The twelve million dollar shark, the shoddy Science paper, and what it would mean if this analogy by Mark Carrigan were literally correct.

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In this interesting post, Mark Carrigan points out some parallels between blue-chip art galleries and high-impact science journals. Here what I found to be the crux of it:

In both cases the task of filtering, sorting a range of cultural products in terms of their quality, takes place through bureaucratic processes. Particular institutions become able to invest cultural products with the feel of quality, a process which sits elusively between genuine normativity and contingent power, tending towards success in its aims but also shaping the wider social context within which such ‘success’ can be judged. Within the art world ”the dealer brand often becomes a substitute for, and certainly is a reinforcement of, aesthetic judgement“.

He then goes on to ask (rhetorically, perhaps) whether the “brand” of high-profile journals serves an analogous function in science, actually standing in for intellectual judgment.

The idea, I suppose, is that scientists are like Damien Hirst, whose piece The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living supplied the title for Donald Thompson’s The Twelve Million Dollar Stuffed Shark. This appears to be a book about the economics of the art market in which the author cleverly points out, among other things, that Hirst’s piece is indeed a taxidermied shark that was sold for $12M. Already some differences between scientists and artists like Hirst will be visible to the keen observer, but, like Hirst, scientists produce creative work that has a difficult-to-define value, and this is the important part of the analogy. The bureaucratic system by which our work is published is, then, like Larry Gagosian, who owns a powerful network of commercial galleries. Like showing in a Gagosian gallery, publication in highly prestigious journals is indicative of quality because, well, those journals are very selective and reputable, and supposedly only the best work gets into them.

But of course this is only approximately true, and in practice the fact of having published in these journals actually creates value that can be exchanged for career advancement in multiple forms. This is true for data created with Photoshop, as long the author isn’t caught, and it is also true for papers that are pretty obviously crap to anyone with the appropriate expertise who reads them carefully or tries to replicate the results. Thus the ability to create value in this way is bestowed upon the system by the fact that scientists are often too busy to make our own evaluations of quality as consumers. This is especially true when making decisions about whether to look more carefully at one of a pile of hundreds of CVs in the applicant pool for an entry level faculty position, or determining whether someone in a different subdiscipline from one’s own is likely to be able to carry out the work proposed in a grant one is reviewing.

Carrigan’s post makes some good points, but he isn’t angry enough about them. I would like to make up for this oversight.

The deep problem here is that when you put for-profit entities in the role of determining what makes it into the culture you end up with people like Damien Hirst and Larry Gagosian at the top of the pile. This is worth getting very, very concerned about indeed, because if science actually looked like this part of the art industry, we would be in real trouble.

Let’s start with Hirst, who has developed a reputation for not actually making work, and, more importantly, not actually having any ideas. I’m not even going to pretend to have an informed opinion on whether the cases described by the Stuckist folks in that last link should count as plagiarism, cryptomnesia, coincidence, or legitimate reappropriation. Further, it’s obvious that some of those items are more than a bit of a stretch, and that the Stuckists have an axe to grind. It really does seem, however, that the one thing Thomas Downing’s dot paintings, Walter Robinson’s splatter paintings, Lori Precious’s butterfly stained-glass mosaics and Jon LeKay’s jewel encrusted skull have in common is that Hirst went on to make very similar work years later. They don’t seem to coalesce into any kind of aesthetic, historical or intellectual whole otherwise. (Come to think of it, this is actually a problem for Hirst’s oeuvre, even if we set aside any charges of plagiarism.)

Appropriation in creative work is a complex issue. I’m not going to settle it here. The really troubling thing is how Hirst handles perceived appropriation of his own products. After settling out of court for having a 20 foot tall replica of the Humbrol Young Scientist Anatomy Set fabricated and sold at auction for a million pounds, he apparently saw no irony in suing a sixteen year old kid who was using images of his diamond skull in collages. The young artist, known as Cartrain, was forced to hand over the artwork in his possession, along with 200 pounds he had made for selling other pieces. Cartrain then retaliated by stealing a box of pencils from the Pharmacy installation, for which he was arrested and charged with grand larceny, with the box of pencils valued at five hundred thousand pounds. Charges were dropped, presumably when someone came to their senses and realized what a total PR nightmare this was going to be for Hirst and the Tate, where the work was on display.

Is Damien Hirst a better artist than the less “successful” artists his work uncannily resembles? Is he a better artist than Cartrain, for that matter? No. He is in fact a highly evolved corporate entity, whose main priority is burnishing and defending his own brand so that he can continue to grow his enterprise, and create value for the people who own and trade his products. Only an intellectual environment dominated by the logic of late capitalism could select for the traits that ensure the survival and prosperity of such a creature. Consider this quote from the review of The Twelve Million Dollar Stuffed Shark in the Sun:

Many people recoil from the contemporary art market as the home of pretension and human foible, but as expensive pursuits go, the art market is a relatively beneficial one. The dead shark cost $12 million to buy but, of course, it didn’t cost nearly that much to make. So the production process isn’t eating up too many societal resources or causing too much damage to the environment. For the most part, it’s money passing back and forth from one set of hands to another, like a game — and, yes, the game is fun for those who have the money to play it. Don’t laugh, but we do in fact need some means of determining which of the rich people are the cool ones, and the art market surely serves that end.

Who is the “we” in that last sentence? What creates the pressing need to find out who the “cool” rich people are, so that the activity of sorting rich people by coolness counts as beneficial to society? The art industry, on this view, is basically bottle service on an epic scale, and the people Carrigan credits as acting like filters for quality are actually more like bouncers at a trendy nightclub.

This is probably not why Gagosian (or Damien Hirst) got into the art business in the first place. If all they wanted was to make money, there were certainly more efficient ways to do that. And there is, after all, some justification for the fact that Larry Gagosian’s opinion about art has more impact on its perceived value than, say, Lloyd Blankfein’s. But this does seem like a depressingly accurate description of the world in which high-powered art dealers must operate. Why else would these arbiters of good taste and cultural “quality” spend their time ripping off old people and play-acting as actual UHNWs (ultra-high net worth individuals) like the hedge fund managers whose table scraps they dine on? Allegedly, after taking a Lichtenstein painting from Jan Cowles’s (age 93) apartment on consignment, suggesting that they could get $3 million for it, Gagosian gallery then

…offered the painting for considerably less to a collector, Thompson Dean, a managing partner of a private equity firm, telling Mr. Dean that he had an opportunity to get an incredible bargain. “Seller now in terrible straits and needs cash,” said a July e-mail to Mr. Dean from a Gagosian staff member. “Are you interested in making a cruel and offensive offer? Come on, want to try?”

Unless you’re a complete sociopath, you don’t just wake up one day and start stealing from old people for giggles. The process that takes someone from the point in his life where he can’t believe how lucky he is to work with beautiful, meaningful art, and helping support artists by finding a paying audience for it, to the point where he is willing to countenance this kind of behavior just to keep the money coming in to support his expanding empire is slow and complex. It must happen by a series of compromises.

The open letter “Why I am Leaving Gagosian” was intended as satire, but the fact that the author was able to change so little of the famous “Why I am Leaving Goldman Sachs” piece to create something that captures the spirt of what is wrong with the commercial gallery system is telling.

In fact, this is increasingly true in the non-profit sector (e.g., museums) as well. Former blue-chip gallerist Jeffery Deitch’s tenure at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles has been, to put it mildly, a clusterfuck. Recent groundbreaking cultural events at the museum have included a major show by James Franco and the whitewashing of an anti-war mural by street artist Blu that featured dollar bills draped over coffins. (The mural was initially commissioned as part of a street art exhibition, and was replaced by a picture of a steam engine, the constitution, and a woman in a feathered headdress.)

Under Deitch’s direction, MOCA fired the chief curator, preferring to employ precarious labor to do the critical work of, you know, curating shows (this created enough of an uproar that MOCA is now in the process of hiring a new curator). In this way, the museum would save a few dollars on health insurance and other fringe benefits, while at the same time ensuring that they get more than they pay for from precariously employed independent contractors who can’t afford to be “difficult.” If this sounds like what is happening at many universities, where full-time faculty are gradually (or not so gradually) being replaced by adjuncts, and the tenure system is under siege, it should be little surprise. Deitch went to business school (Harvard ’78) with the people in charge of those catastrophes as well.

But for the moment, things in science are a bit less extreme, and certainly less personalized. The venality of a publisher like Elsevier is shocking largely in contrast to the freely given labor of the people who write, referee, and edit the “content” which for-profit entities then sell back to our libraries at an extortionate markup. Because our livelihood is more tied to the usefulness of our work than its monetary value, scientists mostly want to give it away for free. And since digital reproduction and distribution generally only increases the usefulness of our work, we mostly do this by file sharing, even when it violates the terms of the contracts publishers ask us to sign when we publish with them.

This is not even considered radical behavior among scientists. It’s part of the ethic that we are trained to have. In fact, compared to the art industry, where underpaid staff or even unpaid interns are increasingly responsible for every stage of production, and go entirely uncredited, science is much less exploitative. Our underpaid staff and unpaid interns are typically given credit in the form of authorship on published work, which they can leverage for a shot a future career in the field. Most often, the person whose name goes first on a paper is a trainee. And getting a paper in a high-profile journal is increasingly a requirement for success on the job market. Everyone knows that plenty of shoddy work ends up in high-profile journals, but everyone still wants to get a paper in Science or Nature, and most people will at least consider hiring you if you have one.

These forces don’t have to have a monopoly on legitimacy, which is ultimately what we are talking about here. I have disparaged talking about the “art world,” but there really is a community of artists who are deeply committed to their work, and are more than qualified to make judgments about the quality and value of their peers’ work. This is manifestly true in science, where peer review is still the basic standard by which value is measured. Critically, these are notions of value that are independent of the market, and they are a vital part of our culture. If we continue to cede the power to confer legitimacy upon our work to people who can only think in terms of exchange-value and view the commons as an inconvenient drag on their ability to use our labor to make money for themselves, we will end up with gatekeepers like Larry Gagosian and Jeffrey Deitch.

image from Stuckism
alternatively, this is also edifying

One Comment

  1. Posted September 12, 2012 at 2:54 AM | Permalink

    What a stuff of un-ambiguity and preserveness of valuable know-how on the topic of unpredicted emotions.

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