Why is Bob Dylan's art worth less than Damien Hirst's?

In which we look at which kinds of artists make the most money, what kind of drug Tik-Tok is, and where to start with Beatles books.

I’m not talking about Dylan’s paintings but his primary art form - his songs. On hearing that he has sold the rights to his catalogue for $300 million, my question was, why so little? Given that Dylan is one of the most important American artists of the last 100 years, if not numero uno, it feels like his collected works ought to be valued more highly, no? I mean if you set out of acquire the entire Damian Hirst catalogue you’d have to spend a lot more than $300m. Christ, I wouldn’t be surprised if Banksy’s oeuvre set you back more. This raises the question of which art-forms are more financially valuable and why. I suppose the reason a Damian Hirst shark is worth so much is that it retains what Walter Benjamin called the aura of a work of art - “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be”. In the age of reproduction we’ll pay even more for that aura - that’s why the art world is so obsessed with authenticity. The equivalent for a musician is his or her physical presence. In an age of infinitely available reproductions of songs, via streaming, musical artists now make more of their money from performing - from being at a time and place where audiences can partake of their aura. But while Hirst can produce lots of sharks and other works, Dylan only has one Dylan to show people at his shows (aura is why people still go to see him - I don’t think it’s for the music at this stage). The other cross-disciplinary comparison here is with storytellers. Paul McCartney, say, has accumulated about a billion dollars in wealth; George Lucas is worth six or seven times more than that. The most lucrative form of artistic production, by far, is the creation of fantasy worlds which can be spun off into many different forms and formats (see here for more on this).

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  • Superb critique of a new BBC history of Africa. More broadly it’s about how (excuse the shorthand) “woke” interpretations of history end up reproducing the prejudices they purport to overcome.

  • The best bodily position in which to watch TikTok is supine, muscles slack, phone above your face like it’s an endless tunnel into the air.” A finely written essay on the experience of using TikTok. If Twitter is Coke, TikTok sounds more like heroin (I do not speak from experience). Bonus mention of Benjamin’s aura.

  • FACT: “Zoom was the #1 most popular iPhone app in the US for a staggering 68 straight days this summer, which set an all time popularity record for any app in iPhone history.”

  • Interesting backstory on how the QR code was invented. QR stands for ‘Quick Response’, who knew. For more on how play and games lead to innovations, read Steven Johnson’s wonderful Wonderland.

  • The scientific understanding of the virus advanced over the year and it can be hard to keep track of what we know. This piece is a lucidly written summary of where we are on that. Oh and here’s a good thread explainer on how mRNA vaccines work. I don’t have much to say about the current UK situation because my position is similar to most commentators - the government shouldn’t be relaxing the rules just as the virus is taking off again. One way to change course gracefully (if it’s not too late) is to say, “Our vaccine programme has gone much faster and better than anticipated. One more sacrifice now and we’ll be able to relax the rules sooner.”

  • Click here to watch the violinist Nicola Benedetti playing Beethoven in a concert from November 30. It costs six quid (or less with discount) and for that you get one of our best violinists playing a totally sublime piece of music. And you get to support classical musicians.

  • The UK’s woodlands now cover as much of the country as they did during the Middle Ages. 98 other reasons to be cheerful here.

  • Great question and interesting answers: how do woodpeckers not have permanent concussion?

  • Interview with Samuel Beckett in which he doesn’t speak.

  • An exquisite 30 seconds: Billie Eilish playing McCartney’s I Will.

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Merry Christmas!


I’m happy that Julia Galef’s excellent podcast Rationally Speaking is back after a hiatus. As most of you know, my new book is about the art of better disagreement (you can read about CONFLICTED and pre-order it here) and one reason I love listening to Julia’s conversations with experts is that she is an absolute master of disagreement. First of all, she’s not scared of it. Most interviews with authors are basically “tell me about your book”. That’s fine, but Julia really interrogates the book’s argument, probing for contradictions and blind spots. Superstar academics like Michael Sandel and Angus Deaton are not used to this, and you can hear them responding as if they’ve suddenly been asked to retake their viva. Second, she does it in a spirit of good humoured curiosity - she disagrees in a way that invites her interlocutor to enjoy the disagreement, and not to take it personally (even if not all of them feel able to take her up on this). Third, she focuses on what the disagreement actually is - she seeks out the argument beneath the argument. Just following these conversations - or trying to - is a great workout for your brain.

In the Christmas edition of the New Statesman I have a review-essay on Netflix. The book in question is No Rules Rules, is by the company’s founder and CEO, Reed Hastings. Instead of a conventional business memoir it’s about the company’s unique workplace culture, which sounds genuinely different and interesting. (Pertinently, from my point of view it’s in part about cultivating honest and open disagreement, laterally and vertically.) I also look at how Netflix got so big and where it wants to go from here.

This is a very good podcast interview with the investor and entrepreneur Daniel Gross, from Invest Like The Best (cheesy name, good series). If you have an aversion to fast-talking Silicon Valley types then skip but Gross has a high insights-per-minute ratio (I linked to this interview with him a while back, or check out his blog). Here he talks about everything from the best way to start a business to the problem with psychometric tests, to why matcha lattes got so popular. He’s got a knack for coining metaphors - at one point he talks about how some individuals are always looking for others to latch on to, “like molecules seeking a covalent bond”.

I have been overwhelmed by the response to my McCartney piece, which was stunning both for its size and intensity. So many people felt so moved by it, which was really heartwarming. Several have suggested I turn the article into a book and while I wouldn’t want to simply do a longer version of the same piece, I’m pondering whether there’s something in that. One thing I am particularly pleased by is that quite a few people with little or no previous interest in McCartney or the Beatles told me how much they enjoyed this piece. If any of you want to follow up with more Beatles reading (join us!) here’s a short reading list. The best one-volume biography of the band is Can’t Buy Me Love by Jonathan Gould, who not only tells the story really well but, unlike other biographers, writes illuminatingly about the music. Second, Revolution In The Head by Ian McDonald, a magnificent song-by-song commentary which paints a very rich picture of the band. While I disagree with some of McDonald’s musical judgements, he’s amazingly erudite and never boring, and it was also one of the first books to give McCartney his artistic due. Third, Beatles ‘66 by Steve Turner, a hugely readable account of a pivotal, absolutely headspinningly crazy year in the life of the band. Finally, You Never Give Me Your Money, by Peter Doggett, a riveting account of the break-up. In recent years, Beatles podcasts have done a huge amount to revivify my interest in the band but they deserve a post to themselves. Ps - from my tweet replies: a memory of Nurse McCartney, extracts from the McCartney-Mills divorce judgement, and - of course - Dylan gets it.

”We skate upon an intense radiance we do not see because we see nothing else.”
John Updike.


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