The winner-take-all economy is ruining art, too
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The winner-take-all economy is ruining art, too

I was on the whole disappointed by this year's Whitney Biennial -- it was hard for me to tell if one video installation was art or an HR training video -- but as an economist, I have to admit the exhibition was successful in at least one respect: It did what art is supposed to do, which is to hold up a mirror to our society and economy. And this year's biennial shows how America's elite institutions are stifling innovation and creativity.

The theme of this year's show was to use artificial intelligence and the "rhetoric around gender and authenticity" to "explore the permeability of the relationships between mind and body, the fluidity of identity, and the growing precariousness of the natural and constructed worlds". I liked some of it, but I was not alone in my disappointment. Some critics also complained that much of it was predictable and risk-averse.

It is unfortunate that artists, known for their unconventional politics and a solidarity with those unseen and discriminated against, now have views that have been adopted or even outpaced by mainstream cultural institutions and corporations. If artists want to offend or provoke, they need to do work that will truly shock their audience -- say, an installation sympathising with the Jan 6 protesters. But it is doubtful an artist pushing those kinds of boundaries would be accepted to the MFA programme at Yale, let alone get representation from a well-regarded New York gallery, never mind catch the attention of a curator at the Whitney.

This is the problem with the winner-take-all economy. Contemporary art, like other industries, offers big financial rewards to just a few stars. For everyone else, it is nearly impossible to make a living. Becoming the Taylor Swift of the art world requires jumping through a series of hoops arranged by elite institutions. This is true in many fields, but it is especially true for art in part because it is often hard to judge what makes art valuable.

The value of art is not simply a matter of taste. To be sold at prominent galleries and to appeal to collectors, artists require the approval of the establishment. This is why the biennial is so important. But establishment institutions -- even ones, like the Whitney, that seek to define the edge of culture -- have become much more timid and intellectually homogenous.

Of course, you can still be an artist and promote your work online. It is notable that many critics say that better art -- more interesting work that actually makes use of AI, for example -- can be found online. It's just harder to make a living this way.

In many ways this mirrors what's happening in the rest of the economy. There are a lot of ways to be successful, but working at a top firm in your field -- whether it's law, technology, consulting, banking or something else -- requires institutional buy-in, the right educational pedigree and the appropriate kind of experience (internships, extracurricular activities, hobbies, that kind of thing). The result is a class of like-minded people acting as gatekeepers for a system in which they themselves are heavily invested.

Yes, this is mostly an elite concern. Most Americans don't aspire to be famous artists or partners at Goldman Sachs. But it is important because more than ever, the economy is dominated by a few super-productive firms.

Their scale means they are the ones who are pushing innovation forward and setting the standards for culture and commerce. And with a few notable exceptions, among these firms innovation is stagnating and risk-taking is getting harder. Even scientific advancement, which also has become more winner-take-all and risk-averse, has slowed. Creativity still exists, including in art, but at the highest levels, the system squashes it.

The result is a strange dichotomy. On the one hand, it has never been easier to get noticed. You can go online and become known for anything, from your art to your financial advice. The barriers to entry have never been lower -- and this ecosystem does seem to reward creativity. At the same time, the economic upper echelon has never been harder to crack, and it rewards people who play it safe.

The US economy rewards scale, so that top tier is still crucial. The question is how long this bifurcated system can last. If the commanding heights do not continue to inspire or create, will they remain important? Which brings me back to the Whitney Biennial. If it continues to be predictable, it will lose its status as the place where collectors and top galleries can see what is provocative and new. (In the past, the biennial has served as a launching pad for artists such as Georgia O'Keeffe and Jackson Pollock.)

The erosion of establishment authority, which is not unique to the art world, can be unsettling and even a little demoralising. But if it allows more talented people to become successful by following less conventional paths, then the American economy will become more democratic -- and more productive. ©2024 Bloomberg LP

Allison Schrager is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering economics. A senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, she is author of 'An Economist Walks Into a Brothel: And Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk'.

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