Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Art, Luxury, and High School

My recent musings on Hasselblad's strategy led me off on some odd paths lately.

Luxury products are a curious thing. On the one hand, generally they're perfectly good products. The clothes, the luggage, whatever it is, is usually of high quality. But it it worth 10x or 100x the moderately inferior version from the budget department store? What does that even mean? The value of it, the "worth", is a social construct. YSL products, Bulgari products, Prada products, are worth it because people will pay that much for them, and they will pay that much because of the perceived worth of the products.

There's a whole cloud of interlocking social/human stuff involved here. Because it's expensive, being seen to own it projects wealth. But merely being expensive isn't enough. It's of good quality, being seen to own it projects good taste. But quality is not enough. There's a whole system of self-reinforcing social construct that makes a Bottega Veneta shirt "worth it". It's good quality -- and is perceived to be. It is expensive -- and is so perceived. It is, most importantly and by tacit agreement among the tacitly elected taste-makers, an Object of Desire. Objectively, a Rolex watch is an absurd, pointless, anachronism. In context, it is a social signifier of real depth.

If you're trying to launch a luxury product, there are certain things that are a nearly certain kiss of death, most notably building a genuinely shitty product, or a product that is obviously the same as another, much cheaper, product. See also Hasselblad's Lunar and Stellar products. Success is much more slippery.

This is analogous to the same situation in Art. To succeed, your Art generally has to hit certain notes (originality, limit-pushing, etc) but that is not sufficient. Certain things are probable kisses of death -- being an obvious copy without at the same time hitting the Appropriation Gong in the approved fashion, that sort of thing.

And, interestingly, it has a lot of the same earmarks as high school popularity.

The taste-makers in high school are elected by some mysterious alchemy. Who are those popular kids, and what makes them popular, and why does anyone give a shit what they think? Everyone knows who they are, everyone feigns disdain, and everyone feels the weight of their rulings fully. It's possible to guarantee failure in high school society - join the chess club. It's not possible to guarantee success. Some of the ingredients of success are obvious, you have to try pretty hard, but not too hard. Hair and makeup for girls, fitness for boys. Wear the right clothes, but don't be too obvious about it. Be deferential to the powers that be, but not too deferential. Don't be a wuss, don't be a jackass.

None of this, though, guarantees success. It's a marketing campaign for a luxury product, you. But when you're 15 and you have a non-existent budget and no understanding of what's going on, success will likely elude you, unless you have the right stuff pretty much built in to your psyche.

It's a little more predictable in the product world. There are methods you can use to test your ideas and designs. There's a budget available to really dress the thing up right, and so on. Most importantly, you can hire people who actually know what's going on.

Lest we get too carried away and sneer at these purely social constructs as lightweight irrelevancies, let me point out that Money is pretty much the same deal.

Consider all these social constructs, they're basically the same sort of construct. Within the high school, the football star is often near the top of the pyramid. Outside of high school, in a larger social context, he sometimes becomes nothing at all. Inside your camera club, John's pictures are Superb, Excellent. Outside the camera club, they're derivative garbage, available by the trainload from any number of web sites. The point here is that social constructs depend on the social context.

If you want to succeed, to the tune of a billion dollars (the usual measure of success here is "booked revenue") in the luxury market, the only social context that really matters is the nouveau riche of China and Russia. These people follow the lead of certain others, so in a sense that they tend to set the taste, the elite of Europe and the USA are also included. Someone selling terribly expensive shoes does not care about the society of Springfield High School, although to the second-string athletes at that august institution there is very little that matters more.

Success, therefore, is a slippery thing. You want your pictures to be loved? By whom, exactly?

The entire world isn't going to like them, almost certainly. That social context is too broad to agree, if roughly, on anything but the most basic things. The Art Buying Elite of NYC, LA? Of Europe? What about the South Americans, there are some fortunes south of the equator that are creating some pretty interesting collections. How about the Chinese elite? While they might well follow the Euros as they do on watches, there might be some wrinkles there. China has a pretty long history of Art, after all, which probably comes in to play.

Is it enough if your friends like your stuff? What about paying clients?

If you look around the webernets enough, you'll find people claiming that pretty much any of these actually is the definition of success, and others asserting something very much like the opposite.

Luckily, you get to decide.

The one thing you can't do is fake it. In any and all of the above there is, of course, a degree of artifice. The popular girl isn't as confident as she looks, she's desperate and scared sometimes too. But she believes in the narrative of her on top, with all her heart. She believes in good hair and high heels with every fiber of her being. As an artist, you can be scared and unsure and worried that it's all shit, but somewhere, down deep, you've got to believe in your pictures.


  1. Disphotic also puts it well:

    "Belief, faith, whatever your want to call it, manifests (itself) as an almost irrational confidence that what you do matters in spite of what might be the commercial unsustainability or the artistic unfashionableness of it. This faith needs at times to border on delusion, and to many who observe you from a distance it may appear as such, or perhaps as arrogance. At the same time there are only ever limited supplies of this belief, reservoirs you draw on in times of inner or outer doubt, when you need that last bit of energy to push something that little bit further. Rejection drains those reserves and leaves you with little to show for it, rejection makes it hard to continue.

  2. I think all this status seeking is basically atavistic behaviour which dates back to our primate ancestors (you know, the stuff about alpha males etc.). This is probably the reason why there is no reasonable explanation why some are the cool dudes and others aren't.

    Myself? I tend to question authorities since quite often the emperor turns out to be naked. Seeking validation of oneself or one's work through those people's judgement is a recipe for unhappiness.

    Disclaimer: I'm probably just dissocial and arrogant.

    Best, Thomas

    1. Thomas,
      Antisocial and arrogant?
      Welcome to the club!!
      Goes back to the days when we Brits ruled the world!! LOL
      Where in Germany are you based?
      I came to Canada from a short(7 years)stay in Ingolstadt(good old Bayern); spent some of my happiest days there.

    2. Dave, I live in Essen (in the Ruhrgebiet, in the very west of Germany, where the sun collects dust). You're originally from the UK? We've had several nice vacations there - four times in England (1 x Cornwall, 3 x Northumberland), and once in Scotland. We found the Brits to be nice and friendly people, and enjoyed our stays there a lot. This summer it'll be Scotland again.

      Best, Thomas