Sunday, 1 December 2013

Save the Selfie ... or buy the picture?

Self-portrait by Van Dyck, 1640/41 © Philip Mould & Co.
Picture: The Art Fund/Copyright Philip Mould & Co
The National Portrait Gallery seeks £12.5m to buy this Van Dyck Self Portrait. This is exactly the kind of picture they should be going after; historically important and artistically great. I hope they get it. But the 'Save the Selfie' trope rankles. It's not a selfie and we're not saving it. As Ben Street points out on Twitter, it isn't going to be destroyed if they don't raise the money. But there is some sense behind the marketing.

Psychologists recognise two kinds of bias that relevant here: the 'endowment effect' and 'loss aversion'. In a famous experiment students were split randomly into two groups. One group was given a mug, and asked how much they'd be willing to sell it for. The other group was shown the same mug, and asked how much they'd be willing to pay for it. Classical economics would assume that the price quoted by each group would be the same, but psychologists discovered that people want more money to give up something they own than they would pay to own it in the first place (which explains why we're offered so many 'free trials'). The logic here is that by presenting the Van Dyck as something that is already in some sense part of Britain's heritage, we're raising money to avoid losing something we already have rather than buying something new.

The theory of loss aversion recognises that we are willing to pay more to avoid a loss than to make a gain. If you give people a choice between $100, or a coin toss that pays $200 on heads and zero on tails, most choose the certain $100. But given the choice between a certain loss of $100 or a coin toss where you lose $200 on heads, zero on tails people prefer the coin toss, hoping for the avoidance of loss. Again, classical economics expects no preference. Unfortunately it illustrates the limits of the 'saving for the nation' strategy, because we often end up paying too much for the wrong pictures. The relentless focus on 'saving' pictures that happen to have ended up in the UK has distracted us from buying the kind of paintings that never made it here in the first place. And waiting until it was sold to a foreign buyer rather than buying it directly has cost millions. The marketing is astute, but they should recognise that it's marketing based on cognitive biases - i.e. mistaken thinking.

There's some logic to campaigning to 'save' the Van Dyck, but pitching it as an early 'selfie' just makes me cringe. It's not just that it's crass, it's also the misguided attempt to get people to relate to the picture as something familiar. They underestimate their audience by assuming we can only relate to great historic art by relating it to something contemporary and commonplace. Part of the point of art is surely its transcendence, its ability to take us beyond the mundane.

I'm a bit grumpy about the marketing, but I'm completely behind the campaign. It fits the NPG collection brilliantly, and it's a really first-rate painting. Come on people, let's buy that picture!

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