Kira Sjöberg

What is the real worth of art?

Art is commonly attributed to a better world. It is almost risen to a godly sanctuary where the artist becomes the creator and the viewer the parisioner who understands art through the enlightenment of the priesthood. Arts normality has been taken away (whether it existed in the first place is another discussion) and art has become a visual representation of life on a higher plane and in a higher form. The worth of art is said to reflect life’s worth, which indirectly makes the art market the reflector of life, does it not? The art market is based on the idea that art is indeed worth something and art sales must reflect the real worth of art, which is hard to define. Questions such as why is art valuable and is it truly so, what are the criteria for arts worth and the classical question; who decides who gets to decide arts worth, are of interest. If arts value is indeed inherent the question that I ask is; why is it then that just certain art, that reaches the worthwhile and valuable class, is defined as art? Or is anything anyone claims to be art truly art? These questions have been pondered upon since the visual image became a part of man’s life but when reflected to the modern day art market the questions become truly interesting. The public art market (auctions) claims to sell the best art available and the evaluation is based upon a historical consensus of what is a) art and b) what is good art. When considering that the public art market is the definer and creator of value in art in the public mind, the fact that the art reaching this market represents only a few percentages of what is made should make people question the statement of the art offered being the best of the best. This further entails of course that no-one has ever seen all art made, which makes the art markets evaluation of good art it offers as an objective fact stand on some very shaky legs.

Another question that is of interest is that is art truly beyond any criticism once it has moved past certain ranks? In post-war and contemporary art sectors this issue becomes even more interesting when concepts of quality standards are diluted and quality in art is created by taste and fashion that in turn are guided by the modern day high-priests of art more than by history and time. Of course, since the birth of art history the same procession has been evident but arts artistic worth has arguably never been so directly related to its market worth. For instance would I be allowed to say Francis Bacons pieces are not worth while or that Damien Hirst is not an interesting artist today? Sure! I would be allowed to say that but I would most likely be labelled as someone who knows nothing about art, should I dare to do so. This leads me to an interesting thought about the art markets worth and the changing taste of art collectors who are, as the consumers, claimed to be the true critics of art today. Often the divide that is evident when talking of artistic and commercial ability, the power to decide or choose at the beginning of an artistic career, their own faith is taken away from the artist. Traditionally the divide has been greater and the power of decision of arts worth has been with the high-priests of the art world but recently with the successes of the contemporary art market and direct sales on the secondary market by artists has pointed out that artists indeed are professionals in their careers and able to have a commercial capability. Saying this their financial worth, which often is seen as the true value of an individual piece, unless that piece becomes impossible to value financially, such as the Mona Lisa, will build on their artistic value as well. Of course, putting a price on the Mona Lisa would clearly also put a limit to its worth and arguably the worth of art. Hence no direct sums have publicly been given, only estimates of sorts ranging in the hundreds of millions of dollars. No doubt however the Louvre insurers have set a limit to the Mona Lisa’s worth, raising another interesting discussion of arts intrinsic value and if it indeed does exist. In addition, when thinking of taste and generational shifts in relation to buying art and the changing market structures, it is a ride back to the future that is needed.

A clear change that is evident in market structures and the globalising world will create new platforms and a much more publicly heterogeneous art scene with different values. This will undoubtedly affect and question arts assumed inherent value, as we see it in the west. Historically and despite Linda Nochlin’s point regarding the non-existence of great female artists almost fourty years ago, even still the art market goods on offer today are made by mostly white, western middle-class males. And these are also the ones who succeed in the market. Of course, art from non-western countries has in recent years taken a not insignificant share of the market but arguably the most successful (and hence defined as best art quality-wise) is art that is based on western artistic traditions rather than local artistic traditions. Of course, this in addition makes you ponder further on the topic of good art and how the art market could be representing truly good or the best art available when it represents only a very narrow section of makers and artistic traditions. Subject-matters, conceptual meanings, referrals of the world and so forth are of great importance in the world of art and so also on the art market. To sell a piece well, or indeed to make it worth something that can be physically measured, the written word must qualify its existence. Suitably for instance already Barthes said, referring to literature, a piece starts living its own life once it leaves the makers hands. This applies well to art. All art market studies in this sector show that relationships are the key element in making it in the art world, which of course is no surprise – so thinking of Barthes words, possibly a “right” kind of life for a piece is possible only if seen by the “right” people. Who then decides who the right people are is left to be pondered upon.

Clearly the issue of worth in art is no simple matter and always brings about interesting discussions as it is a subject which many in the priviledged western world have some opinion on. Arts value is often unquestionable and its existence or right for existence is seen as part of its inherent value and in turn of course creates worth; if you have time, money and a possibility to concentrate on it, that is. Clearly this requires that you are not faced with more pressing matters such as poverty, unemployement or lack of health, to name only a few issues that most likely makes art objects intrinsic value deflate rather quickly. Otherwise, arts worth is of course questionable as it stands today. Much art is consistently produced but the conceptual factor of art makes it less approachable to the public without the priesthoods explanations and stamp of worthiness. If art is visually representing existence and if it talks about world matters in an educational manner but visually directly to the public, hence leaving the subjective evalution of a piece to the individual, I would argue that it should certainly remain. I nonetheless wonder if the structures which uphold arts status in the godly sanctuary will make such an evaluation possible as it also deflates their worth as the connosieurs. The futures changing world, when more imminent issues such as global warming are of increasing importance and will require a cut in the priviledged life style of ours could possibly deflate arts value in our lives in the west as well. This of course depends on the generational shifts and the value considerations that are inherited. Of interest for further discussion, for instance, is the carbon foot-print of the art world that is not small but has as a topic been hardly mentioned or arguably considered; perhaps due to people thinking that arts worth is unquestionable and clearly not something that needs to concern itself with mundane issues such the production side that after all is the unappreciated siamese twin of an art work and the showing or selling of it.

Kira Sjöberg