Thursday, 27 June 2013

Masterpiece London

Picture: Dickinson
Masterpiece is London's major art and antiques fair and I saw some wonderful things at yesterday's preview day. Its focus is more on antiques and decorative arts, but there are some good pictures too. The powerful Gericault above attracted me. I thought I'd seen it before, but when I looked it up I think I'd confused it with a version in Besancon. It's with Dickinson at £1.3m. Gericault attribution is rather fraught - the quality of autograph works varies and there have been many imitators. I'm certainly no expert, but this one looked right to me. It's such a great illustration of that period of Romantic art - a portrait study of a rude mechanical conceived in the heroic Roman idiom.

As with collectors, the best dealers reveal consistent but not homogeneous taste. At this grand fair it's nice to get a chance to see well-curated displays of things that don't altogether appeal to me, and which I might not otherwise see. It feels a bit incestuous to praise Philip Mould's display, given my fondness for Bendor Grosvenor's blog. But their stand had a great range from major works by famous artists to more unusual, but also very fine pictures by less familiar artists. There's a new Van Dyck (as we've come to expect - starting to get blase about seeing new Van Dycks with Philip Mould) and some excellent miniatures. Bendor pointed out this striking self-portrait by Henry Wyatt, a student of Lawrence's. This impressive picture is priced at £28,000, which seems terrific value to me. Obviously you're paying a big mark-up when you buy from a dealer, and the overheads at these fairs are huge. But less fashionable pictures like this still seem very reasonable by most yardsticks. 

Decorative art is the main focus of the fair, and I particularly liked a lot of the English furniture on display. This rare early desk at Mallett was one that I wanted to take home. But the real surprise for me was the quality of ancient art at the fair. I'm more of a tourist in antiquity, but a number of things just leaped out at me. My single favourite object in the whole fair was a Greek vase - a kylix by the Oedipus Painter with Charles Ede. Even if you know nothing about ancient art, its quality is really striking. The dealer didn't want me to put a picture online, so hurry along to the fair to see it! 

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Contemporary Sales: hasn't the blue line done well?

Picture: The Onion
Some of the breathless commentary about the contemporary art sales this week reminds me of the classic article from The Onion, Blue Line Jumps 11%. Says The Onion: "Ecstatic investors are comparing the blue line to the left side of a very tall, steep blue mountain". The Wall Street Journal thinks the Sotheby's sale 'proves' that the market is out of recession. I wasn't aware the market was in 'recession', but you can't prove such broad assertions based on the sale of a few dozen lots that are different from the few dozen lots sold at the previous major sale. Big-ticket art sales seem to generate especially frenetic journalism. Calm down dears!

Sunday, 23 June 2013

BP Portrait Award

Picture: Evening Standard
I don't see nearly enough contemporary art, partly because my heart is in the past, and partly because I so heartily dislike the 'official' art promoted at places like Tate Modern and Art Basel. Even the BP Portrait Award had become deadened with tedious and repetitive photo realism, to the point where I didn't even go last year. But today I was heartened by this year's award show. There were some really good pictures, and even many of the less successful portraits were still interesting.

Take Ewan McClure's Self Portrait, pictured above. The thick impasto, broad visible brushstrokes and bold highlights speak to a tradition reaching from late Rembrandt through Lovis Corinth and Lucien Freud. McClure hasn't slavishly imitated. He's used a red ground, visible where he's scratched through the red paint, in contrast to the red highlights added at the end by Rembrandt. It's a bold an innovative attempt at a technique that's tricky to get right, but it's not one of my favourites. In great artists like Rembrandt and Hals the outward form of broad and seemingly random brushstrokes depicts the substance of solid three-dimensional forms. McClure's picture doesn't fully capture the recession of the cheek, and the highlights reflect light rather than personality. It's still an interesting picture, and much more rewarding than the superficial virtuosity of photo realism. 
Picture: BBC
Paul Oxborough's Ved Mehta (above) is an accomplished portrait that stands out for its intrinsic quality, without trickery or self-conscious engagement with history. Ved Mehta is a writer I greatly admire. I especially commend his book of interviews Fly and the Fly Bottle: Encounters with British Intellectuals. 
Picture: FAOA Blog
My two favourites don't reproduce well, but I urge you to go and have a look at Daniele Astone's Self Portrait (above) and Sophie Ploeg's Self Portrait with Lace Collar (below). These two pictures really stood out for me. Astone's large self portrait is wonderful. On a technical level, it's superbly painted. But it's also an extraordinary image, a large but vulnerable figure set in an eerie studio/stage - Watteau's Pierrot for our times. Ploeg has beaten the photo realists at their own game. This painterly picture captures surface and texture much better than a camera, but above all it's an arresting portrait. I want to see more of Astone and Ploeg. 
Picture: Sophie Ploeg Blog
There were other pictures that I liked less, and some that I didn't like at all. But for once I'm going to accentuate the positive. I'm aware that part of my excitement is from confounded expectation of mediocrity. But I think that some of the critical comment that I've read about this year's BP Portrait Award arises from unrealistically high expectations, comparing a selection of portraits from a single year against the curated highlights from a thousand years of art history. Sometimes there is an emphasis on trickery to cover up a lack of technical ability, and I want to return to write more about the tragic diminution of art schools today. The loss is real. But this exhibition shows that some artists have risen above that, and there are some fine pictures in this show.  

More on auctioneering

Interesting comments emailed by a reader with direct experience of negotiating with auction houses as a dealer and also discussing Sotheby's results with their Investor Relations department. More evidence that if you're selling at auction you should try to negotiate a seller's premium of zero at most, and get a kickback from the buyer's premium if you can:

Sotheby’s doesn’t spell it out in their filings but they actually provide you with some very helpful data.  For 2012 they provided the following figures ($ in mm):
Reported aggregate auction sales:  $4,473.6
Net auction sales: $3,809.7
Auction commission revenues: $622.4
Private sales: $906.5
Private sale commissions: $74.6
The first thing we can see is that commissions on private sales are roughly half (8.2%) that of auction sales.  Part of that is explainable by the higher average sales price on private sales, but given that the minimum buyer’s premium is greater than 12% for an auction sale, private sales still bring a much lower commission.  Of course, there is also less expense involved for the auction house.  The private sale commission rate has ranged from 7.5%-9.0% over the last decade.
The auction numbers are where you can have more fun playing with the numbers.  You rightly point out that the average commission last year was 16.3% (622.4/3809.7), the denominator representing “net auction sales”, aka hammer price.  What about that “reported aggregate auction sales” figure, though?  That number represents the hammer price plus buyer’s premium.  The difference between it and net auction sales represents the aggregate buyer’s premium paid.  That figure is $663.9M, or $41.5M more than the reported auction commission revenues. Why? 
I walked through the math with Sotheby’s investor relations, and got them to admit to me that the aggregate “seller’s premium” is negative.  In other words, Sotheby’s gives back more of the buyer’s premium to big-ticket sellers as a concession to win their consignments than it takes in as seller's premiums from the small fry.  This was always positioned to me as a “revenue opportunity” by the IR division, but the fact is the trend has been getting worse, not better (-0.4% of net auction sales, on average, over the last 5 years, vs. +1.1% over the previous 5 years).
The moral of the story is that seller’s commissions are for suckers.  They’ll always give you a line like “well, we can give you our dealer rate of 4%”, but the fact is I haven’t paid a seller’s commission in two years, and neither should anyone else.
As a final side note, the filings also provide a small window into the dealer world, since they break out the results of Noortman Master Paintings separately.  Excluding inventory writedowns (which have been substantial over the past few years), gross margins have been 25-30%, surprisingly low given the standard dealer practice of asking twice (or more) what they paid for a painting.  On an operating basis, the business is basically breakeven.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Explaining the Buyer's Premium, and a handy auction calculator

The buyer's premium is the fee added to the hammer price at auction, but don't be fooled by the term - it's really paid by the seller. Buyers decide how much they want to pay, and take off the premium to work out the maximum hammer price they're willing to bid. If the buyer's premium increases, they compensate by reducing the hammer price they are willing to pay. If a dealer is willing to pay £20k for a picture bought directly from a collector, they're not going to pay £25k for the same picture from auction because there's a 25% premium - the dealer can't sell for a higher price just because they had to pay a buyer's premium.  

The seller is paying for the auction house for its services. A higher buyer's premium means that the seller will receive less of the proceeds - so if you're selling through an auctioneer, focus as much on the buyer's premium as on the seller's premium. Over the past few decades there has been a shift from charging seller's premium to charging buyer's premium. Indeed, the average premium income at Sotheby's (buyer's premium plus seller's premium) was just 16.6% in 2011 and 16.3% in 2012, according to their annual report (p.25). Sellers sometimes even pay a negative premium - i.e. they will receive a share of the buyer's premium. Christie's doesn't publish these data because it is privately owned, but I suspect theirs is a bit higher because they sell more lower-valued lots that attract a higher premium. 

The shift to buyer's premium has been driven by competition to win consignments. Buyers can't negotiate - it makes no sense to agree a deal where the buyer pays a low premium, but the underbidder would have been charged the full premium. Negotiation takes place with sellers. But auctioneers don't make it easy for buyers to see what they're paying. Estimates reflect only the hammer price, but results include commission, making it hard to compare. Premiums are on a sliding scale, with different rates applied at different price points (e.g. 25% on the first £37,500 at Christie's, then 20% to £750k and 12% thereafter).

As the old master sales are approaching, I've made this handy Excel calculator, currently covering only Sotheby's and Christie's in London. You choose the venue from the drop-down box and enter the hammer price, and it will calculate the total price including commission, and also with sales tax on top of the commission. Some lots attract sales tax on the hammer price as well - you're on your own there I'm afraid! I can't embed the calculator in the blog (probably technological incompetence on my part), but email me at michael dot j dot savage17 at gmail dot com and I'll send you the sheet.

Auction Premium Calculator
Hammer Price£100,000
Price including premium£122,500
Price including premium and tax£127,000

And the other way around, this one calculates the hammer price from the premium:

Auction Hammer Price Calculator
Venue Sotheby's
Total Price £122,500
Hammer Price £100,000

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Taken to the cleaners

Picture: Sunday Times via Artwatch

Final installment of Michael Daley's devastating indictment of the Sistine Chapel cleaning is now available on the Artwatch blog. It's only online at the moment, but I do hope it gets published to ensure a permanent record. The research is meticulous and the argument simply overwhelming.  As he says of the details above:
if the after-cleaning state (as shown above right) had truly recovered the original appearance as left by Michelangelo in 1512, there could be no plausible explanation of how the painting might then have progressed towards the greater degrees of finish, modelling and sharpness that were seen (left) to have existed underneath the dirt immediately before the “cleaning”.
Scholars, curators and journalists were carried away by enthusiasm for the new Michelangelo who emerged from the cleaning. Tragically they weren't seeing a new Michelangelo, but rather the ravaged ghost of the old Michelangelo, wrecked by an aggressive programme of scrubbing that obliterated fine details and destroyed tonal relationships. Daley documents the vituperative attacks on the restorers' critics, and the argumentative acrobatics of their defenders. The reputations of some great scholars, like John Shearman, will forever be tarnished by their foolish support for this destructive restoration.  

Artwatch's uncompromising stance has won it many enemies, and even sympathetic observers have regarded it as somewhat bombastic. But, to borrow a phrase of Churchill's, you can't compromise between the fire and the fire brigade; there is no reasonable middle ground here. As Artwatch warned from the start, this restoration has wrecked one of the greatest monuments of human culture.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Window Shopping at Christie's

Head of a bearded man in profile holding a bronze figure
Picture: Christie's
I went to Ancient/Modern Masterpieces at Christie's at the weekend. It was billed as a 'curated exhibition', but was mostly just the most expensive upcoming lots from the major summer sales. It's a great way to see some of the best things on the market including some from categories I'd never usually see, like these unusual neo-classical candelabra.  

My favourite is this Rubens, pictured above, which was extended by Jan Boeckhorst.  I've seen it previously at the Ashmolean - it's a wonderful spirited head study.  The still life by Willem Claesz Heda is a good example of its type. They've often suffered badly from time and excessive restoration; this one had a landscape painted over the background at one stage. The meat pies that you often see in these pictures have often deteriorated to the point of illegibility.  The toast in this one makes a much better impression.  
Hannibal crossing the Alps on an Elephant
Picture: Christie's
This Poussin is widely illustrated, but not often seen. I saw it a few years ago when it was on loan at the Frick Collection. It's not a great Poussin - a big funny-looking elephant dominating the composition. But as a Poussin freak, I was glad of the chance to see it again. Don't think I'll buy this one, though. It's interesting to trace the depiction of elephants through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. From time to time they were seen in Italian menageries, and drawings of these live specimens must have been passed around widely. There are good examples from Raphael's school - Giulio Romano, for example - and there's one by Stefano della Bella in the Christie's Old Master Drawings sale.  In this Poussin, the head is reasonably elephant-like, but it looks like he just made up the body.  Maybe he saw something like this drawing now at Christ Church, which only shows the head, and in which the body does appear to slope like the Poussin.
Picture: MS

I suspect the clash of old and new in the exhibition - Basquiat and Rubens, for example - tends to confirm prejudices rather than open eyes to new things. I like Modigliani and Kandinsky, but I think they suffered next to the old masters.  And the price differentials are so bizarre.  There are lots of things that I wouldn't even hang in my bathroom that are estimated at multiples of the Rubens.  

A wooded landscape with a town beyond a bridge and distant mountains
Picture: Christie's
From the drawings sale, this Danube School landscape seems impressive, and strikes me as good value at its estimated range of £50k-£80k.  Quality and rarity are offset by anonymity, which may deter some buyers.  It would be a good purchase for a museum, which ought to be more concerned with intrinsic quality.  I'd recommend it to the Barber Institute - they have a drawings gallery where they stage regular exhibitions from their collection, so it would be seen widely.  The Barber has bought quite a few unusual things over the past couple of decades, focusing on areas poorly represented in British collections - this would be a perfect addition.  It wasn't in the Masterpieces exhibition, which was a shame - it would have been nice to see some of the more unusual and interesting lots alongside the most expensive bling.  But not long to wait - the main auction viewings are coming up soon.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Style and substance in T J Clark's 'Picasso and Truth'

Picture: Amazon
T. J. Clark Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica Princeton University Press 2013 

This is a good but unlovely book.  The prose is - to borrow a word often used by Clark - portentous.  It's sometimes painful to read.  But it's also quite wonderful.  His readings of Picasso's famous paintings from his greatest years are remarkably fresh and interesting given how much has been written about them.  Jump in to his description of The Blue Room from page 26 if you're not sure if it's worth the candle.  The compelling analysis of the paintings are really worthwhile, and his appreciation for the paintings as physical works of art (particularly the attention paid to size) is a welcome change from the analysis of JPEGs to which we've become accustomed.  The problem is the painful, arrogant and pointless theoretical baggage that deadens Clark's prose.

I struggle to put my finger on exactly where Clark goes wrong.  Sometimes the conversational style of these published lectures grabs my attention and draws me in.  But more often it's just ponderous and pretentious.  It's especially striking when you spot his hidden references, such as: "The room, for him, remained the unavoidable form of being-in-the-world" (p. 151-152).  The hyphenated term 'being-in-the-world' is from the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger.  Many of his readers will know that, but Heidegger is not cited anywhere in the book.  It establishes a false bond of complicity between author and cognoscenti, but it made me wonder what other references I'm missing.  But on further reflection I'm not sure that it matters, because the allusion to Heidegger is simply redundant.  

Elsewhere he writes that "in Leger's world objects have finally disappeared into their commodity form" (p.77).  I guess we're supposed to think of Marx here, but the sentence actually doesn't mean much at all.  He's making a contrast between Picasso's depiction of rooms containing objects and Leger's depiction of objects alone, like the difference between an interior by Pieter de Hooch and a still life by Willem Kalf.  The reference to commodity form is redundant so far as I can tell, and isn't elaborated by Clark.  Marx himself was more careful.  In the first chapter of Capital he defines the term 'commodity' carefully, and his subsequent use of the term is controlled and precise.  For example, Marx famously wrote of relations between people assuming the fantastical form of relation between things - things, not commodities.  I think Clark means things, too.  But he uses portentous words to make the point seem more profound.  

There are more.  "Desire is a will to power" (p. 230, Nietzsche), "world of mechanical reproduction" (p.272, Walter Benjamin), etc.  Every single example that I spotted is simply redundant.  When Clark discusses Nietzsche directly, he's quite interesting.  I even agreed with his overall assessment of Nietzsche.  But this is a book about Picasso, not about Nietzsche, and I never thought that references to German philosophers advanced his argument.  

On Picasso's bathers on beaches Clark remarks: "they are the pictures we have - in some sense our pictures, sharing our strange myth of individuality - of bodies belonging fully to a world; pictures of self-possession and self-movement; of elation and abandon and composure...They are images of identity in the making - of the body turning itself to others, without self-loss or abjection or mere ruthless projection of its wishes. In a word, they have life" (p. 230).  I've read those words in the context of the rest of the book - a book that I'm somewhat positively disposed towards - but I'm still not sure that I can explain them.  'Bodies belonging fully to a world' - as opposed to what? Martians?  Images that have life are those that exhibit identity in the making?  These aren't meaningless claims.  I sort-of understand what he's getting at.  But the points he's making aren't nearly as obscure as they seem in this tortuous prose.

Brian Sewell is one of my favourite art writers and in my view a great prose stylist.  But he over-uses certain old-fashioned words like 'panjandrum' (flashing red in the auto-spellchecker) and no doubt some people are put off by his obscure words and his raw assertiveness, which I relish as beauty and directness.  I find Clark's prose demanding and sometimes it seems unnecessarily obscure and theoretical.  But maybe the preference for Sewell's directness over Clark's ellipticism is just a matter of taste. The positive spin that we could put on Clark is that he's inviting us to think with him, being deliberately open-ended and provisional rather than closing down meaning.  Even if, like me, you think that's pompous twaddle, I'd still urge you to give this book a chance.  

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Sarah Conly's 'Against Autonomy' reviewed

Product Details
Picture: Amazon
Sarah Conly Against Autonomy: Justifying coercive paternalism Cambridge University Press 2013

Paternalistic public policy is in vogue at the moment and much has been written about how governments can promote the best interests of their citizens. But there has been a bifurcation in the literature. On one side paternalists have developed and evaluated tools to intervene most effectively, without pausing much to consider the legitimacy of these interventions. On the other side, critics of paternalistic intervention tend to have a more philosophical bent, challenging paternalism's legitimacy rather than its efficacy. This book crosses the divide. Sarah Conly takes up the philosophical argument for paternalistic intervention, and indeed presses for a more coercive paternalism than is often advocated.  

I find coercive paternalism anathema. But I relished the challenge posed by this book, and I think she makes some strong arguments that liberals must confront. In particular, I accept her claim that recent research on human cognition challenges the model of autonomous agency that Mill worked with. Obviously I don't consider it a fatal challenge. Models of human subjectivity have developed and changed considerably over time. Some psychologists imply that there was a monolithic model of human agency that was unchanged through time until their recent experiments, but even the most cursory glance at the history of philosophy shows that to be untrue. Our understanding of both the limitations and the possibilities of human agency has always been more flexible. But this is the background to Conly's book, rather than its substance. I will focus on three areas where I think Conly's argument is wanting, to wit: her attempt to define reasonable limits on coercive paternalism, her attempt to justify coercive paternalism as democratically mandated, and her attempt to define effective forms of policy intervention. 

Scope of intervention
Cognitive biases mean that we often act in ways that are inconsistent with achieving the ends that we seek for ourselves. People want to be thin and healthy, but they smoke cigarettes and eat burgers. Conly argues for intervention to make it harder for us to succumb to activities that prevent us from achieving the ends that we've chosen for ourselves. She draws a firm distinction between paternalist intervention in support of ends that we have chosen, and  'perfectionist' policies that seek to impose externally chosen ends.   

But distinguishing between our legitimate will and the illegitimate effect of habit is harder than it sounds. St Augustine recognised this when he prayed "Lord make me good, but not yet." Ends and means cannot easily be distinguished. We would all choose thin and healthy over fat and unfit, but that doesn't mean that we're being irrational or acting against freely chosen ends when we buy chocolate bars, choosing a life enlivened with small treats rather than the austerity of behaving healthily at all times. And is it always irrational to choose hedonism? I know lots of people who lived riotously at university, but quit smoking and cut down drinking when they settled down. I don't think those choices were cognitive errors; indeed, some people might have benefited from letting their hair down a bit more.

Conly treats opposition to marijuana and alcohol as being examples of perfectionism, yet she "would recommend we get rid of cigarettes" (p.33). So far as I can tell - and the explanation is never very clear - the difference is just that cigarettes are Very Very Bad for you. There are some specific references to nicotine addiction, but lots of people are able to quit smoking, whereas some people become addicted to alcohol. It's a fine distinction at best, and it strikes me that the fashionable phobia about tobacco is precisely an example of perfectionist politics. There is no clear principle to apply in distinguishing between perfectionism and paternalism, other than the erratic prejudices of the paternalist.

Elsewhere the argument seems to be that coercive paternalism is justified in areas where people won't mind very much: "Requiring that people ... don't buy cigarettes, that they don't eat things with likely lethal effects, doesn't seem to interfere with the basic life choices rights are intended to protect, even in those cases where such requirements fail to benefit" (p. 65). I'm not sure what kind of 'basic life choices' Conly would see as protected, but I recoil from her presumption to know which of my choices are 'basic life choices' and which may legitimately be frustrated by legislative diktat. Banning cigarettes does seem to me to interfere with basic life choices, and interfering with my diet even more so. But the wider point here is that even if I don't care much about the effect of any particular policy on me personally (and as a reasonably fit and healthy non-smoker, I'm not really her target), I value autonomy and freedom for their own sake. Conly anticipates this argument, but rejects it brusquely by claiming that we shouldn't worry too much about the impact of proposed intervention.

Elsewhere the argument is blurred by co-opting debates about commonplace forms of government regulation into the discussion of paternalism. She makes the understandable claim that she would prefer someone else to decide between different options for things like insurance and mortgages (p. 90). The need for government regulation of certain business activities - including the sale of insurance and mortgages - is almost universally recognised. But this quotidian consumer protection seems to me different from the case for coercive paternalism. 

The scope for regulation to solve the problem of 'tyranny of choice' is in any case limited. The reason we still have choice is that innovation and competition is beneficial, and regulators understand their own fallibility in choosing the best products for all consumers.  I hate shopping for clothes, but I don't think the state should paternalistically choose a uniform for us all to wear. There is a balance to be struck between regulation and the market, and in some cases governments do step in to provide a universal service (such as the British National Health Service). But this is all rather tangential to the case for coercive paternalism.

Justification for intervention
Conly is attuned to the risk of putting experts in charge, recognising that they share the same cognitive biases as the rest of us. But she doesn't articulate how we can reach democratic agreement about how we choose to be coerced for our own good. Once the principle of coercive paternalism is established, what is to stop a majority banning activities enjoyed by unpopular minorities? How do we determine if a particular restriction is 'democratic' as opposed to being sanctioned by experts? These are old debates with huge literatures, but breezily dismissed in this book.  At times she implies that a democratic mandate is sufficient. At other points, the rhetorical commitment to democratic rather than expert coercion seems only skin deep: "if we constrain action only in order to get the person to do what he would want to do if he were fully informed and fully rational, this may seem unproblematic" (p. 43). So we must presumably defer to people who are more fully informed and fully rational - or experts, as they're often called.

Law intervenes when there is a conflict between wills - the wills of two parties to a commercial contract, for example, or between the criminal will that wants to wreak havoc and the general will that seeks to preserve order. Conly proposes to use law to intervene between conflicting drives within ourselves. Law will arbitrate when our immediate desires interfere with our chosen ends - "external agency will enter into our decisions about actions that affect no one but ourselves" (p.77). We're all familiar with difficult internal conflicts, whether about major life choices or simply whether or not to eat that last biscuit.  Putting that internal conflict on a par with conflict between worked out and coherently articulated wills of individual subjects in legal disputes is a scary thought.  It gives the state license to determine what's best for us, obliterating the idea of circumscribed paternalism or democratic legitimacy.

The creepy idea of 'habituation' seeks to inculcate virtues in the citizenry, sometimes by the 'encouragement' of law. This reverses the proper relationship between government and governed, by giving government a mandate to use its powers to re-shape the people and make them behave in officially sanctioned ways.  The whole justification of paternalism smacks of wishful thinking.  Conly's focus is on determining what governments should do to and for the people.  Hard questions about how to persuade people that they should be coerced, or what to do if they elect governments that coerce in ways inimical to Sarah Conly, are not addressed.  

Effectiveness of intervention
Conly's focus on the normative (is it right to intervene?) rather than the positive (does intervention work?) re-balances the debate, but positive claims about specific policies bear a lot of argumentative burden and she does not recognise the extent of underlying controversy.  Claims about the legitimacy of paternalist intervention are irrelevant if it cannot be made to work.  Conly recognises this in the prominence she gives to case studies of particular proposed interventions. The most striking proposal is that cigarettes should be banned. Given the costly failure of bans on alochol during prohibition, and the damaging and ineffective war on drugs, it's hard to take this suggestion seriously.  

Banning trans fat is presented as the strongest example of justified intervention - with "almost nothing reasonable to be said against it" (p. 152). But that rather reverses the ordinary burden of proof, implying that everything should be banned unless you can make a case against it! The evidence on trans fats is weak, certainly far out of proportion to the extent of government intervention and public debate on the issue. But even if we allow it, it strikes me as a category error in Conly's argument. Cigarettes are consumed directly, and wearing seat belts and motorcycle helmets are immediate actions taken by citizens. But no one decides that they especially want trans fats with their meal. Trans fats are used in the food industry mainly because they reduce the cost of food preservation.    

Seat belt laws are invoked at a number of points as an example of an obviously beneficial paternalist intervention. There's even a picture of a seat belt on the front cover. But the effectiveness of seat belt laws is much disputed. Road death rates do fall after introducing seat belt laws, but they tend to fall in line with a widely recognised secular tendency for road death rates to fall over time (in fact in the UK the trend bottomed out after introduction of the seat belt law!). Worse still, evidence suggests that rather than producing an absolute reduction in harm, seat belts shift harm from drivers to pedestrians, because better-protected drivers instinctively compensate by taking greater risks. John Adams, Emeritus Professor of Geography at University College London has written extensively on this - here, for example.

Elsewhere she mentions the potential $96 billion saving if tobacco were banned, being the annual healthcare cost attributable to smoking-related illness (p. 181). But this putative saving is widely recognised as nonsense. It doesn't take into account the fact that if people don't succumb to tobacco-related illnesses, they'll be susceptible to other chronic illnesses later in life. And they'll need other forms of expensive social care later in life.  It's obviously a good thing for people to live longer, but it's unlikely to save the state money.   These examples show that the benefits of paternalist policy may be illusory. But they also reveal the author's own cognitive bias. Her prior belief in the efficacy of intervention has dulled her critical faculties when considering policies.  

Final thoughts
Conly recognises that paternalism and liberalism are uneasy bedfellows, and spots the flaw in Thayler & Sunstein's Nudge
"rather than regarding people as generally capable of making good choices, we outmaneuver them by appealing to their irrationality, just in more fruitful ways.  We concede that people can't generally make good decisions when left to their own devices, and this runs against the basic premise of liberalism, which is that we are basically rational, prudent creatures who may thus, and should thus, direct themselves autonomously" (p. 30).  
I think that's right, and it accounts for my objection to being nudged.  But Conly misses a weaker formulation of the Thayler & Sunstein case that is more persuasive.  This is the claim that choices are never neutral; they are always already framed in ways that nudge us towards a particular decision. Therefore the decision to tinker with the 'choice architecture' just means that we are being more thoughtful about how we are directing people, not choosing whether or not we should direct people.  That argument derives strength from its very modesty.  No grand claims about human nature are necessary here.  It forces critics to engage in argument about detail rather than principle.  In developing a more philosophically robust case for paternalism, Conly may ironically have weakened the policy case for intervention.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Against Photography

Picture: Guardian
I think the National Gallery is right to prohibit photography.  Every museum should ban photography.  That seems to be a minority view today, but I think it's more important than ever to resist the intrusion of photography into art galleries.  The clamour in favour of photography is becoming increasingly insistent; many people assume it's obvious that we should be allowed to take pictures in museums.  But they are focusing their criticism on bogus arguments, and failing to address the more substantive harms.

First, let's dispense with the spurious arguments against photography.  The evidence that flash photography harms works of art is weak.  I lack the expertise to evaluate the research, but the consensus seems to be that paintings will be fine.  Another argument is that museums need to protect image rights, but I believe that use of images for private and academic purposes should be free.  We should also reject the daft idea that photography is a security risk, as if anyone with the wherewithal to steal from a museum won't be able surreptitiously to take a few secret snaps of air vents.  Let's get down to the real issues, which are about the effects photography has on the experience of viewing art.

People taking photographs in museums is distracting.  Even non-flash photography can be a distraction, with those annoying electronic shutter sounds.  But once photography is allowed, it's almost impossible to stop people using flash.  Some particularly barbarous galleries have given up, and now permit flash photography.  Flashes of bright light are inherently intrusive and prohibit more contemplative viewing.  Sometimes flash photography makes it impossible to see anything at all.  Maybe I'm especially sensitive, but I find that flash bulbs burn my eyes for several minutes.  I can't see anything except spots of light when flashes are going off all the time.  And it's not an exaggeration to say 'all the time', as any visitor to the Louvre can attest.

Once photography is established, and especially in the larger museums, it becomes the defining activity.  People line up to get the same shots, or to take pictures of themselves posing with the artwork.  At the Louvre I saw people line up to get pictures of themselves holding the hand of an ancient statue.  At the British Museum the greatest works of art are reduced to mere props that people lean against and sit on to get the best picture.  It's ironic that a recent article defending photography argued that guards are better able to protect art when they're not distracted by stopping people from taking pictures.  In practice, exactly the opposite seems true. National Gallery guards are generally quite alert and attentive, whereas at the British Museum they allow any manner of dangerous indignity.  The act of actually looking at pictures becomes frowned upon, because it gets in the way of people getting their photos.   

I do recognise that banning photography restricts the freedom of museum visitors, and I can see lots of good reasons for taking pictures (to illustrate this blog, for example).  I'm especially interested in how museums display their collections, and it's good to be able to get a record of how pictures are hung and framed.  That's a real and lamentable loss of utility.  But in my view it's a price worth paying; taking pictures is a secondary activity to looking at pictures.  It's sad to see most (really, I do mean most) visitors to the Louvre doing nothing other than taking pictures of famous paintings that they don't stop to look at.  They're taking signals from other visitors, and deciding that that's the thing you do in museums.  I've noticed people paying much more attention at the National Gallery, which probably has a similar visitor demographic.  Prohibiting photography is actually good for many visitors - it makes them look instead of snap.

That sounds horribly condescending, and utterly against the grain of conventional thinking about museums.  I know that many reasonable people will recoil from this argument.  But permitting photography in museums is a specious liberty.  In a free society, people should be able to determine the ends they wish to pursue;.  Banning photography in public spaces would be outrageous.  But museums are not fully public spaces.  They are, quite rightly, governed by rules to support their special purposes of collecting, preserving and displaying art.  Removing rules in museums and treating them as spaces where people may behave as they wish has not promoted liberty; it has demoted art.  

The point is more easily grasped in related arenas.  No one would seriously suggest that it's acceptable to chat on a mobile phone or take pictures with flash in a theatre or a concert hall, because those activities so obviously conflict with enjoying the performance.  Some philistines still try.  Pianist Krystian Zimerman recently interrupted a recital because he was so distracted by a member of the audience filming him on a mobile phone.  But some people find it elitist to suggest applying similar standards to museums, which are instead expected to accommodate themselves to whatever any patron desires.  That strikes me as demeaning.  It lowers our expectations of art and diminishes our enjoyment of museums.