Economic Models for Art History?

Christopher Ho, an artist friend of mine, and I were discussing recently how to map out the state of contemporary art (this is something that takes us back to grad-school days and the semiotic-square, which now seems so outre that we must indulge in it behind closed doors), and we got onto the topic of methodological models which have been useful, even definitive, to historians and critics in the past. These should be widely familiar by now: Marxism, psychoanalysis, structural linguistics, anthropology, to name a few of the more influential disciplines. Art history, we thought, could do with an infusion of new blood, so to speak. (This idea may be highly unpopular, that art history needs models from other disciplines to fuel new insights; but one must admit that many of the most significant historians and texts within the field have derived that significance from cross-disciplinary borrowings. And why not look around a bit?)

Given, it seems, everyone’s obsession with the market, Christopher suggested that we should be looking much more closely at the one discipline whose raison d’etre is developing conceptual models: economics. This, we agreed, would require a lot of work: though certainly highly intelligent, art historians aren’t given to the kind of thinking that goes with economic expertise. We both thought that there would necessarily be some text which could establish the framework through which art historical insights might be derived. What that text is, we don’t know. I suggested Jeffry Frieden’s Global Capitalism (Norton, 2006) as a place to begin, especially given Frieden’s positioning of the gold standard as fundamental to the growth of global capital in the 19th and 20th centuries. Of course Walter Benn Michaels’ The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism (1987) has tread some of this ground already. But Frieden’s book is more historical than theoretical, and it doesn’t offer the kind of structure that is easily imported from one intellectual terrain to another (a prime example here being Frederic Jameson’s borrowing of Ernest Mandel’s phases of capitalism from the latter’s Late Capitalism [1972]).

Perhaps whole texts are not what we’re after, though. James Surowiecki’s column in a recent New Yorker discusses the economics of strikes and mentions work by Linda Babcock and George Loewenstein on “self-serving bias.” This bias alters, quite literally, how and what people see, and it works as a kind of cognitive override of direct perception. Now it seemed to me that we’re familiar with this kind of concept from Arnheim’s (gestalt) psychology of perception, which had its day in the 1960s and, as we know, was important in the early discourse of minimalism. (I also think it’s a subset of Wittgenstein’s discussion of “seeing as” from the Philosophical Investigations, which formed the basis of Richard Wollheim’s Painting as an Art.) But perhaps the Babcock and Loewenstein study may round out, update or, more importantly, trouble these ideas of perception, especially as they move the locus of inquiry from the individual subject to a site of intersubjective conflict (the economists’ study entailed the judgments by two different groups of fans of whether a football game was called fairly). Needless to say, this may be a productive line of inquiry.

One Comment

  • Catherine Spaeth

    Thank you, Jonathan,

    I’m really gald that you wrote about this work, it is very engaging, little strips of shag carpeting stapled across the threshold of broken glass windows, facing and directing us like the modernist panels of a pavilion exhibition left to ruin.

    I just started doing this as well, writing on a blog because the pay and the lag of magazine writing is so poor. Like you, I am interested in a broader critical perspective and this isn’t what the New York Times is looking for.

    I’d appreciate it if you’d visit my blog:

    http://catherinesartours.blogspot.com

    I also liked your expressed desire to reach for “theory”, above. I still like those French a whole lot, a lot of interest in the Tel Quel crowd, because their notion of interdisciplinarity is so different than the one you express – I like it that they were still caught up in “What is a book?” and at the same time could write a history of shit. And so at the base of your question I want to hear “What is art criticism?” but maybe, like the Lacanian square, that’s an uncool question?

    Anyway, check out my blog! It’s a little bizarre, but you may like “Mimicry’s Convulsive Tics.” I don’t really care for Laurie Simmons a whole lot, so description rather than judgment is paying off here, and sometimes in the face of that, judgment doesn’t matter anymore. Do you have that experience in your writing?

    Catherine Spaeth

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