Dear Pepe Karmel,
I have a few questions about artistic merit, art critique, and art history on my mind. And by way of googling, I somehow stumbled onto your papers and publications. So I hope you won’t mind me asking you a few questions about the topic. (For context, I am not an artist, historian or critic—just a layperson. So please excuse my ignorance on the matter.)
Recently, I read an article on the world’s most expensive abstract paintings. Barnett Newman’s “Onement V” (1948) and Mark Rothko’s “Untitled” (1967), for example, both sold for more than $30 million.  Newman’s work is an “early zip painting”, while Rothko’s piece consists of two rectangles. Generally speaking, why do such abstract paintings command such extreme values when other similarly looking pieces destine themselves to local motels? What do my untrained eyes miss?
Can you shed any light on the analytical or historical processes that lead to such extraordinary prices? Is it simply in the eye of the beholder? Some paintings, no doubt, are valued for their innovation, historical significance, emotional content, social commentary, and craftsmanship. But what exactly separates the most revered paintings from the rest? Perhaps it is simply the case that some wealthy individual or respected critic has deemed the piece worthy of their admiration—which in turn creates consensus among the artistic community and general public. Price biases, likewise, are well documented in behavioural economics. When something is expensive, we tend to assume also that it is of higher quality. Perhaps some paintings are plain lucky. So once some threshold of fame is reached, their appeal and valuation takes on a self-fulfilling, snowballing process.
Tangentially, many behavioural studies and blind taste tests cast doubt on the ability of wine connoisseurs. While I won’t get into the details here, one Guardian article writes that “experiments have shown that people can't tell plonk from grand cru”; and that “chance has a great deal to do with the awards that wines win.”  Another study finds that “many wines that are viewed as extraordinarily good at some competitions are viewed as below average at others.”  Might something similar apply to art criticism?
It saddens me to think that there are probably thousands of promising artists who fail to reach stardom not for a lack of ability and trying but because of dumb luck. It seems to me that creative industries are probably less meritocratic than sports and science. (And neither sports or science, for that matter, are meritocratic either. For familial, economic, and historical circumstances play a great deal in determining one’s opportunities in life.)
Clearly, I’m ignorant about the whole subject and need to read up (I see you’ve written a book on the global history of abstract art, which I’ll have to get.) But I hope some of these questions might be interesting enough for you to respond as I am most curious about the selection mechanisms at work.
Either way, thank you for hearing me out.
 6 Most Expensive Abstract Artworks of 2020 <https://www.ideelart.com/magazine/most-expensive-abstract-artworks-2020>
 Wine-tasting: it's junk science. <https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/jun/23/wine-tasting-junk-science-analysis>
 An Analysis of the Concordance Among 13 U.S. Wine Competitions. <https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-wine-economics/article/abs/an-analysis-of-the-concordance-among-13-us-wine-competitions/0133849E8FD76B5D20A13C9F720EE102>