Nietzschean evolutionary psychology

I have a strange habit of looking for bargain books. Why is this a strange habit. Because it looks awfully like a false economy. After all, even if you don’t read a book through, just reading a few chapters might take you an afternoon, the full book a few days. So it’s looking pretty silly to economise on the buying price of the book – and save, say $20 when the constraint that matters is one’s endowment of time not money. Ben Franklin rightly said that time was money, but it doesn’t work the other way round.

In any event, the thing is, it’s not working out too badly. Normal bookshops peddle the latest thing at high prices for a few months, then it disappears. And in the remainders bookshops like the Book Grocer – where everything is $10 or a tad over $8 if you buy five at a time – while there are quite a lot of duds (lots of the biographies are dreadful) there are some real gems, often about a decade old but which are no longer cool and recent enough to make it into the higher margin bookshops.

Recent highlights from this style of buying include, Non-Zero, Building Jerusalem, Paul and Jesus, Roads to Modernity. All really interesting reads. But right now I’m reading a great book written in around 2000 called The Mating Mind.  It’s thesis is adequately summed up in this review:

Evolutionary psychology has been called the “new black” of science fashion, though at its most controversial, it more resembles the emperor’s new clothes. Geoffrey Miller is one of the Young Turks trying to give the phenomenon a better spin. In The Mating Mind, he takes Darwin’s “other” evolutionary theory – of sexual rather than natural selection – and uses it to build a theory about how the human mind has developed the sophistication of a peacock’s tail to encourage sexual choice and the refining of art, morality, music, and literature.

Where many evolutionary psychologists see the mind as a Swiss army knife, and cognitive science sees it as a computer, Miller compares it to an entertainment system, evolved to stimulate [attract] other brains.

As I was reading the first chapter outlining his approach - which I find very persuasive, and more to the point pregnant with insight into all manner of things, not least how impoverished much contemporary social science is, I found myself thinking of Nietzsche. the word Nietzsche is typically associated with mad ‘superman’ theories of history. But what I’m thinking of is Nietzsche’s conviction of the ponderousness and self-importance of much enlightenment thinking. The lack of irony and self-insight with which people imagine they are on a search for truth. Of course the idea that human intelligence and its cultural accoutrements are not adaptations to the wild, an increasingly clever Swiss Army Knife, but rather the startling and thoroughly arbitrary outcome of a runaway process of positive feedback – peahens picked fancy tails and women picked humour, musical and story-telling smarts as markers for fitness? Well that’s a bit of a comedown.

As Nietzsche puts it in the brilliant opening of Beyond Good and Evil:

Supposing truth to be a woman – what? is the suspicion not well founded that all philosophers, when they have been dogmatists, have had little understanding of women? that the gruesome earnestness, the clumsy importunity with which they have hitherto been in the habit of approaching truth have been inept and improper means for winning a wench?

Or as he put it in less allusive terms early in his career:  Continue reading

Artists Resale Royalties: a piece of pie…

The ARR scheme so far has cost taxpayers just over $2.2 million and as of December 2013 has delivered a total of 7,800 royalty payments, to 800 artists (or estates) with a median value of about $105 per payment. The scheme has, in three and a half years, only generated a total of less than $200,000 in management fees. It is unlikely that the scheme will be self-funding any time soon, if ever. And what has this costly public art project delivered? A make-work scheme for arts administrators, a restraint of trade and what is essentially an anti-progressive tax: the more you have, the more you receive. Below is a pie chart of resale royalty distributions by value. Note: the construction of the pie chart needed a few ‘extrapolations’ where information from previous years is used to categorise the latest data. These extrapolations might not be perfect.(see footnote below)

The pie chart makes it clear that royalties on resales of individual artworks for more than $10,000 each, account for 59% of all the money collected, yet these top rank payments – about 550 in total -  only account for just 7% of the total number of individual payments of the scheme. (BTW many thanks to Paul Fritjers for the tasty pie chart.)sales by price

On the other hand the bottom 44% (2,946) of individual payments have only accounted for just 9% of all the money collected. The median value of this bottom bracket of payments is about $55; the average individual transaction cost to CAL, alone, is $30.The only point of these thousands of very small, costly payments is to conceal the real, anti-progressive nature of ARR. Continue reading

Artists Resale Royalties: on bullshit, part three

Australia’s Artists Resale Royalty (ARR ) scheme has so far cost taxpayers $2.2 million in direct support. And over many years the publicly funded lobbyists for this scheme, headed up by the National Association for the Visual Arts  Ltd, have additionally spent a lot of public money on lobbying for their scheme. ARR is a very political project. It is imposed by law on a lot of small ‘sole trader’ businesses; it imposes quasi-compulsory collective management on artists and also imposes a restraint of trade on an art market where profit margins are generally quite thin. ARR is not an ‘art project’.  

The fact that these publicly funded arts organisations have, for years, been free to use public money, intended for art projects, to conduct a very partisan political campaign really rankles.

The lobbyists for compulsory ARR are involved in a ‘last ditch’ lobbying campaign for their compulsory ARR scheme to “continue”.  As always there is a lot of fudge and misleading by omission to their advocacy. In particular they continue to claim that the majority of royalty payments, to date, have gone to indigenous artists: in this case to date is a very very large lump of fudge.

In the first years of the scheme’s operation, most of the royalty payments raised were on resales of indigenous art. However because resales of indigenous art make up only about 10-15% of total art resales by value, it is inevitable that in time more and more of the royalty payments will come from the resales of non-indigenous art. And it is also inevitable that the distribution of royalty payments by value must, eventually, map to the universal truth that when it comes to the resale of art: artworks by the top 20 artists most favoured by the market get most of the money and the next 80 or so of bestselling artists get most of the remainder.

The agency charged with administering the scheme, the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL), recently released some updated figures and information about the operations of the ARR. I also note that this detailed information was not made available at the time of the ARR review process. The following analysis is based on the figures provided within that report.

Generally speaking, analysis of the top 21 payments confirms that this scheme is already starting to follow the usual market pattern: a handful of sales of a handful of top 20 artists  constitute most of the total value of art resales and therefore most of the total value of collected Art Resale Royalties.  This is despite the fact that the scheme apparently only currently affects about 10% of resales (according to CAL’s report). Obviously as the scheme starts to affect more and more of the majority of  art resales, the skewing of the distribution to a handful of artists such as Whitely, Nolan, Williams etc will inevitably become more pronounced. It would only take the scheme to collect another 10 to 20 high-end sales in the next year, for it to push the distribution to the handful of artists most favored by the market towards 30% or more.

The breakup of the top 21 resale royalty payments is :

Continue reading

What have they got against us volunteers’ way of life?

Campaigners seem to be having some success in raising the profile of writers and others giving away the product of their labour for free. The first time I ran into this issue in any big way was in launching the Government 2.0 Taskforce with a design competition. The prize? The love and adulation of the community. Now the case against being asked to do stuff for free has made it onto Books and Arts Daily on RN, where after a nervous start, I thought the editor of the new Daily Review did a good job.

I was surprised last night to follow a tweet by libertarian Russ Roberts to this takedown of TEDx. When this guy explained “Why I’m Not a TEDx Speaker” I thought he might be about to decry its relentless drive down market. But no – it was because he wasn’t going to get paid.

Now Julia Baird weighs in and my friend Tim Dunlop is seeking advice.

Ok, some advice please. I just got a request from a book publisher to reproduce a piece I wrote a while back. It will be in a book for use in secondary schools, a collection of essays on Australian politics with a print run of 2000. While they ask for copyright permission, they are very careful not to mention payment.

So my question is, do I ask for some sort of payment on the basis that writers should be paid? Or do I make an exception because it is being used for educational purposes?

You can read others’ comments on his thread. But I reproduce my own to begin the debate out in the open rather than inside the walled garden of Facebook, which, as I point out in my comment, has the temerity to have Tim writing for it, yet all the while not paying him a cent! Not only that but all those commenters arguing that publishers should pay their contributors, well there they are, giving away their own writing, the sweat of their brow.

I’m shocked: shocked! Continue reading

What’s on? A Troppo Initiative starting with the British Film Festival

This image came up on a Google search for “What’s On”. It’s from The Central Tavern at Springfield Lakes, wherever that is. Seems nice enough, the cocktails can be very red by the looks of things, though there does seem to be quite a breeze blowing there. But I digress.

I’ve complained before about the strange state of the world. On the one hand we can set up fabulously useful markets for stuff on eBay and Amazon where you can not only find just what you’re looking for (if it’s available) but are also made aware of things that, based on what you’ve previously bought or liked, you might like, but you can’t get the same service for events on around you. And here the market for events is divided into the heavily marketed standard fare – mainstream films, and Big Arts for instance – and the not so much. Of this there’s what you might call ‘mainstream arthouse’ which is also heavily marketed, and then there are lots of other events like festivals where there are once off events. And here you’re at the mercy of the marketers of the festivals. For instance the British Film Festival started last night and had a film on that it said was pretty swish.  The reviews say it’s pretty horrible, but you have to do a bit of work to find that out.  True, with Google, it’s much less work than it used to be, but then there are a lot of events on. And I would check out perhaps one per cent of those events.

Meanwhile the government which should be in the business of funding public goods is nevertheless in the business of subsidising private goods.  It subsidises the Art Gallery to further its own interests and feather it’s own nest, and the Recital Centre, and the ABC and the Opera and so on. They’re all taking to the internet with their cool new apps. But that isn’t solving the problem, but rather replicating it. Why? Because us users continue to receive a service that’s fragmented which wastes our time and misleads us with marketing bumph rather than addressing our needs (to mainly go to events we’re likely to like.)

But there you go. Complaints are only ever surfaced so as to spur action to solve them – that’s one of our corest of core values on “Our Values Charter” at Troppo. So I’ve asked Anoop, Lateral Economics’ designer-cum-research-assistant in India to do the basic legwork necessary to produce a schedule of a film festival with our interests as potential patrons in mind. So instead of the marketing bumph on the official website, I’ve asked Anoop to go find the two best reviews he can find, and to put up the synopsis, and links to the trailer denoted by this iconTrailer  and the best reviews together with their ratings either as expressed by them in stars out of five, or as they have rated them themselves. So below the fold you’ll find the schedule for Melbourne. It immediately demonstrates the difference between marketing bumph and reviews. The opening movie is described on the official website as “A superb, celebratory crowd-pleaser, with a gorgeous performance from the affable Corden as an inspirational nobody who dared to follow his dream against all odds.”. Maybe that’s right, but you should at least know that the Guardian reviewer reported it as being a “weirdly miscast. . . treacly, tepid heartwarmer”. The bad news is that with this kind of shoestring operation, you would probably have liked to know this before last night when it was on.  But the rest of the festival is similarly unlocked for you. Imagine if markets in information actually worked a little more directly to actually help consumers! It really shouldn’t take much.

Melbourne Schedule

@Palace Cinema Como

Wednesday 20 November

7:00pm One Chance (Opening Night)Trailer
Triumph follows adversity follows triumph follows adversity in dizzying fashion in David Frankel’s contrived but still affecting biopic of Paul Potts, the phone salesman from Port Talbot who became the first winner of Britain’s Got Talent.
☆☆☆☆☆   The Guardian
☆☆☆☆☆   The Independent

Thursday 21 November

Labors damaging legacy to the visual arts

The following quote is from an article published in London’s Financial Times on October 4. The article is further confirmation that the previous Labor government’s gratuitous interference in the art market has had a devastating effect on sales and its legacy is continuing to prevent recovery.

The Art Market: Australian art gets thumbs-down   by Georgina Adam

The market for Australian art is small, worth about A$100m (about US$93m) a year at auction, and has “levelled off” at that value, says Mark Fraser, chairman of Bonhams Australia. …..

He says that three factors are dogging the market: the introduction of a resale royalty scheme (which levies 5 per cent on the resale of works of art over A$1,000, with no upper cap) and changes to pension fund rules, which have led some collectors to sell off their holdings. Finally, he says: “The market for Aboriginal art has really taken a huge hammering since export bars were introduced, because the biggest buyers were in the US and Europe.” He concludes: “Psychologically, people here are more reticent to get involved with art, because of this government tinkering. It’s unsettling – they wonder if there will be further regulation.”

It is important to remember that Australia’s art resale royalty scheme is running at a significant net loss to government and that the changes to the rules on art in SMSFs have  trashed the value of a significant number of pre-existing personal super investments for no good reason. All art has been devalued by this process, and a sector of the market has vanished. These policies have created increased costs to government, not just subsidies to the costs of the collection society, but also in the need for increased subsidies to the indigenous art centres to cover the loss of sales income caused by these same policies. And, at the same time they have greatly reduced the size and viability of the independent tax-paying visual arts sector.

It should come as no surprise that when governments enact damaging and pointless regulation of art, a discretionary commodity that is not a health, safety or national security issue, it creates broad anxiety and distrust in the market about what further interferences a government might simply do on a whim.

The net result of these policies is that they have driven many legitimate, committed art businesses to the wall. In the words of long term artist and gallerist Christopher Hodges of Utopia Art Sydney:

“Since the introduction of the resale royalty, there have been more commercial galleries, representing living artists, close their doors, downsize or amalgamate than in my memory… diminishing all our opportunities.”

The real covert purpose of the lobbyists for the artist resale royalty was always compulsory, monopolist, collective representation of artists as well as the creation of subsidies to self-appointed representatives of “art”. In the face of clear evidence that the advocates for the scheme were mired in conflict of interest, that the scheme was intrinsically unviable and that numerous studies, including the Access Economics report, stated that the scheme would not be of net benefit to living artists, Labor’s willingness to even contemplate legislating for such a purpose was and still is deeply troubling.

For background info : With friends like this’: Labor policies and the commercial, independent visual arts sector

The Review of the Resale Royalty Scheme: or A classic case of what Niskanen spoke about.

The Review of Artists resale royalty scheme Part II

The Review of Artists resale royalty scheme Part III

Design as a counter-narrative: Presentation to a workshop on arts participation

Here’s a presentation I gave to a conference called – unhelpfully – Art for Art’s Sake.  It was actually about new approaches to participation in the arts, about finding ways of connecting people to the arts – and the arts to people – which go beyond the traditional arrangement of government subsidised Grand Purveyors of Culture getting bums on seats to consume High Art. The day was spent with presentations from five arts practitioners in the morning and then three people from outside the arts in the arvo.  Those three people were me, an economist, a scientist and a non-partisan political campaigner from OurSay.

When the organiser rang me I was rather taken aback that she’d want me to speak, but she mentioned her topic and I said that I’d always thought about what I did as involving careful listening to people and trying to interact with it in terms of one’s preconceptions of what made good policy – always trying to update that as one went along. She liked the sound of this and I said I could describe the construction of the Button Car Plan as an exercise in that method. She liked that idea but I wondered whether it would be quite what the arties were looking for. When I saw some of the earlier presentations from the artists I got pretty excited about what some of them were doing and decided to talk about our work at the Australian Centre for Social Innovation as you will see from the presentation above.

Other materials to help you understand the talk are the slides I spoke to (ppt) (hastily cobbled together from other slide packs I’d constructed previously) and here is the video I showed during the presentation.

A review of the government’s new model Indigenous Art Academy

On Friday 9th August Nicolas Rothwell published this article in The Australian on the state of indigenous art in Australia.  Nicolas’s  article details how, over the past 6 years, the old free market indigenous art sector has largely been replaced by a state backed official Indigenous cultural academy:

…..the private-sector market collapsed. What replaced it was a new kind of state culture network,  funded by new or expanded programs: programs for remote community arts infrastructure, for research into indigenous societies and for their cultural support.

This new system is now entrenched. It has four pillars: central co-ordination; frontline art-making; downstream gallery display; and a dependent knowledge industry. These pillars interact, and support each other. They are well-funded and thus largely shielded from the pressures of the marketplace……….Trends in Aboriginal art-making are increasingly shaped by state galleries and public collections, and by the culture bureaucrats who guide them; artworks are supported by government-backed programs, made in approved and sanctioned studios, then bought with public funds.

Nicolas then goes on to conclude the article by talking about the visible effects that this official academy model for indigenous culture is having on the quality of indigenous art:

Tact is necessary in this well-presented, stage-managed new Aboriginal art scene. Revival, progress and reconciliation are the stock themes. There is no space to dwell on pervasive features of remote community life: welfare dependency, marijuana abuse, youth suicide and domestic violence.

He speaks of a particular kind of change: “a slackening, a dilution” and of “new, conformist work being made, in its vastness of scale and its odd mimicry of contemporary trends in mainstream art”. For an artist such as myself, well versed in the origins of modernism and its painful struggle to break free of the 19th century Beaux Arts Academy, none of the effects that this burgeoning official  Academy is having on the quality of indigenous art is that surprising; it has happened in other places and times. In about 1850, Eugene Delacroix in his journal, described a particularly typical academic artist contemporary  as “a conscientious servant of the art of boredom”.  Tasteful laborious boredom (and often a added measure of gangsterism) is exactly what all Academies are all about.

What does surprise me, a bit, is the idea that any elected 21C Australian federal government would consciously even contemplate systematically funding the imposition of a central planning model of Art/cultural management at all – I can only assume that the government really had no idea what ‘they’ were doing.