The NBA Lockout and the Art Market

bullets The NBA Lockout and the Art Market

Jonas Wood's "Bullets" (2007) (Photo: Anton Kern Gallery)

“Pro sports teams are a lot like works of art,” New Yorker scribe Malcolm Gladwell writes in an article on the NBA lockout, published on ESPN’s tony new Grantland.com site.

According to Mr. Gladwell, NBA owners, who are trying to trim player salaries in response to declining profits, are treating their teams like straightforward businesses, ignoring the psychic benefit–surplus pleasure above and beyond simple profits–that they derive from them.

This psychological enjoyment, Mr. Gladwell writes, is the reason why a team like the Warriors, which was valued by Forbes at $363 million, recently sold for $450 million.

The Tipping Point author uses the art world to provide a succinct explanation of of his point:

“The best illustration of psychic benefits is the art market. Art collectors buy paintings for two reasons. They are interested in the painting as an investment… And they are interested in the painting as a painting — as a beautiful object. In a recent paper in Economics Bulletin, the economists Erdal Atukeren and Aylin Seçkin used a variety of clever ways to figure out just how large the second psychic benefit is, and they put it at 28 percent. In other words, if you pay $100 million for a Van Gogh, $28 million of that is for the joy of looking at it every morning.”

Art collectors acknowledge that psychic surplus when purchasing artworks, Mr. Gladwell says, while team owners do not. Indeed, art collectors generally deny the investment value of their purchases: pleasure alone is, at least ostensibly, supposed to be the reason for an art purchase.

Mr. Gladwell emphasizes:

“Basketball teams, of course, look like businesses. They have employees and customers and offices and a product, and they tend to be owned, in the manner of most American businesses, by rich white men.”

We’ll let you decide the degree to which those observations apply to the art world.

Update, 4:00 p.m.: As a colleague notes, the basketball and art worlds have collided frequently over the years. David Hammons made a basketball-hoop sculpture, Jeff Koons suspended basketballs in aquariums in early pieces, Haim Steinbach placed Air Jordans on one of his shelves and Jonas Wood has painted basketball scenes. (An example of the latter is posted above). And in 2009, NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal curated a show at Chelsea’s FLAG Foundation. The exhibition’s title was “Size Matters,” which is also the name of a combative essay by artist Robert Morris.