Monday, September 6, 2010

Art as Commodity

Have you ever wondered how to price a painting for a photograph? This came up on the June 25th NPR Planet Money Podcast.

The most important thing is laid out at the beginning of the podcast - it has nothing to do with how good the art is. That is to say, for most of the pictures and paintings out in the world, the price that you pay for the art has nothing to do with its artistic merit.

Instead, most art is categorized by scale, intensity and medium.

  1. Scale: The larger the art, the high the price
  2. Intensity: The more detail the higher the price. Likewise, the more time  needed to produce the detail, the higher the price.
  3. Medium: The more difficult the medium is to work with, the higher the price. 

What this means is that market for art produced by relatively unknown artists behaves like a commodity market. A commodity is an item that for the most part is indistinguishable from a competing product. Because there is little differentiation, the only way to compete is by price. That is why oil, gold, wheat and coffee are called commodities - for the most part, a kernel of wheat from one part of the world is not significantly distinguishable from another part of the world.

Hence, paintings and photographs by relatively unknown artists are also commodity-like. If you walked into a gallery, the chances are that two photographs that are printed to the same size, equally technically challenging and printed on the same medium will command similar prices. This says nothing about whether or not you will like the works equally.

Not that this applies to works by relatively unknown artists. A picture by Ansel Adams is not commodity-like, as you are paying for the Adam-ness of the picture. This is the emotional quality of the work that is not describable by physical means. It is also the same quality that makes the Mona Lisa priceless. Note that to be able to impart an emotional quality to the market value of a work, you need to have familiarity and a sense of connection. That doesn't exist for new artists, and must be cultivated.

There is an interesting implication brought up in NPR's podcast. If you want to produce sell-able fine art photographs, you are less likely to get there with a dSLR.
  1. Scale - Print large. Medium format trumps 35mm, even if it's 35mm digital
  2. Intensity - This quality is more a function of photographer skill than equipment
  3. Medium - Film. Film is harder work with than digital. Digital, by its widespread use automatically losses its exclusivity. 
No, I have not gone all Ken Rockwell about film, but I think it does give you pause for thought. Full frame dSLR's like the  Nikon D3x, Sony A900 or Canon 5DmII are now encroaching onto medium format territory. But for the price of a D3X body alone, you could find a pretty serviceable medium format film camera and have enough left over for lenses and a decent amount of film processing. It's only a matter of how far your skill could take you.

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