What is the value of art?

Tom Sachs. "Hermés Value Meal," 1997. Cardboard, thermal adhesive; 15.35 x 7.87 x 7.87 inches.

Tom Sachs. Hermés Value Meal, 1997. Cardboard, thermal adhesive; 15.35 x 7.87 x 7.87 inches.

Flash Points, a monthly conversational series that ran on the Art21 Blog (now the Art21 Magazine) from 2008 to 2013, welcomed a range of guest writers to address questions relevant to thinking about contemporary art. In 2009, we asked, “What is the value of art?”—a question that provoked writers and readers alike to discuss the Great Recession, its affect on artists and institutions, and “larger philosophical issues about the deeply complicated relationship between art and money, and…the value of art in our individual lives.”1 On the occasion of this fourth issue of the Art21 Magazine, with its focus on value, we’ve gathered highlights from the Flash Points archive.

Letter from London: Face Value

Phil oh yeah

Ben Street, a former Art21 Blog columnist, approached the value of art from the perspective of a museum educator:

You can’t [lead a tour] without being asked, at some point, ‘What’s that worth?’ Depending on the questioner, how well the tour went, and how loyal you’re feeling, your answer can vary wildly…Whatever amount you quote, the reaction is always incredulous, as well it should be. The very idea of art being worth anything, to a mind trained to associate fiscal worth with functional value, is ludicrous, since the apparatus that assembles value in art is a fuzzy one, a sum of socialized activities (writing, talking, thinking) of no translatable worth in the ‘real’ world, and of no logical equivalence to that pile of rags in the corner of the gallery or [that] picture of a flushed duke in a periwig.

The Simpsons Family (Art) Values

Guest writer Julia Steinmetz directed readers to an episode of The Simpsons:

In ‘Mom and Pop Art,’ a treasure of an episode from 1999, Homer is discovered as an ‘outsider artist’ after a home improvement mishap. As the value of Homer’s work rises and falls on Springfield’s art market, Marge becomes increasingly disappointed that no one seems to appreciate the worth of her representational paintings.

The Power of Now: Adrian Piper’s Indexical Present

Adrian Piper. "Food for the Spirit #11," 1971. Silver gelatin print; 14.5 x 15 inches. Edition of 3 (+1 AP).

Adrian Piper. Food for the Spirit #11, 1971. Silver gelatin print; 14.5 x 15 inches. Edition of 3 (+1 AP).

Steinmetz also contemplated the value of mindfulness—of “being in the moment”—as it pertains to early works by Adrian Piper:

While most practices of mindfulness limit their focus to shifts in the consciousness of the individual; some artworks demand consideration of interpersonal mindfulness, the value of an attentional focus on the here and now of the social. While artist Adrian Piper is well known for having been a practitioner of yoga since the 1970s, mindfulness is deployed in her work in a way that expands beyond individual practice and moves to the interpersonal, making certain moments of social engagement very present. Piper describes the ‘indexical present’ as a directed attentional focus on the immediate here and now; basically mindfulness that is pointed to a particular moment, a moment of contact.

What a Way to Make a Living: New Artist Economies and the Role of the Arts Administrator

Elaine Tin Nyo. "The Bake Sale," 1997. Deitch Projects, New York, NY. Courtesy the artist.

Elaine Tin Nyo. The Bake Sale, 1997. Deitch Projects, New York, NY. Courtesy the artist.

Guest writer Tracy Candido addressed the problem of getting paid when working in an administrative capacity:

The administrator attempts to create access points for the public in an effort to navigate issues such as visual literacy and artistic citizenship. This desire to bring people closer to the arts undergirds the administrator as a valuable position in the art ecosystem. As an arts administrator, my consistent end goal is that of assisting artists with their projects. In my effort to formulate a sustainable model for these artists, I am curious about how to sustain my own work, pay my rent, my cell-phone bill, my Internet connection, and secure all of the cash flowing into renting equipment, creating announcements, and competing with the for-profit system that has capital for these sorts of things. I feel that I must function like a small business, where I, as the owner, pay myself last.

The Fire’s Good for the Forest: An Interview with David A. Ross

Photo of David Ross by Harry Zernike, 2010.

David Ross. Photo: Harry Zernike

David Ross, the former director of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, was interviewed by Kelly Huang, a former Art21 Blog columnist:

Commercial value, to a large extent, is still a function of intrinsic value. From time to time, work that has no intrinsic value to speak of generates enormous commercial value. But that’s the exception that proves the rule. For the most part, value even in the marketplace is a function of the direct mission of a work’s intrinsic value by competing players who want to control that work. So the primary issue is always the intrinsic value of a work [and being able to predict it, see it, judge it, and compare it to the intrinsic value of reasonably similar works]. That is a key issue in the art world, and that, of course, is the stuff of connoisseurship.

No Preservatives: The Clocks’ Tic Tic Tic…

Nam June Paik. "Who's Your Tree," 1996. Aluminum framework, (31) 13" televisions, (3) 25" televisions, (3) laser disk players. Now and Future Purchase Fund and Robert and Ina Mohlman Art Fund. © The Estate of Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik. Who’s Your Tree, 1996. Aluminum framework, (31) 13″ televisions, (3) 25″ televisions, (3) laser disk players. Now and Future Purchase Fund and Robert and Ina Mohlman Art Fund. © The Estate of Nam June Paik

Richard McCoy wrote from the standpoint of an art conservator, whose job is to care for and repair artworks:

I value art so much that I’m working to help keep it viable now and in the future—that is, when it is designed to be kept around for that long…Today, I believe the value of art is directly tied to the notion of authenticity of representation. By this I mean the accuracy of representation of an artist’s idea(s). [For example in] Nam June Paik’s Who’s Your Tree, even when guidelines are established as to how an artwork can change over time, the concept of authenticity and correct representation is still complicated and open to some level of interpretation. 

Browse the Art21 Magazine archive to read more responses to “What is the value of art?.


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  2. Antonio Madriz says:

    I am currently an art 1.2 student at a junior college and really do not know much about art besides a little history that was taught in my course. I personally believe that each piece of art is valued by the perspective of the person who is seeing it. Every person has their own taste on what they do and do not like. I personally would not pay a high amount of money on an abstract painting because it simply does not satisfy my taste on what I like about art. This goes back to my perspective and what I think is worth buying or what I appreciate. Each person can set a different value on a certain piece of art. For example, the Mona Lisa to most people considered a masterpiece of art, but I am sure there is someone out there that sees no worth in that piece. In the end, art is something most people can appreciate because of the beauty that it unfolds and one should not get in a debate on what art should be valued and instead admire what each artist brings to the table.

  3. Mikayla Barker says:

    I think that the article about The Simpsons was really interesting because I can relate in the people that were buying the art. I would rather look at contemporary art and something that I have to think about than just a painting that I can walk up to and know what it is. I think that it adds value when you have to think about the art, what it means, and what the artist is trying to tell you. In the article homer is known as an “outside artist” because his work is outside of what people are seeing normally, such as Marge’s painting.

  4. Laura Rogers says:

    I believe there are two different questions here. One is what the value of a finished piece is, and the other is what the value of creating art is. Creating art is extremely valuable in the sense that it helps motor skills, gives individuals freedom of expression as well as the ability to explore new aspects and stay aware of their surroundings. However, the first question remains as to what the value of finished art is. Finished art can be valued in currency, which is important to help maintain artist careers, but it also builds culture and evokes emotions of those viewing the finished art piece. Some societies from the past are known only from their art alone. From our ancestor’s cave drawings to the Egyptian hieroglyphs, art is a window to the past and it will always be valuable to the world.

  5. Sophia Compton says:

    The article that mentioned works from Adrian Piper interested me the most in talking about the “mindfulness” of here in the moment and made me think about how pictures are not just for being portraits or just artsy expressive creations but also address important issues. Like they are a news story in a visual way or help add to one. How art can address serious and important situations and not always be about “drawing you’re dreams” or “expressing yourself” or something like that but can help us focus and contemplate on a current issue.

  6. Carlo Battaglia says:

    I found this article to be very interesting. I found the articles that had people discussing art prices the most interesting. I found this part interesting because I enjoyed listening to the different opinions that the different people had. This article made me question the actual value of art. Especially because some pieces that aren’t very detailed are more valuable than others. I also realized that some pieces need to be viewed in more detail for their value to be determined. I also thought it was interesting how some people can be surprised by the worth of a piece of art. This article made me think of art in a new way.
    – Carlo Battaglia

  7. Alvaro Viana says:

    Dictating the value of Art is such a touchy subject a work of art that to some may not be worth much, may be worth a lot to a different person. The thing is Art subjective in a lot of times a person might be willing to pay top dollar for something they may not even understand or appreciate just because society says its art. I think the important thing is to find something you like and appreciate something that moves you. Because I think the value of Art is not dictated by money but instead by how it makes you feel.

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