When we look at art, we take many things into consideration. We examine the subject, take note of the medium and structure of the work, ask ourselves what the work means - whether to the artist or ourselves - and look to critics and art historians for verification of this meaning. In these moments, though, do we consider how we ascribe value to the work?
When we discuss the value of art, we tend to define this in one of two ways: by checking a price list or looking for credit provided elsewhere. These two modes of value at first feel like polar opposites. In some ways, they are; in other ways, it seems as though they should be, but they aren’t. The truth of the matter is that art occupies both of these values simultaneously, even when trying to shun one aspect of it.
Through this paper, we will delve deeper into these ideas, asking ourselves how we value art, examining how different people and organizations value art, and taking a deeper look at what we are valuing. While this paper will not provide a specific answer for how to value art, the goal is to provide a base from which this decision can be made.
How We Value Art
To begin this discussion of value requires the admission that art is, at some level, a commodity. As soon as an artwork hits the art market and begins to circulate, it assumes the role and characteristic of a commodity. However, within the art market there is a largely agreed upon idea that while art is a commodity, it is a commodity unlike any other. This is because the art world is a knowledge-based economy.
In her book High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture, Isabelle Graw argues that in a knowledge-based economy, such as that of the art world, the increase in the value of both knowledge and information provides art with “…increased importance would once more be accorded to the symbolic meaning bestowed upon an artwork, its symbolic value.” (Graw 2009) However, a work of art is not necessarily occupying only one of these modes of value at a time. Even within a single transaction, a work of art can shift between its symbolic and market modes of value, depending on the level of negotiation that occurs. In truth, the two values are intertwined. They might twist together, pull away from one another, or elevate one another, but the relationship is constant so long as it circulates in the economy.
The art world is a largely unregulated and informal economic system. This has changed very little in the past few decades, as evidenced by Robert Hughes in his 1978 article “Blue Chip Sublime.” In this article, he uses the story of Mark Rothko’s death and the ensuing lawsuits regarding the posthumous sale of his works as a basis to discuss how the art market functions in America (and beyond). He writes, “Professions are, in essence, self-regulating. They have strict codes of conduct and ethics. Their willingness to stick by these codes, enforce them on errant members and expel impenitent ones is what distinguishes professions from trades. But there is no agreement in the American art world on how critics, museum curators or dealers should behave.” (Hughes 1978)
This lack of regulation has a multitude of repercussions on the art world, particularly in relation to how we value art. Historically, the symbolic value of an artwork would be reinforced by critics, curators, and historians. The impact of these positions is still intact today. However, they are greatly reduced. In part, this is because of the increasing similarity in the promotional efforts of both non-profit and for-profit organizations. Programming, a traditionally non-profit tactic, can be seen at art fairs and in galleries. Auction houses hold mini-exhibitions of works before they go up for auction. Exhibition catalogues can be produced by anyone, and critics can be paid to write for them. Symbolic value, in a knowledge-based economy, can be and has been manipulated.
Manipulation can also be seen in the monetary value of a work. There is no true standard for affixing a number to a work of art. In discussions of the value of art, the players in this economy (artists, dealers, collectors, etc.) have a variety of methods for determining the price of a work. Some might say that the method does not matter: You can put any price you want on a work of art, but that price isn’t real until someone is willing to pay it.
Hughes reinforces this in his article when he states that, in a capitalist structure, the fair price for a work of art is the highest amount someone is willing to pay. (Hughes 1978) This principle can be viewed in plain sight at auction houses, where a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat fetched upwards of $57 million this past May.
Still, for the most part we tend to accept these systems of value with little resistance. Graw reinforces this idea yet again when she states: “The elevated price of an artwork is justified by its extraordinary symbolic importance, for which no price is too high.” (Graw 2009) But, does the price replace a work’s symbolic value? It can, at least temporarily, but only time and art history courses will tell whether this means of attaining symbolic value truly sustains the importance of a work.
Where and How Art Is Valued
How we value art is at times influenced by the spaces in which we view it. Take a moment to consider your favorite coffeeshop, cafe, or bar. Many of these spaces allow emerging artists and curators access to their walls to display work. These works are still creative expressions that many would consider art. However, visitors to these spaces don’t equate them with symbolic value - likely because the art is not the initial draw. When you walk into a cafe and order your beverage of choice, you might pay no mind to what the owners have decided to hang on the wall.
However, you might notice a series of works by a local emerging artist hung on the wall. They may be hung similarly to how a gallery would present them, or they may be hung in a more comfortable manner closer to how they might be hung in a home. In either case, it is more than likely that you have not ascribed the works the same level of symbolic value that you would had the works been presented in a museum or gallery space.
Again, this association with symbolic value is very intentional. A cafe has little to no interest in how well the works sell and most likely sees no profit from these sales. The cafe owner, while potentially appreciating the work itself, views the art as a means of filling space, creating a pleasant environment, and attracting visitors. When we visit an art museum, we move with the intention to view art. Because a museum does not profit from the works on display (outside of, perhaps, ticket sales), there is an association of more pure symbolic value with the space and with the art it houses.
In a commercial gallery space, however, visitors are faced with the idea of art as a commodity. The symbolic value is still present, but it is now intertwined with the monetary value of the work. This association might not be immediate or apparent, but it begins to take shape as the visitor peruses the price list or overhears the gallerist discussing a sale or making a deal. How this intertwining of values impacts the visitor can vary wildly, but these prices are now present in the mind.
The true display of unrelenting capitalism and monetary value is on view at the auction house. Isabelle Graw cites a 2006 interview with Tobias Meyer who at the time was the director of the Contemporary Art Department at Sotheby’s. “Interviewed on the art boom in news weekly Der Spiegel, he brazenly claimed that the most expensive works were the best,” she writes. “He quite openly equated high prices with aesthetic significance, lending the market the infallible authority of an artistic tribunal.” (Graw 2009) Despite the significance that Meyer attributes to market value, many auction houses still use tactics undertaken by both museums and commercial spaces to elevate the symbolic value of works: videos that explain the historical significance of the artist, exhibitions that allow visitors to preview the works, or even highlights that cling to former relevance. “Just as market value requires this kind of symbolic underwriting, symbolic importance attributed to an artist’s early work can function as long-lasting credit.” (Graw 2009)
As we move through these spaces, it is important for us to maintain our own perception of value, one that is less susceptible to the manipulations of charlatans.
What We Value
When considering the value of a work, it is also important to consider what is being valued. It seems safe to say that anyone involved in the arts was initially drawn in by a true connection to works. Indeed, at some level, we are all fueled by a love of art and the ideas of creative expression that it represents. However, it is necessary to recognize that this affinity for art is not the only motivation or drive for being active within the art world.
Collectors, for instance, operate as a sort of hybrid of the two modes of value. They love the work they collect and perhaps the people who create it, but they also value the social and economic aspects involved in collecting art. Being a collector, at a certain level, acts as a gateway into what might feel like a secret circle or a high society. In this mode, you share with the other members a sense of importance rooted with the artists you support and the value of your collection.
Here, what is being valued extends beyond the art. Yet, this question of what is being valued can begin before the transaction takes place. Before a work is hung in the house of a patron, we can delve a little more deeply into why the work has been collected. The ideal here is that the collector has invested in an artist by purchasing a piece of work that they love.
As an artist’s symbolic value increases, though, we must wonder whether those collectors are investing in the artist or in the artist’s signature. In an interview with Maria Eicchorn in her book The Artist’s Contract, Daniel Buren explains why he never signs his work. “It’s just like a mask that gives the impression that certain signatures, let’s say Picasso’s, have fabulous value,” Buren stated. “In fact, this is both true and not true. The value of that signature is based on the fact that in today’s conditions, if you speak about Picasso, a dozen or a thousand people who have a lot of money are ready to buy anything signed by him.” (Eichhorn 2009)
While they don’t interact in their writings, Graw echoes the sentiment that underlies Buren’s belief, stating that “…at large auctions, artworks are subsumed under the names of their creators and immediately reduced to price.” (Graw 2009) In this instance, much like what Meyer described, the monetary value of a work lends itself to what seems to be symbolic value and aesthetic significance. At times like these, the artist may even be elevated to a kind of celebrity status - at least within the art world - leading institutions that we associate with a more pure symbolic value to seek them out as a means to increase their own significance.
Ultimately, we - as visitors to these spaces, workers in the arts, potential collectors, et al. - must work to define our own understanding of value for art. A lack of regulation may not hinder the forward motion of the art world or the market, but it leaves both susceptible to manipulation by major players who seek to define value on our behalf. With a greater understanding of their methods (Some detailed above; some still subject to our own tastes.), we can move through the art world more freely and openly and with a sharper critical eye.
Eichhorn, Maria. The Artist’s Contract. Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Köln, 2009.
Graw, Isabelle. High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture. Sternberg Press, 2009.
Hughes, Robert. “Blue Chip Sublime.” The New York Review of Books, 21 December 1978.