Monday, May 14, 2012

A Few Thoughts About High Priced Art

Last week I read a news story about three paintings that were sold this month for unimaginably large sums of money. A Lichtenstein piece garned 44 million, Edvard Munch's The Scream went for 119 million and Warhol's Double Elvis captured 37 million. These numbers were so at odds with what starving artists are getting that I had to explore this contemporary phenomenon a bit.

For many people, myself included, the question "What is art?" has been wrestled with from many angles over the decades. But only recently have I thought about, and not very deeply, the value of art in terms of worth. With so many art sales making the broader news these past few year one has to wonder what to make of it. I decided to pose a variation of this question to the Twin Ports Arts Align because I guessed (correctly) that some there had already dredged this question a little more than I.

UMD professor David Beard replied, "Every piece of art has a potential "exhibition value" -- the value someone will pay to see it, right? I'd pay a fiver to see the Scream... Walter Benjamin differentiates exhibition value from cult or traditional value in The Work of Art essay."

Artist/writer/critic Ann Klefstad share a little fable about art values that she had written a couple years ago. I will close today's thoughts with that fable.

Peter Spooner, curator at UMD's Tweed Museum, threw us his two cents. "What I have discovered over the years is that most people have a tendency to want to over complicate any discussion about art. Art objects are objects. Objects have many kinds of value, and they function for us in many different ways, including exchange (monetary) value. Subjected to a market (auction) the monetary or exchange fluctuates based on the same supply and demand process as any other good or service for sale. Art objects tend to be pretty fluid and less fixed in their functions than other classes of objects, so an art object may satisfy multiple functions at the same time. For instance, Edvard Munch's "The Scream" may be a sign of great wealth and status to an individual owner, and at the same time be an historical symbol of modernist angst, and at the same time be a personal emotional touchstone for an individual viewer, and at the same time be a concept applied satirically in a comedic sense."

Somehow the valuations do tend to make heads spin. Picasso created tens of thousands of paintings, sculptures and art objects, and someone once said about 4,000 were masterpieces. Now let's suppose that the average valuation for the masterpieces was 10 million dollars. This would add up to a whopping 40 billion dollars, which is more than the GDP of many nations in the world.

Weird thought: What if each poor country invested in training young artists, perhaps one great artist from each of the world's poorest countries could support the rest of the country with their paintings. Maybe people from rich countries would visit the poor countries to see their art studios, thereby increasing the tourist trade in these places.

Another thought I had when thinking about these things pertained to Jeff Koons. I was critical of Koons in an essay here last month, but am already re-thinking the guy. He's audacious, and has even infuriated people with his work and attitude, yet... when all is said and done isn't he just taking a chapter from the Warhol playbook? Who is to say what is and isn't a valuable work. Here's a short article on Koons' latest show.

For an entertaining perspective on this theme, I strongly encourage that you read Ann Klefstad's fable of a painting. Afterwards, think a bit about what has value to you.

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