Follow Here To Purchase Image vs Artifact in Contemporary Art

Author: Michael Dyer

ISBN-10: 1502904276
ISBN-13: 978-1502904270

The discerning mind has a supporting role in art appreciation, but usually it is the eye we are attempting to train. That’s a very dicey process. Professor Dyer, a computer scientist, has challenged himself to design a rational means for placing value on art works, specifically, contemporary works, the value of which – indeed, the point of which -- so often eludes the casual viewer. If you are willing to plough through his mathematical proposals – formulas that may (if you were an English major, like me) seem just as elusive as abstract paintings -- you will come out on the other side understanding that he is sharpening his wits and ours to join the ongoing discussion about what art means in our society. Making the distinction between art as image and art as artifact is the imperative first step.

I came to this subject eagerly after six months in London absorbing the ever-changing environments of the major art museums. In that time I also read the thoroughly depressing (though excellent) SEVEN DAYS IN THE ART WORLD by Sarah Thornton, chief correspondent on contemporary art for The Economist. About 75 pages into Dyers argument I lost my Smarty Pants attitude and started to appreciate his incisive examination of how we might approach a work of art to place a price on it taking into consideration our unique sensibilities. Its ability to intrigue us is one of the dimensions he suggests for judging images, and one most of us probably have not thought about. Watching visitors in a museum gave him the idea that a face-tracking system might be employed to gauge the power of an image, counting the minutes individuals gave to it.

Complexity, framing, scale, historical innovation, and conceptual content also must be considered, but those are easier to understand. We can turn to books and interpreters for help. He delves deeply into each of these aspects contributing to our “fluency” as viewers. In part, his mission to encourage us to trust ourselves, and not rely on information concocted to sell the works to the highest bidder.

It is the vested interest of auction houses, galleries, museums (who sell holdings to support their operations), and collectors, that drives the prices upward. Dyer reveals some disturbing practices, such as maintaining high prices on works that do not sell so as not to devalue them. Some galleries will increase those prices to appeal to a different (status-seeking) crowd. He cites the opinion of insider Charles Saatchi (gallery owner) that billionaire patrons won’t argue price points with the arbiter of taste who will help them “appear refined, tasteful and hip.”

After examining numerous influences on a painting’s value, including a certificate of authenticity, the author, who is also a songwriter and glassblower, contrasts the business of artificially improving the market value of paintings with the business of making music. There are no artifacts. CDs and downloads cost very little, and success is through wide distribution. He also shows how the measurable elements of paintings and music are alike. This is thought-provoking. Dyer the scientist flies way above my head in his discussion of the future of art and technology, especially artificial intelligence, but others of you will be intrigued.

You might think establishing value is important only to someone buying or selling art. I now think it is essential for anyone who spends $15 to get into a blockbuster exhibition, and especially for a teacher who herds 40 students through any National Gallery while they are continually texting. There are other recent books about art and economics (notably, “The $12 Million Stuffed Shark”), but Dyers’ take on the subject is timeless. First and foremost, it is a great demonstration of applying mental exercise to satisfy one’s curiosity about how we assign value to experiences that are new to us. In fact, IMAGE VS ARTIFACT would make a lively integrated curriculum textbook for high schools. It teaches art, economics and computer science (math), all subjects resisted by lazy learners, by employing critical thinking, a skill that everyone should cultivate.