed the course of (art) history. There is only one of this painting, it exists in a certain museum, and if you want, you can do the pilgrimage: get on a plane, and fly to Amsterdam, and visit the museum. Kaminska sneers at “sacred relics”, but the financial and sociological and art historical value in these paintings makes them much closer to being sacred relics than they are to being purely decorative works, admired just for what they look like.

The invisible aura of authenticity is of paramount importance. Look at the people who sell their beloved masterpieces at auction — they have in many cases lived with these paintings for decades, grown to love them dearly, and are parting with them only with the greatest reluctance. There’s a simple way to have your cake and eat it, in that situation: before you sell the work, you get a very accurate reproduction made, which looks to all intents and purposes identical, and hang it in the same place that the original had been. Aesthetically, your life is reduced by only the most minuscule amount, if at all; financially, you make millions. But no one does that.

Even fakes can acquire an aura: one collector I know had a beautiful Paul Klee drawing by her bedside, and learned after many years that it was a fake. It stayed by her bedside, as beloved as ever (if not nearly as valuable). But again, if it had been stolen, she would not have replaced it with a reproduction, or some fake fake.

The point is that so long as authenticity can be determined somehow, the value of an original unique artwork will always be orders of magnitude greater than the value of any copy. It doesn’t matter if you can tell the difference; the value lies in the authenticity, not in the aesthetics of the piece.

That said, advances in reproduction technology have changed what artists do, in profound and interesting ways. I don’t have formal statistics on this, but I would guess that a significant majority of the contemporary art sold at high-end galleries is editioned. This makes perfect sense: if you can create three pieces, or five, then that gives you the opportunity to sell the same piece three or five times over. Wonderfully, in the case of small editions like that, the price doesn’t even go down: collectors like buying an edition of three or five, especially if one of the other pieces in the edition ends up in a respected museum.

And of course it’s very common for the most prolific artists to also be the most expensive. (Think: Picasso, Warhol, Hirst, Murakami, etc.) The more of an artist’s art there is out there, the more such art there is in grand institutions, the more fungible your own work becomes, and the more certain you can be of its valuation. That, in turn, helps gives collectors confidence to pay high asking prices for the work, and explains why Richter sells for more than Velázquez, despite having vastly more supply on the market.

I do think, though, that the flood of supply from brand-name artists is having an interesting second-order effect. It makes perfect sense for any given artist to maximize her own output, and thereby her own income — especially when doing so causes her prices to go up rather than down. Selling more pieces at higher prices is always a no-brainer. But take a step back and look at the art world as a whole, and you see a different phenomenon: a move away from the artwork, and towards the experience.

Jeff Koons was early to this, with his Puppy of 1992 — moving art out of the gallery, and into the world of public spectacle. More recently, we’ve seen a rash of large-scale installations, many of them — think the Olafur Eliasson Weather Project at the Tate, or Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago — proving incredibly popular. And temporary experiential works, be they Christian Marclay’s Clock, or Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present, or massive installations at the Park Avenue Armory, or even just a silly water gimmick, are capable of drawing enormous crowds, who become much more invested in the art than they do when they look at a painting, just because they spend so much more time with it.

Even old art, now, is being turned into spectacle and experience: look at what Peter Greenaway did with Leonardo. Or, while you’re on your pilgrimage to Amsterdam, go visit an exhibition of Van Gogh reproductions, complete with “3D animations”.

The parallel, here, is with the music industry. When digital technology helped bring the cost of music down to zero, musicians started putting much more effort into to live shows and touring. The music industry is not particularly healthy, if you look at the big record labels — but the live music industry has never seen more people paying more money to see more shows in more venues.

Experiential art, by its nature, doesn’t lend itself to being auctioned off for millions of dollars at Christie’s. But thousands of people will pay real money to be part of the show; in that way, the way that the art gets “collected” is much more democratic than the elitist world of the big auction houses and high-end art galleries.

In other words, the big effect of reproduction on the art world is not fakes, or reproductions of originals. Rather, the first-order effect is the rise in editions, and then the second-order effect is the rise in spectacles and experiences. Neither of them, pace Kaminska, will do any harm to art’s financial value. Quite the opposite: as more art is seen by more people, its desirability will only tend to increase. There might be an art market crash — but if there is, it won’t be due to oversupply. In fact, oversupply is a major factor keeping the bubble afloat.

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