(Chris McCormack’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 3/21; Photo: Niamh Cusack in Faith Healer at the Abbey theatre, Dublin. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh.)
Having been sanitised in the 2010s, recent productions have found hidden layers
Who is the art market for if not the morbidly curious? In that marketplace, the impact of an artist’s demise on the value of their works is sometimes referred to as the “death effect”.
The value of art – whether the artist is alive or dead – will always depend on demand, and people gravitating towards it. No one can predict what desire there will be for a given artwork in the future, but what is obvious is that when an artist’s life comes to an end, their creativity ends too. The supply-and-demand model that determined the value can go into flux.
For something scientific on the topic, check out The Economics of American Art by Robert B Ekelund, John D Jackson and Robert D Tollison. That book uses auction data and a sample of visual artists to learn more about the death effect. The research showed that prices tended to plummet the year the artist dies, probably because art owners are selling up, flooding the market. Then after a period, the value would rise again.
Friel’s achievement seems measureless compared with any native contemporaries
There isn’t an easy explanation for this rise. It might have as much to do with microeconomics as it does with media coverage of the artist’s death, the fathomless meditations of art criticism, and retrospective flashpoints such as exhibitions and documentaries.
It would be surprising if the death of an artist as eminent as Brian Friel did not impact how their art is perceived in some way. There was no question of Friel’s accomplishment before his death in 2015. The playwright, who had more than 30 plays produced, depicted 20th-century small-town life (in the fictional Ballybeg) – often a place of parochial oblivion and muted family emotions – with a surprising lightness of touch. A breakout play, 1964’s Philadelphia, Here I Come!, and a late-career hit, Dancing at Lughnasa, both made gainful transfers to Broadway, a distinction that’s less imaginable now, with the New York district dominated by musicals.