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?.