The Value of Art

What determines the market value of a piece of artwork? I believe there is no escaping the principle of matching supply to demand that economy uses to set price. When it comes to art, supply can vary greatly. On one end of the spectrum we find unique, handmade masterpieces. On the other end come mass-produced reproductions, which have never been graced by the hands of the artist, or more recently, digital art, which although in principle available in infinite supply, is the object of the ongoing NFT bubble.

Demand and the underlying desirability of a piece are more difficult to quantify. Let’s start with quality. Quality refers to the skill and attention that the artist invested in making the artwork, and if applicable, the physical materials. I think it is instructive at this point to consider the scenario of the artist selling the newly-made piece first hand. They might be relying on the profits for their livelihood and therefore consider the returns per time spent (alas, bills must be paid) and any other expenses (materials, hardware, software). It is a rather common image, up to the point of becoming a stereotype, we see when thinking of the ‘starving artist’. And some artists promote this themselves. Not to say they do not perhaps have it hard, but being furious with the buyer who is trying to minimise expenditure (I am thinking of commission work for areas of art beyond ‘fine’: illustration, advertising) is not all that productive. Bob ‘the builder’ who needs a logo for his business will not care how much time and effort it takes to make the vector art, no matter how much the artist tries to drive the point home. And the public probably doesn’t know. They might however be willing to listen. My point is, artists explaining their efforts in an understandable way cannot hurt them. And it will at least win them the sympathy of the public.

And this brings me to the next point: how the public judges quality. The buyer looking for something ‘that will look nice on the living room wall’ will not appreciate the accuracy in the still life, the subtle and fine rendering of light and shadow or the quality in the composition. There is one caveat I find curious. In the 21st century, when almost everyone has a rather advanced camera in their pocket, people are still largely attracted to photorealistic and therefore highly accurate work. I think this is for two reasons: by having something to compare to in real life, they can judge the artwork without artistic training and by imagining the tedious work the artist puts in, they develop appreciation for the work. I am not a trained artist. But personally I feel the most exquisite rendering of a real life scene can be terribly boring. And a rough work made by an amateur can be very exciting if the subject is picked well.

On this point, I understand the frustration of the artist community: it is not only financial, but fundamental. Art is about more than the paint on the canvas or the bronze in the statue. Selling something that does not mean much to you, or conversely, not selling what means the world to you can leave you feeling desperate and betrayed. And then the anger gets vented on the public.. Everyone deserves to have their work appreciated, subject and proportional to their ability and putting in the effort. It is therefore essential for artists to find an audience that appreciates their work and is willing to spend the right amount for it.

But what about the public then? Do they only need wall decoration and business promotion? Art can be traded, but it can also be cherished. For the present article, I think it doesn’t matter. But in order not to give the public a bad image, I will discuss briefly. I was brought up in an artless environment, a culture which denigrated artists and their work. Conditioned, but also naturally resulting from the hardship of life. As far as necessities go, art is lower on the list, below food, housing, and money. Not surprising that the situation of people, regardless of where they live, not having enough money, looking at the ‘starving artist’, who has even less than they do, and not understanding what art is about leads to art being demonised.

The world works by people trading and forming interdependence relationships. Someone needs art, someone makes art. To go full circle, let’s go back to the issue of supply. Another way of looking at supply is through the question of originality. I feel this is important because, as mentioned, people deserve their efforts appreciated, and by tagging each work with the right name we are making this possible. Can overestimating the value of art (or anything else for that matter) be detrimental? I surely believe so, and that is why I think the NFT bubble is ridiculous, as is overpriced art in general. To summarise, an NFT (‘non-fungible token’) is a digital construct meant to identify the ‘original’ of a digital piece of art that is otherwise infinitely reproducible. My metaphor for explaining this is as follows: the NFT owner has a photo of the moment the artist ‘signed’ the work, and who the owner of the photo is, is recorded on a public database. The photo is the one with provenance, not the artwork. Here’s two examples of what I mean by overpriced (but not to say lacking value): digital art on Foundation App and physical works by Mark Rothko. I am sure some of the digital work being sold took great skill and effort to make. I am not a fan. I have seen the Seagram Murals in person. I am not a fan. The problem with such works, which have their immense price derived from status or pure financial drive, is that they drag art away from the general public and into the sphere of a minute fraction of the population. People can appreciate art without owning it, but a ridiculous price tag puts people off and creates a mental barrier: ‘Art is for the rich’. A practical one may exist as well: if the physical work of art is not in the public domain yet, the owner can choose to make it essentially inaccessible.

I think people need to make their own judgment when it comes to the value of art in general, and of particular works. I just hope this article will make them broaden their list of considerations.

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