The Identification Problem: Vermeer Forgeries and AD Shocks

I have done a number of posts on two closely related themes.  In this recent post I discussed the common perception during each recession that “it’s different this time.”  In particular, each recession is supposed to have special characteristics that make it unlike the normal garden variety recession—you know what I mean, the kind we learn about in our intro to macro textbooks.  Here are some recent “special” recessions:

1.  1970:  Inflation isn’t falling like other recessions; wages are not responsive this time.

2.  1974:  The big oil shock, this one is supply-side.

3.  1980:  This one is caused by Carter’s credit card restrictions.

4.  1982:  No bounce back this time, the rust belt jobs are gone forever.

5.  1991:  The S&L bubble burst, many banks failed, and commercial real estate was overbuilt.

6.  2001:  This time it was the tech bubble bursting, not a drop in AD.  Plus 9/11.

7.  2008:  The housing/financial crisis.

Interesting how every single recession that I can remember was special.  Or at least it somehow seemed special at the time.  Here is a post from Alex Tabarrok that shows one example of this phenomenon.  He quotes from an old Time magazine cover story:

…why are Americans so gloomy, fearful and even panicked about the current economic slump?

..The slump is the longest, if not the deepest, since the Great Depression. Traumatized by layoffs that have cost more than 1.2 million jobs during the slump, U.S. consumers have fallen into their deepest funk in years. “Never in my adult life have I heard more deep- seated feelings of concern,” says Howard Allen, retired chairman of Southern California Edison. “Many, many business leaders share this lack of confidence and recognize that we are in real economic trouble.” Says University of Michigan economist Paul McCracken: “This is more than just a recession in the conventional sense. What has happened has put the fear of God into people.”

…U.S. consumers seem suddenly disillusioned with the American Dream of rising prosperity even as capitalism and democracy have consigned the Soviet Union to history’s trash heap. “I’m worried if my kids can earn a decent living and buy a house,” says Tony Lentini, vice president of public affairs for Mitchell Energy in Houston. “I wonder if this will be the first generation that didn’t do better than their parents. There’s a genuine feeling that the country has gotten way off track, and neither political party has any answers. Americans don’t see any solutions.”

…The deeper tremors emanate from the kind of change that occurs only once every few decades. America is going through a historic transition from the heedless borrow-and-spend society of the 1980s to one that stresses savings and investment.

Wow! I don’t recall the 1991 recession as being so earthshaking, looking back it just seems like a garden variety recession.  Perhaps at the time we are too close to things, we see too many real things going on, too many specific things, and have trouble looking dispassionately at the picture.  (Later you’ll see why I italicize ‘picture’.)  We have trouble seeing the timeless elements of the recession.

In another post I argued that an additional problem is that we don’t want to admit our own guilt.  Fed policy generally reflects the consensus view of economists.  If we have a demand-side recession that means monetary policy was too tight.  And that means that we (economists) are at fault.  Much better to point out all those “special factors.”

Part 2:  The Meegeren Forgeries

I recently read Jonathan Lopez’s book on the famous Meegeren forgeries.  One passage reminded me of the problem economists have in identifying demand-side recessions in their own time.  Here (p. 6) Lopez describes how Meegeren could fool the experts with paintings that today look so awful, so unVermeer-like:

He was to discover, first and foremost, that a fake doesn’t necessarily succeed or fail according to the fidelity with which it replicates the distant past but on the basis of its power to sway the contemporary mind.  Although the best forgeries may mimic the style of a long dead artist, they tend to reflect the tastes and attitudes of their own period.  Most people can’t perceive this: they respond intuitively to that which seems familiar and comprehensible in an artwork, even one presumed to be centuries old.  It’s part of what makes forgeries so seductive.

Van Meegeren put this principle to work early and did so with notable style and grace, although, at the time, even he was probably unaware of his anachronisms.  Van Meegeren’s lovely Vermeer-esque girls from the 1920s resemble, on the one hand, the genuine article, but on the other, the highly fashionable portraits that the forger was doing under his own name at roughly the same moment.  To the eyes and expectations of the day, what could possibly have been more appealing, on a subliminal level, than an art deco version of Vermeer’s delicate aesthetic?  Indeed, Van Meegeren’s Lace Maker looks as though she would gladly cast aside her labors and fox-trot the night away if only someone would ask her.

I think a lot of economists might have an analogous problem, or perhaps it’s the mirror image of this problem.  There is too much of the present in each recession, and thus we overlook the timeless elements.  Indeed, it is difficult to see those elements until many years have passed.  In Vermeer’s case, it took nearly two centuries before critics could see how his art rose above that of contemporaries like de Hooch and Terborch.

Part 3.  Vertigo

The issue of timelessness in art made me think of Vertigo, which is my favorite film.  Unfortunately, it is marred by the fact that a rather mediocre painting of a women plays a key role in the film.  If only Hitchcock had picked a painting like Girl with the Pearl Earring.  And while we are daydreaming, who better to play the blond in Vertigo than Scarlett Johansson, who actually played the girl in Vermeer’s iconic painting in another film.  There is just enough resemblance to make it work.  But this raises another problem.  Would a famous painting be too jarring—would it break the trance-like spell cast by Vertigo?  If so, then another painting should be produced.  Not by a forger (that would look dated in a few decades) but rather something by a great artist.  The Chinese film Sunflower used paintings by Zhang Xiaogang, one of China’s best contemporary artists.  The paintings only appear for a minute or two at the end.  But the quality of the art (and the remarkable way it fits the story), boosts the film a few notches in my estimation.

Here’s my question; couldn’t someone re-film all of the scenes involving Kim Novak, only this time using Scarlett Johansson?  I know what people are thinking: “Sacrilege!  Just like when Ted Turner colorized those black and white classics.”  But does anyone doubt that Hitchcock would have used Miss Johansson had she been available in 1958?  She’s perfect.

Gus van Sant made a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho.  I am not suggesting anything so drastic.  Jimmy Stewart can stay; we don’t have anyone today who is nearly as good.  And there must be all sorts of computer techniques that could splice Scarlett into the scenes so seamlessly that we’d never notice.   Git er done Gus!

Am I joking?  Of course.  It would probably be a disaster.  But it’s a nice daydream.

Part 4:  Beatrice

Why is The Girl with a Pearl Earring such an uncanny painting?  And why do many of the reproductions look better than the actual painting?    I’m not sure, but the painting does remind me of Vertigo, which isn’t just my favorite film, but is also the greatest film ever made according to a poll of over 500 cineastes. (Sorry I can’t find the link to the poll; Sight & Sound has it at #2.).  And for some strange reason it also reminds me of what Borges called “the most moving lines that literature has achieved.”  Borges sets the scene:

Here is the situation.  On the summit of the mountain of Purgatory, Dante loses Virgil.  Guided by Beatrice, whose beauty increases with each new circle they reach, he journeys from sphere to concentric sphere until he emerges into the one that encircles all the others, the Primum Mobile.  At his feet are the fixed stars; beyond them is the empyrean, no longer the corporal heaven, but now the eternal heaven, made only of light.  They ascend to the empyrean; in this infinite region (as on the canvases of the pre-Raphaelites) distant forms are as sharply distinct as those close by.  Dante sees a high river of light, sees bands of angels, sees the manifold rose of paradise formed by the souls of the just, arranged in the shape of an amphitheater.  He is suddenly aware that Beatrice has left him.  He sees her on high, in one of the circles of the Rose.  Like a man who raises his eyes to the thundering heavens from the depths of the sea, he worships and implores her.  He gives thanks to her for her beneficent pity and commends his soul to her.  The text then says:

[I’ll skip to the English version]

So did I pray; and she, so distant

as she seemed, smiled and looked on me,

then turned again to the eternal fountain.

So he found her again, then she became even more beautiful, and he lost her again. Just like in Vertigo.

(And think how many people stop after Inferno.)

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About Scott Sumner 492 Articles

Affiliation: Bentley University

Scott Sumner has taught economics at Bentley University for the past 27 years.

He earned a BA in economics at Wisconsin and a PhD at University of Chicago.

Professor Sumner's current research topics include monetary policy targets and the Great Depression. His areas of interest are macroeconomics, monetary theory and policy, and history of economic thought.

Professor Sumner has published articles in the Journal of Political Economy, the Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, and the Bulletin of Economic Research.

Visit: TheMoneyIllusion

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