Why do we value art the way we do? What makes a new art graduate’s sculpture worth under $1000, yet Jean Michael Basquiat - an artist with no formal training - able to sell works at auction for up to $110 million dollars? Is it an arbitrary number based on hype, inflated to interest overzealous oligarchs and collectors as part of a self-perpetuating industry? Maybe though, it’s something more and art's value actually says something profound about what it is to be human.
Valuing art varies differently from generation to generation. Those canonised as classics, especially works by the Masters, are so valuable, they’re almost priceless. To understand the value we put on them is to understand rarity, scarcity and ‘value’ as based on an agreed upon acceptance of its worth within a particular framework of social values of exchange, prestige and money.
With contemporary art, it’s slightly more complex, as a lot of these artists are alive, so we’re buying into a personality or ‘brand’, just as much as we are a certain piece. With Basquiat, we had his story; the drug addicted homeless kid, slightly eccentric, who painted viscerally like no other in an evocative way that encapsulated ‘black’ life in America’s underbelly. There’s also the detail of his friendship with hype-king Andy Warhol - himself an interesting case. Warhol was a kind of mentor-friend who was the young artist’s in-roads to the art world. With Warhol’s endorsement, Basquiat became one of the most in-demand artists in the world.
Socially, America yearned for a black artist to break the structure of predominantly white ones defining their post-war image and culture. In Basquiat, they found a muse and gallerists, media and collectors milked it. Most artists of this fame acquire it through connections, usually fostered at art schools. Basquiat was an autodidact. This shouldn’t take away from how we perceive someone’s artistic output, but it often does - just not in Basquiat’s case, for aforementioned reasons.
Another way to think of value is this: if there was an apocalyptic event, say a viral outbreak, a meteor or something else as dramatically cataclysmic - how would art hold or gain its value? In such an instance, does a perceptive switch take place, where art is no longer luxury, but commodity? What art speaks to us so profoundly, so crucially breaks barriers, that it would still be worth millions and millions of pounds in the future?
If the world’s population halved, taking a lot of art dealers and critics with it - would Jeff Koons faux-balloon animals still rake in over £58 million? Or would we begin to value bread, clean water and oil more - leaving his sculptures as decaying legacies of a capitalist system hellbent on spending its own earnings?
This poses an important question. Cutting through all the bullshit of rhetoric and sales, what makes a piece of art generation-defining, so much so that its value would transcend any great shifts in humanity. Take Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man as a launchpad for the debate. In it, his iconic circular disc, centred within it an anatomical drawing of a man whose proportion he measured so exactly that is is as much medical book, philosophical thought-piece and geometrical equation as it is ‘just’ art.
Existing in-between science and art, its value is clear to see in that it has a transferable worth. Can you put a price on a feeling you get from something though? Viewers of Mark Rothko paintings often talk about feeling consumed by the colours, relating it to a cathartic biblical experience, as if an angel itself has become present. This is very different to one of Damian Hirst’s infamous works where animals are dissected in formaldehyde. Yet, they both evoke existential questions, asking of us what it is to be alive, to see and most importantly feel.
Their monetary value isn’t too different from each other - but would they be without the hype? Would Damien Hirst’s shark be no more than a museum piece exhibiting the interiors of an animal. Take away the artist, or his personality, would the art stand on its own? With a Rothko, like one of Jackson Pollock’s pieces, we would still feel the same way, presumably, after such an earth shattering apocalyptic event. But could we really value that feeling we get at $140 million, such as Pollock’s Number 17A was sold for?
Really, what we are trying to establish is the intrinsic value that art holds within a society and culture. That’s why the value of classics is more obvious, it’s stood the test of time, it’s endured and what it once stood for and either still stands for this or has even grown in how we look at it. Rich symbolism weaves a narrative that once beguiled, still manages to coax curiosity in the same way. Through societal transformations and subsequent generations, such pieces still hold their power. It is, essentially, art that tells a fundamental human truth.
The Mona Lisa, with her ambiguity in smile, story and size is widely regarded to be the most famous piece of art in the world - through repreoductions, venue, reputation and by repute of its artist. It’s no coincidence that Leonardo da Vinci, whose Vitruvian Man is so highly regarded, is capable of painting something so mesmarising as to have captured audiences all over the world for generations. Besides art, he produced medical and engineering masterpieces - all of which are still revered. Leonardo da Vinci was unquestionably a genius - something that never loses value.
Contemporary art can often struggle with its valuations. Its relative modernity is a large part of that. To say something is worth millions now, when art is so often seen as an investment (it would have to be, paying that money for something transient makes no sense) means you’re banking on it being worth something in the future. For that to be the case, the artist, as well as the audience and collectors, must all identify with its own human truth - a statement on the human condition that will never wane.
So, which pieces of art would survive an apocalyptic event? There’s no real answer, certainly not as straightforward as saying ‘the ones that are most valued now’. Rather, the ones that are most likely to hold their value, not solely on prestige of owner or artist, but because of the feelings we can derive from looking at them. Something that inexplicably touches us, casts its spell and won't let us go.
The medium doesn’t matter, but the message does. However an artist chooses to express themselves, unless they capture something truly meaningful, something as important now as it could be in the future - a piece will never endure. More importantly, when the zombies come, they’ll be the works worth something after the last arghhh!
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