Insider art trading?

There’s a lot I don’t understand about the art world, but I’m very sympathetic to the critique that it’s more about status than about art per se. Add in some financial concerns and you’ve got a decent explanation. Here’s some interesting commentary from Robert Hughes in a piece published November 21, 1988 (emphasis mine):

But now we have a gush of posthumous Basquiat hype—a codicil, as it were, to the media overkill that surrounded the auction of his mentor Warhol’s chairs and cookie jars last spring. There are so many Basquiats floating out there that the only possible strategy for maintaining their value is to romanticize their author, loudly claiming him as a potentially “major” artist, a genius cut off in his first flower.

The New York Times, as one might expect, festooned his bier in column inches. “Martyr Without a Cause,” ran Peter Schjeldahl’s headline in 7 Days, treating Basquiat as a veritable St. Sebastian, bristling with syringes flung cruelly by the Zeitgeist. Comparing him to “a soft young African prince, imperious and wistful,” Schjeldahl invoked Cy Twombly and Franz Kline, claimed that Basquiat, like them, “seemed incapable of moving his hand in a way that was uninteresting.” Schjeldahl called for “a proper retrospective of his work.” Doubtless he will get his wish, given the Whitney Museum’s helpless commitment to the trendy and the number of its financial supporters who have been left holding Basquiats whose price needs to be sustained by that “proper retrospective.” Then the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles could do it too, because its trustees own lots of Basquiats as well. This is known as Postmodernist Museum Ethics. It’s how art history gets made, bub.

Here’s the rest.


Bookmakers in European and US sports

As an American I always get a kick out of bookmakers being involved with professional sports in Europe. Here in the US the major sports leagues want nothing to do with gambling ventures, but in Europe bookmakers can advertise and even sponsor teams. Why the difference?

Off the top of my head I can think of two alternate explanations. The first is that US sports consumers have a lower tolerance for (perceived) corruption. Italy has often been in the news for corruption in its association football system and I’m sure there are other instances. However, Europe has too many different people and cultures for this explanation to cover them all. It might sound appealing (to Americans) at first but I don’t think it’s very strong.

The other explanation is that gambling is legal in much of Europe. It was run by reputable organizations long before organized crime had a chance to get involved. There is no suggestion that these outfits compromise the integrity of the game (read: product). Because 1) gambling has traditionally been illegal in most places in the US and 2) people still want to do it, the void has often been filled by organized crime. With no reputation at stake and little else to lose at the organization level, the mob is free to (attempt to) influence the outcomes of games. Thus the major US leagues shy away from it.

Assuming gambling laws liberalize in the future this aversion to gambling sponsorship will probably pass too. Interestingly, there have recently developed ways to stake and win money based on the outcomes of sporting events that comply with gambling laws. As these are run by reputable companies the probability of fast-forwarding the process is high. From the position that gambling should always have been legal in the first place this is good news.

The decline of private detective fiction

“Get this, and get it straight: crime is a sucker’s road and those who travel it wind up in the gutter, the prison, or the grave. There’s no other end…but they never learn!”

So began each episode of my favorite old time radio show, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe. Except for a couple episodes, the stories were radio originals not based on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories. The complexities of Chandler’s stories were far too much for a 30-minute radio show. Still, the writers did an admirable job and occasionally penned some characters and turns of phrase Chandler would have been proud of. Gerald Mohr’s portrayal of Marlowe was outstanding. I’ve been a fan for years but still have plenty of episodes left to enjoy. But when I finish?

It’s a shame the era of the great fictional private detective is over. Private detectives still exist, probably still have interesting adventures, and are still written about, but it’s clear the winds have changed. Why not? Maybe tastes changed, sure, but that could be said about anything. Some possible reasons:

1. Law enforcement technology is better now; police can do more at lower cost. The relatively limited capabilities of the police back then left more room for private detectives than exists now. Greater law enforcement capability also makes second opinions less valuable. The first ones get it right more often e.g. in forensic analysis. This helps to explain why fiction involving official law enforcement is still thriving.

1a. The scope of law enforcement has changed as well. A lot of crime is related to illegal drugs. From the point of view of the aggrieved parties there’s less uncertainty about the culprits, less interest in using third parties to handle them, and of course more official police interest.

2. A lot of old detective stories had some element of blackmail and shameful secrets that the clients don’t want made known. These still exist, but the circle of things that can be successfully covered up or that people are willing to bear great costs to cover up is smaller. Example 1: a criminal past one is making a clean break from is a matter of public record, and communication technology makes it easier to transmit. Employers, fiancé(e)s, prospective fathers-in-law, et al. are much more likely to find out, so blackmailers don’t have special leverage. (This example ties in with point 1.) Example 2: sexual mores are much less restrictive, making blackmail based on violations of sexual mores decline.

2a. A lot of the clients come from Old Money. The greater development of the market makes Old Money families less prominent. People may look askance at you if your cousin or nephew is a ne’er-do-well but you aren’t risking the family honor as much as you once did, and Rich Uncle Moneybags is less likely to shell out.

3. There are more and more ways to display/broadcast high status, so people have less incentive (read: motive) to fight over any single one. Stolen art objects or jewelry feature often in detective fiction. Today’s lowbrow would-be thieves can peacock in less risky ways. Today’s highbrow would-be thieves can indulge in the greater supply of modern art or tribal art instead of taking the risk to steal a Ming vase, or make a public commitment to a trendy political cause.

4. The Cold War. Cold War fiction must have been a partial substitute for detective fiction, and the characters there are mainly state agents who need access to special information, gadgets, and budgets beyond the reach of private eyes. There were detective stories about Communist spies but they were not the bread and butter of the genre, and subjectively they didn’t hold up as well as the other kinds.

5. Urban population as a percentage of total US population was 56.5% in 1940 vs. 80.7% in 2010. Increasing urbanization led to more audience familiarity with the kinds of things in detective fiction, making the stories less exotic and more like fleshed-out versions of the newspaper crime section.

1 and 2 each probably have a decently high R2, and the rest are plausible but probably don’t cover as much ground. I’m sure there are more. In any event old episodes of the Sam Spade radio show are still out there.

Liverpool 77

In the 77th minute of today’s Liverpool-Sunderland match, thousands of fans got up to leave the stadium to protest the recent increase of ticket prices to £77. It just so happened to coincide with a defensive meltdown, and Liverpool’s 2-0 lead was erased to a 2-2 draw. Liverpool slipped from eighth place to ninth, while Sunderland remained steady at nineteenth—out of twenty. It was very illustrative of the gulf between American and British sports culture. No US fan likes a ticket price increase, but during the week Liverpool FC media were livid about them, using terms like “betrayal”. US fans often leave games en masse but usually because the score is too lopsided and there’s no realistic hope of victory for their team.

I’d like to be able to think it through but there are so many differences (beyond the game) that I could only fail at making sense of it.