Flora YUKHNOVICH: I grew up in a place called Norfolk, which is a very rural part of the U.K.
That is Flora Yukhnovich. Her mother was a teacher; her father was in the navy. From a young age, Flora wanted to be an artist; but she was also pragmatic, so rather than studying fine art at university, she studied graphic design.
YUKHNOVICH: And then after that, because I really missed painting, I went to the Heatherley School of Fine Art and did a portrait course for two years. I thought I’d be a portrait painter, and I did not like it and I wasn’t good at it.
Why did she want to be a portrait painter if she didn’t like it and wasn’t good at it?
YUKHNOVICH: It just seemed like it was a viable job and that it would be a reasonable living and that I would be able to paint all the time.
But after her portrait course, she went in for more art training — at City & Guilds of London Art School, one of the oldest art schools in England. There, she studied art history and theory; and she steeped herself in aesthetics — essentially, learning which artists were worth emulating.
YUKHNOVICH: Frank Auerbach and Lucien Freud were very important to me.
Auerbach and Freud were giants of twentieth-century figurative painting; they both made intense, moody pictures in somber colors and earth tones.
YUKHNOVICH: It was like this group of mythical geniuses that you could only aspire to be like. They filled my head with the idea of what an artist was: this sort of tortured genius alone in the studio.
Stephen DUBNER: When you say that Auerbach and Freud were important to you, do you mean in that everybody knew that they were important and that they established a standard of taste that people were supposed to embrace, or that you actually loved their work and wanted to create like them?
YUKHNOVICH: Probably both. They became the things that you were supposed to look at and there were things that you weren’t supposed to look at.
The things you’re supposed to look at and the ones you aren’t. In any field, not just art, there are clear hierarchies of value. These hierarchies are established by critics, tastemakers, influencers. They determine whether a given object or idea is considered high-class or, God forbid, déclassé. In French, déclassé means “downgraded”; it implies that something once was worthy of admiration, but has now lost its status. Is there anything sadder than that? The way we use the word déclassé today, however — it doesn’t have that fallen-from-grace quality. Déclassé simply implies low-brow, tacky, not worthy of serious attention. If you happen to embrace an artist or idea that’s considered déclassé, you are thought to be either ignorant or, worse, incapable of exercising good taste. Flora Yukhnovich understood this. She understood that if she were to become the kind of painter she wanted to be, there were artists she should look to for inspiration, and those she should avoid. But she was also a bit stuck.
YUKHNOVICH: I had been disappointed by my work. I really wanted to inject a playfulness and a joy back into making, so I started looking at Disney cartoons and wallpaper designs.
As if wallpaper and Disney cartoons weren’t bad enough, she stumbled across a book in the art-school library with the paintings of Jean-Honoré Fragonard. He was an extraordinarily skillful painter and a master of the Rococo style, whose popularity peaked in the 18th century, just before the French Revolution. Rococo paintings were opulent, colorful, flowery, often playful, and slightly naughty or erotic. It was a style that was most appreciated by some of the elites who, during the Revolution, would meet the guillotine. Rococo henceforth became déclassé. To this day, most art critics either dismiss or ignore it, despite the indisputable skill of an artist like Fragonard. Flora Yukhnovich would have known all this when she came across that Fragonard book in the library. And this wasn’t the first time she’d encountered his work.
YUKHNOVICH: I probably saw it for the first time when someone showed it to me being like, “Look how awful this is,” or, “Look how frivolous or how kitschy this is.”
DUBNER: Did you feel that yourself about Fragonard when you first saw it? Or were you impressionable and this person said, “Oh yeah, this is so tacky,” and then you just agreed?
YUKHNOVICH: I think the latter.
DUBNER: You were how old at that time?
YUKHNOVICH: I was probably 17 or 18.
DUBNER: And how cool were you then?
YUKHNOVICH: Not. But I would still try my best.
DUBNER: So, at 17, you decided Fragonard was what?
YUKHNOVICH: I guess kitsch? And chocolate-boxy.
DUBNER: Do you remember which Fragonard piece you saw back then?
YUKHNOVICH: “The Swing.”
“The Swing” is Fragonard’s most famous painting; it is housed in the Wallace Collection in London. Here’s how the Wallace describes “The Swing.”
WALLACE COLLECTION: A young woman dressed in pink is sitting on a swing in a park, which an older man on the right is keeping in motion. She kicks off her slipper as a sign to a younger man hidden in a bush underneath her. The lush, almost overpowering vegetation underlines the sexually charged character of the scene.
Even as a teenager, Yukhnovich knew this was not the kind of painting an aspiring artist should admire.
YUKHNOVICH: I felt like I should dislike it immediately. There was just too much color. It’s designed to please, and I was aware of that and suspicious of it.
DUBNER: What made you suspicious of that notion?
YUKHNOVICH: When I was trying to learn what is good and what is bad, something being challenging was a good thing and you wanted to educate yourself to the point where you could enjoy something that is challenging.
In other words, a “challenging” piece had class; a painting “designed to please” was necessarily déclassé. But now, nearly a decade after first seeing “The Swing,” Yukhnovich saw it again. By now she was a serious art student, preparing work for her final show. This time, she had a different response to the Fragonard painting.
YUKHNOVICH: I had all these ideas buzzing around in my head, but I hadn’t known how to put them together. Then I found this book when I was trying to work out what to do. It made me feel so weird. I recognized it and I enjoyed it. It’s like I had undone some of that prejudice.
DUBNER: Do you remember what it was like seeing the book on the shelf and pulling it off? Were you a little sheepish?
YUKHNOVICH: Not really. It was photocopying stuff and putting it on my studio wall that felt more embarrassing.
Her studio was in a big industrial building, side-by-side with other students’ studios. There were no doors; everyone could see what you were working on.
YUKHNOVICH: It had this weird element of being on display the whole time you’re trying to create.
DUBNER: And how did that feel? Like, “Oh, I’ve been here literally being trained to have good taste and then this is what I love.” How did that feel to you?
YUKHNOVICH: Weirdly exciting. When I was making the first paintings looking at it, I had never really worked with color like that. It was just so pleasurable, standing in front of a canvas and making it beautiful colors. I had been doing stuff that was very brown and looking at Rembrandt. So then I started working with bright turquoises and bubblegum pinks, and it just felt wild. Then, I was like, “Oh God, I’m so naff, but this is so fun.”
Flora Yukhnovich decided to embrace the déclassé. And how has that worked out?
SOTHEBY’S AUCTIONEER: I’m going to sell it here, with another world record auction price for the artist.
And should you be more inclined to follow what pleases you, rather than what the tastemakers say?
Steve LEVITT: Don’t worry about what other people want you to be. Just study what you want.
Bomani JONES: It was a cultural shock to people as much as anything else.
Rax KING: It lights up. It sings. It’s quite an experience.
Today on Freakonomics Radio: The surprising power of the déclassé — in art, in sports, in academia!
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Rax King is a writer who grew up in Washington, D.C., and now lives in New York.
KING: This is a great opportunity to reveal that I love Rococo painting — anything big and over the top and maximalist. That’s an aesthetic that has always felt really warm and right to me. It was super popular in a flash-in-the-pan kind of way. As soon as its popularity was over, everybody acted embarrassed, like they couldn’t believe they had loved something so silly. And that right there is a big part of my own interest in so-called trash culture.
In 2021, King published a book of essays — a very good and funny book — called Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer. She writes in praise of the reality TV show Jersey Shore; of the super-caloric restaurant chain The Cheesecake Factory; of the Florida rock band Creed.
CREED: Hold me now, I’m six feet from the edge and I’m thinking, “Maybe six feet ain’t so far down.”
So how does King define tacky?
KING: It’s the stuff that people are embarrassed to like, but that they still like.
Tacky is not the same as camp.
KING: Tacky is campiness without the wink in it. It’s campiness that can’t find that secondary level of enjoyment that legitimizes something. It’s something that is enjoyable much to your shame.
DUBNER: What about trash?
KING: When I think of trash TV, what I think of is something that makes the viewer worse if they watch too much of it, according to someone else.
DUBNER: How about schlock?
KING: Ooh, schlock I really like. Schlock is something that — how do I want to put this?
DUBNER: It’s not just Yiddish for tacky, quite?
KING: No, no, it’s taken on a life of its own. It’s something that’s tacky but also sugary sweet, like a Hallmark movie.
DUBNER: How about déclassé?
KING: That’s just a highfalutin’ word for tacky. You’re not going to sit there and make me learn French just to say something’s bad.
Tacky, trashy, déclassé — they all point to things you know you should be embarrassed to enjoy, like those Fragonard paintings that Flora Yukhnovich put up on her studio wall for inspiration — and yet you enjoy them nonetheless. It is a category best identified not by strict definition, but rather a feeling.
KING: I think that’s how people tend to make those sorts of aesthetic judgments about whether something is tacky or whether something is high-brow or whatever. It’s not so much in accordance with articulated principles most of the time. People know it when they see it.
Let’s imagine now we’re not thinking about art or culture, but about ideas for academic research. How tacky would you call these topics?
LEVITT: Sumo wrestling, real estate agents ripping you off, baby names, discrimination on the TV game show The Weakest Link.
That is Steve Levitt, my Freakonomics friend and co-author. He also hosts our spinoff podcast People I (Mostly) Admire.
LEVITT: I’m an economist who loves data and who approaches problems in simple ways, using common sense.
But that’s not how Levitt saw himself years ago, when he started graduate school at M.I.T.
LEVITT: I wish I could say that I went to M.I.T. and I saw immediately the tacky path, and that was the one for me, and that was going to lead to success — but I didn’t.
He wanted to be a macroeconomist, one of the serious people who show up on the news telling you how global markets are moving or why inflation is rising.
LEVITT: It’s just not something anybody really has intuition for. Well, that’s what I thought until I got to M.I.T. Shockingly, people had intuition for that. As soon as I realized that, I said, “Oh my God, I am not going to be a macroeconomist.”
So, he had to shift his focus. But he still wanted to be serious.
LEVITT: I thought, “Well, I’m going to figure out what the highest-prestige activity is, and I’m going to do that,” because you might as well try to be the best of the best. And that was theory.
Theory is the most abstract branch of economics. No real-world data, just lots of math and theoretical formulations.
LEVITT: And oh my God, I was a poor fit. I was bad at that. There was no chance.
By now, he had just about exhausted his options.
LEVITT: The smartest thing I ever did was to say, “What is it I actually like?” I was sitting on my old blue couch, and I’m sure the T.V. was going in the background and the T.V. show Cops, was on. “Well, I like Cops. I always watch Cops every day.” And I said, “Maybe I should study crime.” It wasn’t something that anyone else was doing. I went and did it, and I loved it. And God, it’s such a blessing when you love what you do. There was nothing more fun for me to do than to learn about crime, to get the data on crime because the two things I loved in life were Cops and data. And now I had put those two together, and it led to a series of papers that really made my career.
Those papers about crime included Levitt’s landmark paper on the relationship between the legalization of abortion and crime. From there he went on to write about cheating teachers and colluding sumo wrestlers, about the finances of a Chicago gang that sold crack cocaine. These are not the kind of topics that usually show up in the best economics journals.
LEVITT: In addition to the subjects that I studied, I also use methods which are low-status within the profession.
DUBNER: What do you mean by that?
LEVITT: When someone comes to give a lecture of their research, perhaps the most predictive factor is if nobody in the audience has any idea what they’re talking about. There’s just an incredible taste for, “Wow, that guy did some math — I’ve never even heard of that math before.” Now, I’ve never been attracted to that. I always think it’s a bad sign if someone can’t explain to you what they’re doing in a way you can understand it. So as much as the topics I chose, when I’ve been derided, it’s because I take really simple methods. Can I describe the data as clearly and carefully and thoughtfully as possible? And people might disagree with your interpretation, but I always try to make it transparent so everyone can understand the set of facts from which we begin. That’s also not common, and I think it’s seen as low-brow.
But the low-brow approach has worked for Levitt. He has been published in the best journals, for years. Among the awards he’s won is the John Bates Clark Medal, the most prestigious award a young American economist can win. It was Levitt’s low-brow research that first caught my attention too, and that’s what led to our writing the Freakonomics books together. And, I mean, we called the book Freakonomics — how tacky is that!? Our publisher certainly thought it was tacky, and they only went along with it when they couldn’t come up with anything better. So I guess I too am drawn to the déclassé — like Steve Levitt, Rax King, and Flora Yukhnovich — especially when it allows you to explore ideas that the tastemakers overlook. One of Levitt’s research projects, which I got to help out on, was an economic analysis of breakfast foods.
LEVITT: Paul Feldman was a former economist who had retired and taken up a new business, delivering bagels and doughnuts to office parks.
This was in the Washington, D.C., area. Feldman had contracted with all sorts of firms who wanted to give their employees a chance to buy breakfast on site. Pretty smart, if you think about it — it gets them to work faster. So, Feldman would get up very early and drive his delivery van — very fast — from office to office to office, leaving behind dozens of bagels and donuts, a price list, and a lockbox for the cash. The key here was that payments were on the honor system.
LEVITT: He was meticulous. He kept a spreadsheet that had all the information that was relevant to the situation.
Information like the rate of payment at each firm, how payments differed according to type of firm, as well as day of week, time of year, and so on; also, how many bagels and donuts went unsold at each location on a given day.
LEVITT: He offered those data to maybe a half dozen, a dozen economists, all of whom would say, “Well, why would I want data on bagels or donuts?”
But then Paul Feldman reached out to Steve Levitt.
LEVITT: I immediately sensed that these could be interesting data.
Interesting … because why?
LEVITT: Economists who study the firm really struggle because the key input into a lot of the decisions of the firm is the marginal cost. And it turns out it’s really hard to observe marginal cost for firms.
Marginal cost is the price of producing or selling one additional unit — one more donut or bagel — as opposed to the average cost, which is easier to measure.
LEVITT: I recognized that in Paul’s data, I had the ability to see marginal cost. I felt like in this completely trivial setting, I could actually answer real questions about how firms behaved. Now, I understood that people are going to be very dismissive of what I do, because who cares about a firm that has one guy? But the way in which he chose quantities, he was amazingly good at it.
Levitt used this data to write up a research paper, which he presented in a seminar for his peers at the University of Chicago.
LEVITT: As I started the seminar, a prominent economist, Luigi Zingales, was in the audience. And he said, “This is stupid. I don’t even know why I’m sitting here. What could I possibly learn from one guy with bagels and doughnuts?” And I said, “I don’t know, but I learned something. Tell me at the end what you think.” And he sat through it, and at the end he said, “I can’t believe it, but I think you actually taught me something about economics.” I would say that was one of the biggest single successful seminars I have ever given. I changed his priors and probably others in a way that nobody imagined I could.
So how has Levitt benefited from pursuing the topics that interest him, even if his elders and peers may see such topics as low-brow?
LEVITT: I feel like I’ve developed a good sense, a good intuition around everyday human behavior. Faced with almost any problem, I’m able to have a decent idea of how people will react, and if we were to intervene in some way, how might their behavior change.
The writer Rax King said something similar about low-brow culture — that it can give you true insight into people, more than an ivory tower view can give.
KING: When you look at what adds color and texture to someone’s day-by-day, the average person is frying an egg for breakfast. And when they get hungry at 11, they throw back a handful of Cheez-Its. That’s just tacky food. And when they get home after work, they’re firing up a marathon of something they don’t have to pay real close attention to because it’s not too emotionally, intellectually taxing. If you’re going to think in terms of centuries of knowledge — then sure, great art is the way to go. But if you’re going to think in terms of what people are really like in the day-to-day of their lives, you’re going to have to turn to tacky, trashy culture eventually.
Coming up: it’s happened in sports too.
JONES: The N.B.A. saw the 3-point shot as a gimmick, as a ridiculous gimmick.
Also, how did Flora Yukhnovich’s rococo dream turn out?
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This is the 499th episode of Freakonomics Radio. If you like this show, please spread the word however you can — and maybe leave a rating or review on your favorite podcast app. Thanks a million.
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If you’re a fan of N.B.A. basketball — and given the league’s popularity these days, you probably are — you may surprised to learn where some of your favorite things about the N.B.A. came from. Like this:
ANNOUNCER: Good evening, everyone. This huge, record-breaking crowd about to bear witness to one of the most spectacular events in professional basketball: the slam-dunk contest.
The slam-dunk contest didn’t originate in the N.B.A. Back in the 1960s, pro basketball was a much smaller sport; the N.B.A.’s fan base was about one-tenth the size of Major League Baseball’s audience. And the N.B.A. had a rival league, called the A.B.A., or American Basketball Association.
JONES: The thing that the A.B.A. figured out pretty quick was that this is show business, and they set out to put out a more entertaining product, if nothing else.
That’s Bomani Jones. He’s a sports journalist who happens to have a master’s degree in economics — so, he’s our kind of sports journalist. He’s also host of the ESPN podcast The Right Time with Bomani Jones and a new HBO show called Game Theory. Jones says that back in the 1960s, the N.B.A. was pretty conservative. But not the A.B.A.
JONES: There was a carnival-barker element to it.
In a word: déclassé. The A.B.A. used a red-white-and blue basketball. The A.B.A. had cheerleaders.
JONES: It was also a notably Blacker product.
Sports Illustrated described the A.B.A. as the “Funkadelic league” that valued “big hair, flashy dunks, and second chances.” Dunking itself has a strange history in basketball, going back to the college game. The most dominant college player of the 1960s was Lew Alcindor, who would later change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; he’d also become one of the most dominant players in the N.B.A. In his first year on the varsity team at U.C.L.A., Alcindor averaged 29 points a game and led the team to a national championship. Alcindor also liked to dunk the ball — which made sense, given he was over seven feet tall.
JONES: There is no more high-percentage fundamental play than dunking the ball. It’s literally getting as close to the basket as you possibly can.
But the dunk was still rare at the time. And after Alcindor’s breakout season, the N.C.A.A. banned the dunk from college basketball; they said it was, “not a skillful shot.” Here’s what Alcindor said of the ban: “[It] smacks a little of discrimination. When you look at it, most of the people who dunk are Black athletes.”
JONES: It was a cultural shock as much as anything else, the idea that somebody was going to dunk a basketball.
The dunk remained illegal in college basketball for about a decade. The N.B.A. did allow dunking, but it just wasn’t a big part of how the game was played in the N.B.A. But in the new A.B.A. …
JONES: The dunk became the show. They have the dunk contest.
ANNOUNCER: The contestants will be judged on artistic ability, imagination, body flow, as well as fan response.
One of the A.B.A.’s biggest stars was Julius Erving, better known as Dr. J.
ANNOUNCER: The man that has turned the slam-dunk into an art. Who has thrilled A.B.A. fans with moves that have been beyond comprehension. At six-foot-six, for the New York Nets, the fabulous Dr. J., Julius Erving.
Dr. J. won the A.B.A.’s slam-dunk contest in 1976 with a leaping dunk from the free-throw line.
ANNOUNCER: And that sends everyone reeling. Julius Erving!
DUBNER: Who was the N.B.A. commissioner back in the ‘70s?
JONES: I believe that was Larry O’Brien.
DUBNER: What do you think Larry O’Brien was thinking, if he’s watching the A.B.A. All-Star Game on T.V., and they have the dunking contest and then the game is full of dunks? What do you think he’s thinking?
JONES: “Oh, this is a clown show and it’ll never work.” That’s what the incumbent always thinks about something like that. But the thing with the A.B.A. that to me becomes most interesting is they added the 3-point line.
The 3-point line being an arc, painted on the floor, far from the basket, and if you made a shot from beyond the arc, it counted for three points instead of the standard two. The 3-point shot actually originated in an earlier upstart league, called the American Basketball League. But it was the A.B.A. that made the 3-point shot famous. And what did the N.B.A. think of it?
JONES: The N.B.A. saw the 3-point shot as a gimmick, as a ridiculous gimmick.
The A.B.A. also saw it as a gimmick — and that was the point.
JONES: It was obviously a conscious decision that we are going to be the more fun alternative to the established league. Sometimes you just have to lean into what you are, and this is a bit of a freewheeling sport and a bit of a freewheeling culture that surrounds it. So rather than trying to win over the fuddy-duddies, the A.B.A. decided they were going to win over people who wanted something cool.
So, one league’s déclassé was another one’s cool. The A.B.A., it turned out, couldn’t make it on its own. In 1976, after nine seasons, it merged with the N.B.A. Four of the old A.B.A. teams are still around: the Denver Nuggets, the Indiana Pacers, the San Antonio Spurs, and the New York Nets, now based in Brooklyn. Julius Erving, after five years in the A.B.A., played another 11 in the N.B.A. He won the Most Valuable Player Award in both leagues.
ANNOUNCER: And there is Julius Erving — look at that move, behind the back. Oh!
But Dr. J. was hardly the only crossover from the old league to the new. In fact, when you look at the N.B.A. today — the ball movement, the spectacular dunks, the 3-point shooting — it’s clear that the D.N.A. of the A.B.A. was fully absorbed into the N.B.A. Would LeBron James play like LeBron James had there never been an A.B.A.?
ANNOUNCER: LeBron drives in, oh my! A ferocious slam. Did you see LeBron? He jumped right out of the building.
Would Steph Curry play like Steph Curry had there never been an A.B.A.?
ANNOUNCER: Curry has time — three seconds. Oh! He puts it in at the buzzer!
JONES: The upstart league, as the A.B.A. was, probably had more influence on the 40 years after than the established league did about what the game became.
As Bomani Jones said earlier, the A.B.A. was also a “Blacker product” than the N.B.A. This would hardly be the first time that the Establishment took a look at something a marginalized group was doing and declared their efforts déclassé.
YUKHNOVICH: It was so pink and fluffy, and that made me think it was kitsch.
That, again, is the young British painter Flora Yukhnovich. She is talking about the Rococo paintings she knew she shouldn’t love, but did.
YUKHNOVICH: And then I realized that some of that has to do with the gendering of aesthetics and thinking of things as less serious because they related to femininity.
The Rococo aesthetic had evolved out of the Baroque, which was also highly ornate, but Baroque was the style of public opulence, as exemplified by the Palace of Versailles. Rococo, meanwhile, had originated in the private homes of French elites. It was lighter and more delicate, characterized by floral patterns and rosy pastels. There were loads of plump little putti, or cherubs. Compared to the Baroque style, the Rococo is distinctly feminine. It fell out of favor alongside the French aristocracy.
YUKHNOVICH: And then after the Revolution, people said that the reason it’s in such poor taste and the reason it’s so decorative is because women were involved in the commissioning of the work. I think there was a sense that women had got too powerful for their own good as well.
You’ll remember, however, that Flora Yukhnovich, serious art student, had rediscovered Rococo paintings, especially those of Fragonard, and was so inspired by their feel that she taped them to her studio wall for inspiration. I asked if this had required a certain courage.
YUKHNOVICH: I think so, and then a sense of defiance when I did, that I leaned into it really hard because I was like, “Yeah, this is what I’m doing.” I was really drawn to the really chubby wrists and chubby, almost unformed hands of the putti. But at the same time, I felt like I had very poor taste.
DUBNER: What made you lean into it so hard? What gave you the confidence or desire to do that?
YUKHNOVICH: Part of it was just commitment. Part of it was a sense of creating a new distance from myself, by going so hard that it was almost sarcastic.
DUBNER: Was it sarcastic or did you tell yourself it was sarcastic and know that it wasn’t quite?
YUKHNOVICH: I’m still not sure. I think goes between the two. There are times when I use sarcasm as an excuse.
Yukhnovich is now 31 years old. Her paintings begin on a computer; she’ll often start with a classic Rococo painting as a base, and then mash it up with images from a magazine ad or a Disney cartoon. This small digital collage then becomes a rough map from which she creates a large painting on canvas.
YUKHNOVICH: It’s a really slow process of finding my way, of putting stuff in, taking stuff out, trying to work out the way that the abstraction and the figuration are working together.
She has become known for painting big canvases with broad, sweeping brush strokes. They meld the busy, colorful swirls of Rococo masters like Fragonard and Tiepolo with a modern sense of cheekiness. The titles of her paintings often come from pop culture: there’s “Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner,” for instance, and “Lipstick, Lip Gloss, Hickeys Too.” Her paintings are at the same time drop-dead beautiful and somehow a bit embarrassed by their beauty.
YUKHNOVICH: The space I want to get to when I’m making is something that is, I’ve really enjoyed making it but at the same time, I feel slightly humiliated that I enjoyed it so much. And that’s when I know something is working, but it’s quite hard to tell whether it’s just pure humiliation, or whether it’s because something’s happening. When I’m making the work, I swing between this sarcastic point of view with it, and this really is serious romantic point of view. Sometimes I’m embarrassed by how seriously I’ve taken these pretty tropes.
Flora Yukhnovich embraced her embarrassment, her so-called poor taste, her thirst for the déclassé. She gave the art-world exactly what they said they didn’t want. And yet, as it turns out, they did want it. She has become one of the most successful painters of the moment. She is shown by one of the best galleries in London, Victoria Miro, and her paintings have begun surfacing at auction. A piece from 2020 called “Warm, Wet, ‘N’ Wild” — the title is from the Katy Perry song “California Gurls” — just sold at Sotheby’s for more than $3 million. It is true that some art-world gatekeepers are distressed by her success. One of them recently called her paintings “syrupy medleys” that are an “obviously Rococo inspired garden-variety sort of abstraction with flourishes of figuration.” It is also true that this gatekeeper happens to be an older male art critic, a member of the New York establishment. He also hedged his assault on Yukhnovich, somewhat, by saying he was, “still high” on the medication from a hernia operation. So, too much information along with too little appreciation. His words made me think of how the N.B.A. saw the A.B.A. at one point, years before the N.B.A. essentially became the A.B.A.
YUKHNOVICH: It’s so interesting that something that is trying to be likable is automatically not. You want a bit of abrasiveness in it to almost make it palatable, and there’s a level of it being too palatable where it becomes unpalatable. Then it comes full circle, if you lean into the beauty of something to the point where it becomes vulgar, it becomes easy to digest again because it’s got that kind of abrasiveness built in.
DUBNER: So even though eager-to-please is not the art aesthetic of this moment — or frankly of many moments in the history of art — Flora Yukhnovich, who admits to being a person who embraces that aesthetic, and an artist who embraces that aesthetic, is, in the last couple of years, one of the most revered young painters alive. What are we to make of that? Have you successfully reversed the entire taste trend of the modern art world?
YUKHNOVICH: No, I don’t think so. There’s something about using a pleasing aesthetic as almost a Trojan horse.
DUBNER: If your work is to some degree a Trojan horse, what’s inside, what’s it obscuring?
YUKHNOVICH: It’s that idea that something beautiful is lacking meaning, and I’m interested in setting it up in the right way in a fine-art setting, in a gallery setting, and seeing how people respond to it and seeing whether people get angry because they’re like, “Oh, it’s so palatable. How awful.” It’s easier to make something that is deliberately trying to be beautiful in opposition to someone who’s saying it shouldn’t be.
So Flora Yukhnovich accepted the price one must pay for embracing the déclassé. And she has succeeded wildly — at least so far. The same is true for Steve Levitt, mining the data on the sale of donuts and bagels. And for Dr. J., playing basketball in a style the mainstream considered too wild and too Black until the mainstream caught up. All of them have the same message for the rest of us: don’t worry, be tacky. What’s the very worst thing that could happen?
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Morgan Levey; we had help this week from Jeremy Johnston. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Gabriel Roth, Zack Lapinski, Ryan Kelley, Mary Diduch, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Julie Kanfer, Emma Tyrrell, Jasmin Klinger, Eleanor Osborne, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Alina Kulman. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
- Bomani Jones, sports journalist.
- Rax King, writer.
- Steve Levitt, professor of economics at the University of Chicago.
- Flora Yukhnovich, artist.
- Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer, by Rax King (2021).
- “The ABA is Long Gone, But It Remains the Soul of the NBA,” by Joe Moore and Tim Bontemps (The Washington Post, 2017).
- “A Brief History of Rococo Art,” by Erica Trapasso (Artnet News, 2013).
- “An Economist Sells Bagels: A Case Study in Profit Maximization,” by Steven D. Levitt (NBER, 2006).
- “What The Bagel Man Saw,” by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt (The New York Times, 2004).
- “Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806),” by Perrin Stein (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004).
- “Winning Isn’t Everything: Corruption in Sumo Wrestling,” by Mark Duggan and Steven D. Levitt (The American Economic Review, 2002).
- “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime,” by John J. Donohue III And Steven D. Levitt (The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2001).
- Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association, by Terry Pluto (1990).
- “Abortion and Crime, Revisited,” by Freakonomics Radio (2019).
- People I (Mostly) Admire.