I posted an article on this forum which included some florid prose written by Dawid Grzyb reviewing a “high end” power cable. The post caused another member to comment that the author in question could be an effective wine reviewer. I responded with agreement but it started me thinking “what is a parallel to HiFi tweak reviewing?” With respect to wine reviewing, obviously, people reviewing a particular vintage wine are going to offer a subjective review based on what they are tasting. This subjectivism will be expressed with all of the usual wine-related superlatives and adjectives. The reaction the taster has to the wine will be very much an internal set of responses that they will attempt to describe in words but the fact remains that the taster is tasting the wine and there are established ways of expressing this experience. For example, a taster presented with a glass of red wine will be expecting to be able to classify it based on the known qualities of different varieties and this can only be described as an objective experience. An experienced taster will be able to determine the grape, region, maturity and many other properties based purely on taste. If the taster finds the wine appealing, then you can expect a torrent of enthusiastic superlatives in their written description. In addition to this, in most cases, wine tasting is done blind, the taster has no idea the maker or vintage before tasting. If we compare this method to the “testing” of HiFi snake oil products, there are some obvious differences.
When a reviewer receives and subsequently fits and listens to a new tweak/component, the reviewer is aware of the presence of the new component and is predisposed to “hear” a “difference”. Subsequently, while performing their listening tests, they will be gazing at the glowing lights on the product or maybe fingering the packaging and reading whatever description of the product the manufacturer has provided. The reviewer then has to find something to describe the experience they were expecting to have. It’s at this point that the difference between wine reviewing and HiFi tweak reviewing differ. The wine reviewer has an objective experience and the HiFi tweak reviewer has a subjective experience inasmuch as if another person tasted the wine, they would likely experience very similar sensations of taste to the original taster and subsequently be able to agree on the quality or otherwise of the wine. I’m not saying that the second taster won’t be influenced by the first but the objective experience will be a parallel experience between the two. By contrast, the experience of the HiFi component reviewer is entirely internal and can only be considered a subjective experience as we all know unless the dreaded “double blind” testing method is employed. The HiFi world now has an ocean of products which do nothing more than exploit the “Audiophiles” rejection of objective testing. In wine tasting, this would be the equivalent of wine reviews being based purely on the label artwork.
So the corollary between wine reviewing and HiFi tweak reviewing doesn’t stick. This made me search for something that relies almost solely on subjectivism for a gauge of value and I think I found it.
Before I detail my theory on this parallel, let’s dip into the murky pond of modern “Art”.
How many times have you seen a work of modern art that makes you think “my five year old could do better than that!”
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Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran
Title: Self-portrait with outstretched arms
I’m guessing many times, and these works wouldn’t necessarily be from this era, they could be from the “golden age” of modern art.
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Pablo Picasso “Woman Sitting in an Armchair.”
(The difference between these two examples is that Picasso was an accomplished fine artist and Mr Nithiyendran is not BTW). The “Modern” art movement is meant to have begun with the “Realist” style but for most people, “Impressionism” would be the most recognisable beginning. Whatever your reaction to impressionism, it was an idea that had to overcome the massive inertia in the art world as to what was “art” and what was not. One of the aspects of impressionism was that it was visually more accessible and less “highbrow” than the art that preceded it. In this way, a new market was opened up and “modern” art was accepted by the establishment because its popular appeal meant that it couldn’t be dismissed forever. What followed was a gusher of artists and styles. Amidst this, the establishment had to shift it’s classification of art considerably, so much so that the definition of “art” became so far removed from its original position that the whole scene turned into a chaotic “anything goes” landscape. In this landscape, the professional art dealers, appraisers and critics proliferated and profited! With these players on the scene, art turned into big business and big money, a development not lost on the artists themselves.
Personally I have always appreciated art in its many forms, however I have always been quite discriminating and desire to see skill, craftsmanship and effort in a work. The modern art period took me as it has many others with its user friendly appeal and decorative qualities. On a trip to France in 2011, I visited the home and studio of Claude Monet in Giverny. For an art fan like me, Monet’s studio was a bucket list item and I wandered around the house, garden and studio in awe. There was a resident expert on hand to answer questions and gave a short presentation explaining the history of the place and some details about life in the house. There was also mention Monet and his generous patronage of fellow artists who he would house and feed. When the subject of Monet’s business came up, it was obvious that he had made a choice to make that the focus of his work as opposed to any dedication to “art”. Looking around his studio at the many unfinished works hanging there I realised that this was less of a studio and more of a production line. Monet would draw inspiration from the grounds of his home and create his inimitable paintings. The style he developed was loose and simple, all Monet had to do was adjust the content a little and another work could be run off. Finished works were shipped to Monet’s agent in America and thence graced the walls of many a fancy house or apartment in New York and other locations. Unlike many struggling artists, Monet had hit a seam of gold by tapping into the dealer/critic environment. I’ve no doubt that he pressed the visiting artists into service to keep the line running too.
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So the art market became a Wild West with a collection of middlemen all drawing down from the work of artists who, it seemed, could turn out just about anything and have it feted as a masterpiece. Like any environment, a food chain developed which was basically artist-critic-dealer-buyer. Within this ecosystem, one of the most crucial players was the critic. Why so? Because the critic was the authority who had the ability to elevate the artist to a position where their work was considered to have value. So how was this done? Simply, the critic would interpret the work and ascribe to it the most incredible insight and significance. In a splodge of paint, the critic could create an entire universe of meaning and suggestible buyers lapped it up. The process hasn’t changed since then, as an example, here’s a description of a work by the artist Cy Twombly
“The Bacchus paintings are monumental. These vast, sprawling canvases with their frenetic yet logical loops of dazzling red paint initially scream for attention with an air of total ecstasy. But, following the mystifying coherence of the Bacchanalian rite itself, they eventually recede warmly into the background, as if this state of intoxication is the soundtrack to some higher purpose. These three all-consuming paintings tap in to the hinterland between revulsion and unadulterated delight like the interior of a cathedral simultaneously inspires reverence and the fear of the divine. “
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Does the form of this description remind you of anything?
Try this Boenicke Audio Power Gate review from my favourite snake oil reviewer Dawid Grzyb.
“Although it was less warm than the GigaWatt PC-3 SE EVO+, it sounded quicker, spatially more expansive, tangible and texturally more organic, yet was as sensual and soft on demand. It injected extra glare, decay and weight into highs, while its greater elasticity and crackling bass netted stiffer more contoured overall feel, further boosted by higher pigment provision.”
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One is a piece of utter trash pretending to be art and the other a glorified power board. The trash art sold for 15,400,000 USD and the Boenicke Audio Power Gate pictured has an asking price of 15,594 USD. The common element here is the group of individuals who are peddling their opinions to suggestible buyers based on pure subjectivism. The interesting thing is that the creators of both products would NEVER describe the performance/value of the item in the way that the reviewer/critic does. The creator leaves it to the opinion peddlers to do the job of selling the supposed benefits or value of the product. The business model stands, producer, reviewer, dealer and buyer but there is one difference between the broader business model of art versus HiFi tweaks. In the tweak market, the buyer is the end of the chain (but interestingly can morph into a small-time reviewer, thanks to the internet.) In general however, there’s little more to be milked out of the HiFi snake oil product once the sucker has bought in. With modern art, it’s a bit more involved.
The piece of “art” pictured above by Mr Twombly is one of a fairly big body of work which is almost universally idiotic scribble. This is just my opinion but I think any rational person, who is not connected with the art scene would agree. Google “Cy Twombly”, you won’t believe what his work has sold for at auction. You won’t believe it until I tell you something interesting. The modern art market is a big tax scam, here’s how it works. First, the art critics and dealers have to find an artist to promote, just how much collusion happens at this stage is anyone’s guess. Once the artist has been chosen, the critics begin their process of opinion peddling to prime the pump. Dealers will begin purchasing the artists work to energise the prices and in this process, money is no object. Dealers will pass around the works, pushing prices up in the process. Now the smart money from connected individuals will buy in as early in this process as possible. Connected buyers will hang on to their pieces while the prices are artificially inflated. The connected buyers, being the conscientious “collectors” that they are, will have their pieces valued for insurance purposes and as the sale prices continue to rise, so does the insurance valuation. Now you’d think this was a simple pump and dump scheme but it isn’t because if the buyers simply sell the work, they might make a profit but that profit will attract tax. Bad! No, the conclusion to this scam is to “donate” the massively overvalued scribble to a state art gallery and presto! Tax refund!!!! How sweet it is.
“The Tate has this week received its most valuable and exciting bequest in quite some years: Sir Nicholas Serota announced a donation of three stunning paintings from the Bacchus series by Cy Twombly. Along with Rothko’s Seagram Building Murals, the Bacchus paintings remind us that, in an age where art is so reassuringly expensive, the way the work is displayed is crucial for aesthetic experience.”
This process does have casualties however. The non-connected buyers, who are true believers, you know, serious collectors, will ultimately get burned as the scam moves on to the next chosen artist. This was the case with works by Damien Hirst, who was at one time, the darling of the art community. One of his “works” was a shark carcass in a tank of formaldehyde, called “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.” Which is probably the most creative thing about it. Suckers who bought into this hype have seen the values of Hirst’s work drop considerably from their record highs (around 2008 just before the GFC). Galleries who were the recipients of donated Hirst works however can dance a little jig as their insurance premiums go down.
So there you have it, I really think this is the best fit for an equivalent to HiFi snake oil. In the modern art market, subjectivism rules and the value of the pieces is set by a cartel of critics/reviewers and dealers. So too in the HiFi snake oil market. My take on the scam element of modern art is fairly simplified, if you’re intrigued, there’s more detail in these articles: