Thursday, May 26, 2011

The 'Summer of Sequels,' Information Costs, and Museum Exhibits

Or: Why You Won't See a Nicolas de Largillière Exhibit, But May See Many of Joshua Reynolds.(1)

Costs of obtaining information incurred in consumption can explain both the recent prevalence of sequels and, at least partially, the choices by curators of museum exhibits. Consumers incur information costs in finding out a base level of necessary information about the movie or artist they are going to 'consume.'(2) Consumers incur less information costs when consuming something that has already become familiar to them, either through prequels or previous exhibits. Curators and movie producers, as experts in their field, are not as constrained by information costs as consumers. Instead the information costs of the consumers affect the choices of the 'producers' as they try to reduce barriers to consumption. Great curators attempt to introduce their audience to new artists or at least new aspects of these artists, but are still constrained by the willingness of their audience to incur information costs. 

Figure 1: Nicolas de Largillière, Elizabeth Throckmorton, 1729

Due to the prevalence of sequels set to release this summer-I was able to count 12-some have termed it the "Summer of Sequels." Commentators have accurately attributed this phenomena to laziness. However, instead of the supposed laziness of the producers, who would have to work the same amount whether on a new film or a sequel, I suggest that it is because of the laziness of the audience.  Viewers know what to expect when they see Hangover 2 or Pirates of the Caribbean 4, the same thing they've already seen one or three times respectively. If they have seen the previous movie(s) the information costs are practically non-existant, whereas new films require the (small) cost of researching some basic information about the film.

This same analysis can be applied to museum exhibits.

Today a portrait by an artist I was unfamiliar with stopped me in my tracks as I was walking toward a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds hanging next to it, the image was literally arresting. A different portrait by this artist,  Nicolas de Largillière, is pictured above and can be compared to another portrait by Joshua Reynolds pictured below. 

Figure 2: Sir Joshua Reynolds, Anne Bingham, 1786
Though it is a matter of taste, I find Largillière's faces (including Figure 1) to be more charming than those by Reynolds (including Figure 2). Their immaculate detail, modeling, and rosy cheeks give them true vitality. The image of the face reached out beyond the clothes that framed it within its specific historical and cultural context and I was able to engage it directly as a human face. And I am not alone in my attraction to his work. It is featured in the collections of New York's Metropolitan Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, the Louvre, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. In his day he painted such notables as the King of Poland, the Infanta of Spain, and even Voltaire. There is no doubt that he is quite well-respected among enthusiasts of rococo portraiture, but outside this rather small group he is often overshadowed by rococo contemporaries such as Boucher or Fragonard and portraiture followers such as Reynolds. 

Though Largillière arguably matches or exceeds the artistic ability of Reynolds, I argue that the information costs that the audience would have to incur prevent curators from presenting such an exhibition to their audience, at least for the moment.  These costs of gathering information also explain the phenomenon of the "Summer of the Sequel."  It is unlikely that all the producers suddenly became lazy, or that alternatively all the writers stopped coming up with new ideas. Instead it could be accounted for by a growing recognition of the laziness of the audience in terms of gathering information about movies before viewing them. It may be that this is peculiar to the summer, when groups of consumers who hadn't invested time into learning about and watching films now look for entertainment. In the same way, the big-name museums which present to a broader public which likely has less knowledge of artists than the audience of a small or specialized museum will avoid imposing information costs on their audience, instead exhibiting artists they are already familiar with. 

(1) Most famously the 2005 exhibition at the Tate, "Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity."
An exception is the "Exposition N. de Largillierre," at Paris' Palais des Beaux-Arts, but the fact that this exhibit was in 1928 supports my point.

While the lack of recent Largillierre exhibits creates an information cost to the public, the celebrity of the recent Reynolds exhibit decreases information costs to the public.

(2) "Information Costs": The costs in time and energy spent to gather information.  If information on a subject is relatively scarce, information costs will be higher.

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