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Art as Ponzi scheme

The Economist can't get enough of MMORPGs, which are, in case you are not glued to your computer screen pretending to be an halberd-wielding elf, massively multiplayer online role-playing games. But the magazine has had a story on them in seemingly every issu this past month. Perhaps the reason is that business writer Edward Castronova (He works in academia but The Economist bills him as a gaming expert) recently wrote a semisensational book about these games (EverQuest, Ultima Online, etc.) regarding how real value is produced in these fictional worlds, such that there are people in China playing them all day long to produce things in the game that can then be auctioned on eBay for real money. This seems absolutely insane, because what is to stop the game's designers from introducing more game stuff into the fictional world at no cost or effort and selling it themselves? In fact, hyperinflation rules the economies of these faux worlds, because new value can be created with no natural limits.

The same thing is taking place in that other contrived land of imagination, the art world. Harper's this month has an excerpt from The Economy of Prestige, by James English (PopMatters reivew ), which documents how the "endless proliferation of prizes" the culture industry awards itself has destroyed our collective sense of artistic value. The prizes generate more prizes, highlighting new gaps in the firmament, some new similar microniche to exploit. Consequently, every culture worker worth anything has a list of prizes on their CV or resume to promote themselves, and the prizes themselves have no meaning beyond self-promotion, if they ever did. And that's the real point of prizes, in English's opinion. "The constantly reiterated charges of illegitimacy not only help to keep the prize a focus of attention but also foster the collective belief in some more perfect, less political realm of artistic judgement." Prizes are so obviously corrupt and self-serving that they make us dream of the awarding the real award, the one we would assign that would be based entirely on merit. And then we get to go out and do just that, with the ultimate prize: dollars. English writes, "The increasing self-consciousness of scandal suggests that today we find ourselves suspended between the enduring impulse to revere art and the rising temptation to regard it and the cultural institutions that surround it as a kind of vast and inescapable Ponzi scheme."

Anyway, artistic judgement is always political, always couches a system of values that transcends art and orders our social lives; that is why art has anything at stake, why people are interested in it in the first place. It manifests social values we are either trying to reject or promote or explicate or modify, and it provides a surrogate field, a MMORPG-like laboratory where these values are much more malleable than they are in reality. And like the "farmers" producing EverQuest characters in China and selling them for real money, the art world produces social ideas that escape their cloistered world and have a real effect on how lives are lived. Prizes are red herrings that make us think art is a competition, a pursuit of excellence, so that we don't notice its far more humdrum and insidious accomplishments -- it actually performs the drudgery of laying out what limits there are to our thinking, circumscribing what we can conceive as possible.

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