Art News Roundup: Invisible Hand Edition

Scottish Enlightenment economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790), who played a profound role in the development of free market economics, and indeed in the foundation of this country, is perhaps best known today for his seminal work, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”, first published in 1776. On December 12th, Christie’s will be auctioning off Smith’s own, first edition copy of “The Wealth of Nations” in London, with an estimated sale price of between $650,000 to over $1 million. Given the provenance of the book, and the love of both conservatives and libertarians for Smith’s work, I predict that the final hammer price will be at the high end of this range, if not even a bit higher. All you really need for this to happen is for two modern capitalists with deep pockets to get into a bidding war with one another, and the sky’s the limit.

Granted, neither Smith himself nor the book in question have much of anything to do with art in a direct way. Yet Smith’s principle of the “Invisible Hand”, by which positive, public outcomes can result from the self-interested, private actions of individuals, are a major philosophical underpinning of museums as we know them in the Western world. A collector who accumulates great works of art, historic artifacts, or important specimens for his own private delectation, and whose collection subsequently becomes broadly available to others for enjoyment and education is, in a sense, an exemplar of that “invisible hand” creating a public good from what was originally a private motivation. Many paintings, sculptures, and drawings have been preserved for future generations because individuals in the past acquired them for themselves, and kept them safe from the ravages of time, war, natural disasters, the vicissitudes of fashion, and so on.

And now, on to some other news which you may find hand-y.

Michelangelo: The Hands of a Master

The so-called “Rothschild Bronzes”, once owned by the famous Rothschild banking dynasty, are a superb pair of early 16th century sculptures of warriors mounted on giant panther-like beasts, which of course anticipate “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” by nearly 500 years. After considerable scholarly debate, as well as technical analysis using various methods of dating, measurement, and comparison to contemporary drawings, a group of art history experts at Cambridge recently announced their conclusion that the pair are by Michelangelo (1475-1564), making them the only known bronze figures of the Italian Renaissance genius to have survived to the present day. A book chronicling the 4-year research project involving these figures has just been published, and will be receiving a great deal of scrutiny from other art experts. Is this a rush to claim authorship? Or is there a legitimate body of evidence to err on the side of this attribution, which would fill a major hole in the record with respect to Michelangelo’s work in metal? Stay tuned.

Michaelangelo Bronzes

Rembrandt: The Fingers of a Master

A number of my readers – clever folk that you are – wrote to me over the past week regarding the interesting news that an oil study by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) may bear the Dutch Old Master’s fingerprints. The work, which is roughly the size of an 8×10 photograph, depicts a model with his hands clasped in prayer, looking upwards. The young man in the picture, who was probably a Jewish neighbor of the artist, posed as Christ for Rembrandt on several other occasions that I’m aware of, such as in the Louvre’s “Supper at Emmaus” (1648); a number of other, related oil studies are known, including this slightly larger sketch in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While at present there’s no way to know for certain whether the fingerprints are indeed those of Rembrandt, in time they may be able to establish a baseline for comparison to other works believed to be by the artist, should unexplained fingerprints be found on those paintings. This particular work is going up for sale at Sotheby’s in London next week, with a pre-sale estimate of about $7.6-$10.2 million.


Valadier: The Marketing of a Master

You’ve probably never heard of the Italian silversmith Luigi Valadier (1726-1785), a master of 18th century sculpture, decorative art, and jewelry, who was based in Rome but had an international clientele thanks to his excellent craftsmanship and the not-so-subtle marketing of his luxury goods by one potentate to the other: “If the King of Poland has one of Valadier’s goblets, I want one, too,” is how this sort of thing always works. Should you find yourself in New York over the holidays however, drop by The Frick Collection to see their current show on the work of this remarkable artist and artisan, who created jaw-dropping luxury goods for decades while managing to keep up with the changing tastes of the aristocracy, from Baroque to Rococo to Neoclassical. His opulent objects were so popular for palace decoration, diplomatic gifts, and tokens of friendship, that the studio couldn’t keep up with the orders pouring in from all over Europe. For example, shown below in an overhead shot is the 9-foot long plateau (base) of a massive 1778 dining table centerpiece by Valadier from a collection in Madrid, made out of precious stones, bronze, silver, and gold. If you want to see the whole thing, you’ll need to get to The Frick by January 20th.




If Everybody Looked The Same: Small Businesses In Increasingly Boring Cities

Last evening I was listening to Episode #389 of “Catholic In A Small Town”, the long-running podcast by my friends Mac and Katherine Barron – which you should subscribe to even if you’re not Catholic, as they are terrific, and hilariously funny. During the show, they discussed the travails of trying to cancel their account with a national service chain, in order to sign up with a local business providing the same service. They talked about how supporting local businesses was important to them, and that they had made the choice to do so in other areas of their purchasing lives as well.

Then this morning I learned with sadness that the venerable Embassy café, bakery, and restaurant in Madrid will be closing its doors after 86 years. An institution with a storied history, which you can read a bit about in this article, Embassy is a casually elegant holdover from a more civilized time. It is also very conveniently located in the same block as “my” neighborhood parish in Madrid. I was at Embassy last a couple of months ago, but unfortunately it will be closed before I return to visit Madrid in June. Despite the fact that it has plenty of business, the business it does have cannot compensate for the increasing rents for their property, which includes a lovely terrace under the trees on the Paseo de la Castellana, a wonderful place to meet friends for a meal or a drink.

Embassy is succumbing to the increasing homogenization of city life, which has led to the centers of many cities becoming more same-y, even as they come back from the dead thanks to a greater interest in urban living. Previously, when you traveled to another city, you might expect to see some chains, but these were counterbalanced by an equal number of one-offs – the kind of mom-and-pop businesses that locals or travel books would tell you, “If you’re looking for X, you really need to go visit this unique place.” Now, when you go to almost any city nationally or internationally, you will see the same businesses over and over again, with little in the way of local flavor.

When I first moved to Georgetown in 1991 for example, the main commercial thoroughfares of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue had a number of well-known names: Ralph Lauren, The Gap, Burger King, etc. Existing alongside these big-brand businesses were smaller, local businesses, who only existed in the village: Au Pied du Cochon, Little Caledonia, Café Northwest, and many others. People find it unbelievable when I tell them that back then, tiny Georgetown had four movie theatres, showing a variety of films from major release to art house to old movies. Today there is only a multiplex chain venue – and a very nice one it is, too, but the selection is almost entirely of the mainstream variety, that you could see in any suburban shopping mall cinema.

For most cities, neighborhood holdovers from 20, 30, 40 years ago or more are falling under an increasingly shortened list called “still there”. There is some inevitability to this, as business owners retire or needs change. Yet in many cases, these businesses are being driven out not because they lack customers, but by higher ground rent. The end result is that the chains that replace small businesses seem to last for a few years at most, and are themselves quickly replaced by another chain with outlets in every major city and airport.

Admittedly this post is more of a whinging lament, rather than a prescription for how to solve the problem. I’m not in a position to recommend solutions, or suggest that economies of scale are always bad. In fact they can be quite beneficial, when they bring in goods or services to an area that would otherwise be unable to support them. A diversity of choice creates options that improve our lives as consumers.

That being said, perhaps we have gone too far in the effort to expand perceived choice at the expense of uniqueness and individuality. The stereotype of seeing a Starbucks on every corner exists for a reason. When a local business pits quality and customer service against mass production, it can only succeed if it can keep up with its larger competitor on price, and that effort is seriously undermined when commercial landlords value rents first and foremost.

Now, I would never argue that a landlord must take a hit in the wallet in order to keep a local business in bricks and mortar. A property owner is not running a charity, after all. They have to pay their taxes, account for inflation, and turn a profit, just as any other business owner does. But perhaps what is lacking is an ingrained appreciation for the intangible value of having something unique. If the business is doing fine, then shouldn’t there be a greater effort to keep that uniqueness intact if at all possible? Easy for me to question, I grant you, but if you’re bored when you travel, and settle for shopping or dining at some place that you could just as easily visit back home, then it’s a question worth asking.

When the Emperor Charles V came to the city of Granada in order to see the Alhambra Palace, where his architects were preparing a new residence for him to live in when he visited the city, he was horrified to see that part of the Moorish fortress had been demolished to build a fairly unremarkable Italian Renaissance-style building. “What you have built here can be seen in many places,” he is reported to have said, “but what you have destroyed was unique in all the world.” Perhaps the same could be said, on a smaller scale, for those unique local businesses that deserve our support.

[Correction: a smart reader has reminded me that Charles V said this about the alterations to the Mezquita (former mosque, now a cathedral) in Cordoba, not the alterations to the Alhambra Palace. Mea culpa.]

The author (l) at Embassy last summer

Phone Booth Friday: Why Cosplay Is Great for the Economy

Sometimes it’s possible to have an opinion about something based exclusively on external observation, and still be fairly accurate in your assessment. You do not need to be mauled by a bear to understand that it would probably not be a pleasant experience. At other times however, you can roll out your jump-to-conclusions mat and end up using that shiny red Swingline to staple yourself to it in a rather embarrassing way. Such is the case with this ill-informed and ill-advised piece on the pop culture phenomenon of cosplay, and its impact on the U.S. economy.

By no means am I an expert on either economics or, more importantly for the purposes of this post, the world of cosplay. Sure, I put on a Superman suit for Halloween, or to shoot funny photos for use as Twitter AVI’s (profile pictures); I play-act the persona on social media when it suits my purpose, which is usually to make people laugh and to poke fun at myself. However, I’ve never been to any of the conventions or other, similar events held annually around the country by those interested in things like comic books and sci-fi/adventure.

What I can say, based on interacting with a number of cosplayers over the past couple of years, is that they are not what you would expect from reading the article linked to above. They enjoy dressing up as their favorite characters from print or film, and attending conventions or other events with those of like mind. Yet classing these people as unemployed, disillusioned millennial layabouts is either based on faulty reasoning, or the fact that the author didn’t think it worth the bother to actually see whether the category of people he was writing about matched his description of them.

In my travels through social media I’ve come across all sorts of people who enjoy cosplay; as it happens, not a single one of the ones with whom I interact on a regular basis is unemployed, or lives in their parents’ basement. They all have jobs, in many cases they have their own families, and cosplay is just the way they enjoy spending their free time. Many of them, far from being anti-social couch potatoes, exercise and eat well to stay in shape, so that they can look right for the cosplay they intend to do. They also donate their time to charitable causes, whether visiting the sick or participating in fundraising events in full costume, to the delight of those who love having their picture taken with Wonder Woman, Gandalf, or Darth Vader.

In my experience, cosplayers are often entrepreneurially-minded people, who appreciate and encourage creativity in themselves and others. When they come up with an idea for a character they want to play, they research it thoroughly, and either make their own costumes and accessories from scratch – from Batman’s cowl to Captain America’s shield to Thor’s hammer – or they seek out people who are good at making these things, and collaborate with them to achieve the desired effect. They work with everyone from photographers and independent film makers, to makeup artists and lighting designers, to have fun acting out their adventures.

All of this activity touches on a rather salient point, which was apparently lost on the author of this cosplay hit piece: cosplayers and their fans generate a lot of money. You see, those folks in tights and plastic body armor are not only contributing to the economy themselves, in many cases running their own home businesses on the side, but major industries recognize that the cosplay crowd can make or break their business.  The growth of the various conventions from places where a few geeks would gather to talk about vintage comic books, to the massive media events they are now, demonstrates this purchasing power.

For example, the latest installment in the multi-million dollar “Superman” franchise hasn’t even finished filming yet, and won’t be released until 2015. Nevertheless, the director and cast showed up at a comic book convention earlier this summer to meet fans and take their questions, as well as give a sneak peek of a brief clip from the forthcoming film, a bootleg of which went viral and generated millions of hits, posts, and re-tweets. This, for those who do not understand how marketing and advertising work, is called “buzz”, and it can make or break an investment, whether that investment is a movie or just about anything else.

The cultural reasons why people choose to engage in cosplay are for another post, but dressing up in costume is by no means an unprecedented source of revenue in Western history. If cosplay is economically worthless, then I suppose we must also consider not only the Palio di Siena, but the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia to be full of lazy good-for-nothings, whose elaborate expenditures contribute nothing to the economy of their respective cities. The same holds true for Morris Dancers in England, Karnival troupes in Bavaria, Holy Week penitents in Andalusia, Civil War re-enactors around the Mid-Atlantic, and so on. I could say this, except common sense dictates such an argument is rubbish, especially when the hotels are fully booked and the bars and restaurants are jammed.

People who dress up and participate in these kinds of events, cosplayers included, not only enjoy themselves, but they generate significant revenue in the communities where they engage in their activities. Rather than denigrate and dismiss those who choose to pull on the hobbit feet and go tramping about convention centers in San Diego or Baltimore, perhaps something more than a mere cursory consideration of what cosplay is might have generated a better blog post than that linked to above.  For indeed, what the author has no doubt unwittingly done in his piece, is make an argument for the abolition of all professional sporting events, which are based on little more than fantasy.

After all, when you consider how much time and money is spent in this country on athletes, stadiums, tickets, “Fantasy” football and “March Madness” picks, clothing emblazoned with logos of teams which fans will never be members of, or for that matter the names of individual athletes whom they will never get the chance to meet, are these two segments of the economy really all that different?

View of just part of the New York City annual ComiCon

View of part of the New York City annual Comic Con