Art and Hype

May 3, 2012

I’m frequently in conversations with musicians — composers or performers — who bemoan the subordinate role that ability and quality of output may often play in their success or obscurity. It’s not only having a industrious and cunning publicist that makes the difference; it can be just one work that catches the imagination of the media or public and propels a career.

The whole subject has been on my mind since the news that The Scream by Edvard Munch sold for an astounding $120 million last night. Whatever determined that price, it was not the artistic quality of the work. As Clyde Haberman says, “If you’ve never seen a tacky facsimile of it, there’s a chance that you have also never seen a coffee mug, a T-shirt or a Macaulay Culkin poster.” If they weren’t paying for art, what were the buyers shelling out all that money for? An economist nails it: “Whatever was being bought, here, it wasn’t really art, in any pure sense. It was more the result of a century’s worth of marketing and hype.”

It’s not only in Hollywood or Washington that name-recognition rules.

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