Teaching with Contemporary Art

How Much Is That?

Jeff Koons, "Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Two Dr J Silver Series, Spalding NBA Tip-Off)", 1985 Image: themainevent.us

“How much is that?” or “How much is that worth?” are popular questions students ask, especially when teaching with contemporary art. Often I find myself embarrassed having to admit that the piece in question recently sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Inevitably, the student will then exclaim something along the lines of, “What?! That thing costs more than our house?!”

But lately I find myself trying to broaden (not avoid) the conversation by talking about the cost of art vs. what art is worth or why it’s valued by different people. While it won’t make it easier to explain a seemingly random collection of objects that sells for half a million dollars, it certainly gets students thinking from the opposite end of things. So this week I’d like to suggest some questions that may provoke our students to think differently about the price, cost, and even the value of works of art. Here we go:

  • How do artists come up with prices for their work?
  • What kinds of things should an artist consider when pricing a work of art?
  • As a student, if you had to price a work of art for your first group exhibit, how would you decide on that price?
  • What makes certain works of art cost so much more, or less, than others?
  • Describe the relationship, if there is one, between cost and value.
  • Is there a work of art or particular object that you would consider “priceless”? If so, what makes this object hold such enormous value?

Getting back to the original question, because we can’t avoid it, let’s also consider getting students to begin answering the question for themselves instead of us, for example, trying to justify the price of Damien Hirst’s latest endeavor:

  • Why do YOU think someone would pay so much money for a particular work of art?
  • What are some of the reasons people decide to purchase or collect art vs. other objects?
  • Does the price of a work of art communicate its value? Why or why not?

In the end, the reason that someone might pay half a million dollars for a work of art that most people would consider worthless is fairly easy: There’s a market for it. Just like there’s a market for great shortstops, miracle drugs, head-spinning gowns and head-spinning vehicles. But what art costs compared to what it’s worth- to the owner or the artist themselves- can be quite different. Teaching students to step back from what art costs and getting into the relationship between cost and value can be a much more rewarding conversation.


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