Thursday, September 5, 2013

The value of authenticity

Business Insider has an article about a new technology, 3D printing that replicates paintings, and the implications are interesting. The article focuses a lot on worries that the technology will threaten the art market. These concerns are misplaced for at least three reasons.

First and foremost, the ability to more easily satisfy demand for fine art including "priceless" masterpieces is a feature not a bug. Certainly those who have invested in art will be worse off in direct proportion to the magnitude that this new technology offers a good substitute. But that is simply a transfer from those who own the art to those who would like to own the art. We would have that same effect if we simply took the art from the current owner and gave it to someone who wanted it. But where that property-rights violating transfer probably is utility reducing since the one who loses the art probably valued it more than the one who received the art, this technology is utility enhancing since it creates value on net. The owner still has the art. Someone who values it for less than the current owner wished to relinquish it prior to the technology's advent now has greater access to it--the price of purchasing the art is lower and hence may now be in reach. And others can enjoy the art by replication in a way not previously possible.

We would see the same effect if we stumbled upon a second Mona Lisa truly painted by Leonardo da Vinci. The Louvre might be upset, but the world would gain a second painting of artistic value. The loss in value to the first would be more than displaced by the gain of now having a second.

Second, the value of art is inherently the value of the creation, not simply the monetized utility of those who yield satisfaction from owning, viewing, possessing, etc. the art. Great art has value even if no one is around to appreciate it. The most popular band is not necessarily the band with the best musical artistry. The best food is not made and could not be made for mass consumption. There really is something to expert opinion on matters artistic rather than appeal to popularity--the so called ad populum fallacy. Unfortunately for those in the business of art and art investment, this technology serves to decouple somewhat the artistic appreciation from the financial appreciation.

Third, having more art more widespread enhances us culturally. The promise of this technology advances the football considerably. Greater availability and exposure means more minds can appreciate, admire, and aspire. The economies of scale are the initial effect. The substantial secondary effect is to deepen the market for art. Music is more widespread today than ever by orders of magnitude. At the same time music appreciation, depth, quality, and variety are greater than ever and growing at a compounding rate.

The lesson here is that sharing and duplication continues to be the future. Only the selfish suffer.

It is also interesting how this technology will serve to clarify the value of authenticity. We will now be better able to see how much the average patron really likes a particular painting versus how much the average patron really likes authenticity. We might also learn a lot about how popular certain artists and works are removed from the rarity via authenticity of the work itself--for example, how many people will be hanging Picassos in the living room? And if no one really likes to look at a particular work, does that imply a change in value? I've thought for some time that a future with machines building mastercrafted furniture, art, clothing, etc. will create a world where the truly old and authentic takes on heightened meaning. But a counter force to this is not just how much easier and cheaper it is to preserve antiques (both yesterday's and tomorrow's). It is more strongly how uninteresting authentic may become when everything old is new again.

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