TCA Srinivasa Raghavan

Economics, econometrics and art

Updated on: Jun 12, 2011
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M. F. Hussain's passing once again raises the question of valuation of paintings. An economist has suggested a reasonable method for judging.

A friend of mine who is very well up on the art world has put the value of M. F. Hussain's work at about Rs 4,000 crore. That's not a great deal considering what the international market can bear, sometimes for just one painting.

But still, it makes you wonder what on earth makes some paintings more valuable than others? No one really knows the answer.

Scarcity is the obvious reason. But it nevertheless begs the question: Why does the demand for some painters, if not paintings, exceed supply by such huge margin?

One would have thought economists would have descended in droves to figure out the answer/s. But to the best of my knowledge, only one of them has done so with any consistency and persistence: David Galenson of the University of Chicago.

He has written over a dozen papers and books on the subject. The references are all available on the Web site of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in Boston. About 10 years ago he wrote a paper titled “The Life Cycles of Modern Artists” (NBER Working Paper No 8779) in which he says “The primary source of genuine importance in art is innovation” and further that “Important works of art embody important innovations; the most important works of art are those which introduce these innovations”. He defines innovation as new practices that change the practices of successors.

Schumpeter and art?

The knowledgeable will recognise this to be an application of the old Schumpeterian idea to art. But that is not important. The important thing is that Galenson has applied an old idea in an innovative way.

So, in a sense, his work should be more valuable than that of other economists.

Be that is it may, people looking to buy paintings as a storehouse of future value now have at least one way to assess the prospect: How innovative is the new painter?

Here, one runs into a major difficulty: Innovation in painting technique is not immediately apparent. It is not like an industrial process.

So, how then does one sieve the gold from the sand? How can you tell if a claim is exaggerated? How do you separate a genuine innovation from a seeming one, especially since in the “modern era an even greater premium is placed striking innovations”?

According to Galenson, in the long run, the real measure of true innovation is not whether a painting hangs on the walls of museums or is stored in the vaults of billionaires.

It is if it “becomes the subject of study by later generations of artists and scholars of art. Short-run success in the form of critical acclaim or lucrative sales of an active artist's work often does not translate into long-run success”.

Galenson cites lots of examples where painters failed to meet this real test of value measured by technique legacy.

He also says that when you get right down to it, there are only two types of artistic innovation: “What distinguishes them is the method by which they are produced. One of these types can be called aesthetically-motivated experimentation, the other conceptual execution.”

According to him, therefore, there are artists who “proceed tentatively and incrementally” and those who make those sudden leaps of imagination.

Sudden or gradual?

Of the former, he says that “Their innovations emerge gradually: They are not declared in any single work, but, instead, appear piecemeal in a large body of work. Experimental artists typically build their skills and understanding over the course of their careers.”

In contrast, the innovations of the big leap types “appear suddenly, as a new idea produces a result quite different not only from other artists' work but also from the artist's own previous work”.

This leads Galenson to the obvious question: What is the relationship between the age of a painter and the value of his work? The answer depends on whether he belongs to the sudden leap variety or the gradual evolution one.

In keeping with the current American practice of empiricism, he “looks at” 1,600 paintings that were auctioned between 1970 and 1997. He then performs the usual econometric tricks on them.

He finds that conceptual artists produce their best works when they are young while the experimental ones take time to become the top of the pops.

Scholars Vs Philistines

Will M. F. Hussain's work meet all these tests? Only time will tell, but there is one final question that Galenson has tried to answer.

Is value merely reflective of the tastes of the wealthy philistines or does it also conform closely to scholarly assessments?

His answer is a priceless example of ambiguity: “the critical evaluation of these artists' careers agrees quite closely with the evaluation of the market in a majority of cases, and does not strongly disagree even in the cases for which the two differ”.

Aah. Yes. Indeed. Of course. How silly of us not to work that out.


Published on June 21, 2011

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