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Art Prices, Extraterrestrials and the Value of Speculation

We’ve all been there.

At some point, you’ve had to take a topic seriously— or at least to pretend to — because someone close to you takes it seriously.  And it would damage your relationship to let on that you think the subject is, well… lacking in merit.  (Vulgar synonyms welcome.)

I had this experience for a few years with the high-falootin’ world of art criticism.  My girlfriend-at-the-time was working in modern art sales, and a big part of her job involved giving serious attention to rambling, reference-dropping, overwritten justifications of why one painting was worth thousands, another tens of thousands, another untold millions, and still others only no more than the canvas they embarrassed with their presence.

It seemed obvious to me that the signal-to-noise ratio in these art criticism pieces was heavily tilted in favor of noise.  Basically what I was hearing (and when I was a particularly devoted boyfriend, reading) was a high school popularity pissing contest with baroque vocabulary.  This painting is worth what I say it’s worth, and I’ve got the multisyllabic histrionics to prove it.  Your move.

The Rules of Engagement in the trade were that nobody could break the sacred trust and acknowledge it was all a matter of taste.  Unless you could find another person who values your art more than you do, you’ve bought a very expensive rectangle of wallpaper.  But no one on the inside could acknowledge this.  They’d be sawing the table-legs out from under their own career. 

So rhetorical battles would wage.  Rivalries and vengeances and countermoves would accrete in layers.  And this massive intellectual edifice of price-justification would balloon in complexity…

And meanwhile, I’d get to hear the daily blow-by-blow from my stressed-out girlfriend — who made it chillingly clear that our continued relationship committed me to honoring the Big Lie that fine art sales wasn’t just a game for rich suckers who couldn’t disentangle their financial investments from their home decor choices.

Ultimately, that relationship wouldn’t last.  Looking back now, I think my girlfriend’s faith in the foundational tenets of fine art sales was wavering, and I wasn’t helping.  She was a drowning swimmer, and I was offering an anchor. 

Pick a side.  I’ll take “Yeah-huh.”

The funny thing is, despite my feelings about art sales, I love a good esoteric argument.  I love debates.  I love watching moves and countermoves and seeing people work within established rule sets but still finding ways to make unexpected moves.  This is high drama, and it’s fascinating.

This is also what all games and sports are based on.  The adversaries agree to a set of ground rules before they match wits against one another.  If you and I can’t agree that three strikes, you’re out in baseball or that below-the-belt punches aren’t cool in boxing, we can’t play a proper game.  Anything we do would just be an anything-goes bar brawl masquerading as sport.  (Calvin & Hobbes fans will remember the exhausting and violent game “Calvinball,” which exemplifies this fluidity-of-rules.)

Art sales irked me because, under all the veneer, it’s a marketplace based on taste.  And there’s no accounting for taste.  There need not be underlying value, double-entry bookkeeping, actuarial tables, or anything more definitive than “because I say so” to back up a claim. 

And that is okay. 

That’s what we mean when we say “it’s a matter of taste.”

But admitting that art valuations were only a matter of taste reduced the art-sales middlemen (and women) to mere merchants instead of how they preferred to think of themselves: an ennobled intelligentsia who could look at the same painting as you or I could, but then use their special powers to discern obscure but numerical layers of value.  (As for you and I, we could peer into their crystal balls for a reasonable fee paid from the seller’s side of the final transaction.)

The Battle of the Rival Infinities.

I was reminded of the art sales universe recently, while reading a book about aliens.  Not because the fine art crowd reminds me of unblinking, hairless, effete humanoids who aren’t from around here (this may also be true) — but because scientists examining the problem of are we alone in the universe? face a similar “he said, she said” dilemma.

Ultimately, the winner — the one who convinces you — is awarded based on a gut-check, not on an established bedrock of rules.

Aliens is a book of essays by top experts in a variety of fields (mostly scientists, but also people who study cultural history, film criticism, etc.) looking at various angles on Fermi’s Paradox. 

The Paradox — stated with impressive brevity by physicist Enrico Fermi in 1950 — encapsulates a big problem in just three words: 

“Where is everybody?”

In other words: If the universe is so darn big, and we don’t accept that Earth is the site of a special, divinely-mandated Creation, then where the heck is all the other life “out there”?

The book’s various chapters are written by “alien optimists” and “alien pessimists.” In reading it, the reader gets a tour through the various qualifications possible to answer the seemingly straightforward question “Are aliens real?” 

For example:

  • You might believe that life in the form of microbes (Earth’s bacteria and archaea being local representatives) is probably common in the universe — but that multicellular life is the real bottleneck.  This jump of complexity, rather than life itself, was the fantastically unlikely dice-roll where Earth won big.  Complex multicellular life might never be replicated, even in all the star systems out there.
  • Or you might believe that the universe is sprinkled with intelligent life, but our current SETI-search for interstellar radio signals is delusionally short-sighted, like someone from the 17th century expecting aliens to transmit messages using a quill pen.
  • Or you might point out that time travelers from the future not having arrived in the present is a good argument that time travel will never be invented.  Following that logic, along with the fact that Earth produced intelligent, space-faring life in under 5 billion years, we should really be seeing a big universal party that we’re arriving to late, since countless billions of planets got a head start on us.  The fact that we’re not seeing one is strong evidence for the “we’re alone” camp.
  • Or you might favor a strict interpretation of the Anthropic Argument: We find ourselves in a universe miraculously configured for our type of life because (duh!) where else could we possibly find ourselves?  But while the universe accommodating us is a matter of logical necessity, that doesn’t mean the universe owes us any equally unlikely playmates.

Aliens is a book whose authors are aware of the limitations to their arguments.  If, 100 years from now, we haven’t found alien life, we’ll still have all the same reasons for hope that we have today.  Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.

But reading the thoughts of very smart people circumnavigating a topic where the answer is “we just don’t know” is a trip worth taking.  Unlike the art valuation world, there are real answers — even though they’re unknown to us at present.  But like the art world, the arguments are complex and challenging (in a good way), and the underlying subject matter is fascinating.

Ultimately, the book’s back-and-forth boils down to the following:

Alien life is (almost) infinitely unlikely.
But the universe gets (almost) infinitely many tries.
So whose infinity is bigger?

None of the essayists claim to have a “correct” answer.  But the multidisciplinary evidence they trot out to support their opinions…that is art worth paying for.

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Aliens book

edited by Jim Al-Khalili

The world’s leading scientists from a variety of domains – and more than a couple non-scientists with an encyclopedic knowledge of aliens in pop culture – discuss the latest thinking on the Big Question: “Are we alone in the universe?”

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