The Value of Our Art, Part 2: Masterpieces, Money and Meaning.


Last time we introduced the basis for determining the price of an artwork; and we considered why aesthetics – the visual form of an artwork, created through skilled practice – does not exclusively correspond to how much a work is valued. This becomes especially clear when we hold up a million-pound-valued piece sold through a prestigious auction house compared with our favourite work from a locally-working artist. Today, we want to consider some of the other factors that determine what makes some works worth millions or what awards particular pieces a place in the European canon of art history?

Are there art-geniuses?

This conversation so often circles around concepts such as ‘genius’,
‘originality’, ‘authenticity’, and ‘singularity’. We are often led to believe that it is these things that certainly determine an artworks’ value. We may believe that Vincent Van Gogh was a superior genius (of skill and imagination for instance) to a local artist down the road, and that is why his works fetch a higher price at auction. But must we wholeheartedly believe this idea? Is there a magical selection of specific artist-geniuses scattered across time and space – whose works are just worth more? Some certainly think so. It seems odd, then, that most of these now canonised, precious artworks were produced white, European, heterosexual, cisgendered men. Are these all factors that make a person a genius? Are these the things that make an artwork valuable? Well… sort of (but the tide is slowly changing). What this tells us is that the value of an artwork (and we mean both its perceived intellectual and its given financial value) is determined, not only by the work gone into the piece, but by the world it circulates within. This, too, is why artworks change in value across time – not always going upwards in value. People often say that the ‘art market’ influences what is valued, and at what price. What this actually means is that the specific institutional associations (auction houses, art schools, galleries, and so on), the word of particular individuals (connoisseurs and dealers, for instance), and academic scholarship, all contribute to the valuation of an artwork and its artist. Simply put, the socio-political world we live in shapes what ‘we’ (or the art market, anyway) identifies as art, values as ‘good’ art, and awards the highest price tag.

The power of the art market.

This art market is also made of the same circles as those who decide what is ‘authentic’ versus what is ‘fake’; what is ‘good’ versus what is ‘bad’; what is hung in a gallery and what is not; what is ‘original’ and what is just another artwork. Artworks do not circulate in these gigantic, rich circles of important people, status, canon and money because they are inherently ‘the best’. They are, rather, picked up on and become valuable because of a particular quality in them (or in the artist) valued at the time, thanks to the ideologies or taste of the time, chance aspects of the artist’s approach, the needs or desires of the art market, the direction of academia, the artist’s own connections, or any number of other culturally specific, historically relative, reasons. Really worth noting is that racial bias, gender-based exclusion, and many other culturally determined factors include or exclude specific artists and their work from opportunities more broadly, and from the art market itself – from galleries, auction houses, academia, and beyond. This is an overt role that art plays in sustaining systemic racism, and other forms of ‘epistemic violence’ (violence and exclusion through knowledge systems). And this is why Euro-American artistic canon, auction houses, academia, and this abstract ‘art market’ more widely, are still deeply exclusionary today. So, the value of an artwork often becomes a matter of chance. The perfect combination of temporality, visual (or non-visual) qualities, and opportunities that have come together in a single person, and a single artwork, at a specific moment. Art dealers and auction houses are experts in knowing what will become valuable at a specific time – and they, amongst other participants, also influence what becomes valuable and when.

So, while the whats and whys of art valuation is complex, and usually unique to each individual case, we hope this blog has given you an insight into the practicalities and politics of pricing works of art. We hope you can now see that canonised artists are not necessarily and objectively better and more valuable than those left outside of the art history books. The picture (so to speak) is much bigger, more complex, and most definitely more political than it might first appear. For this reason, while art can be used for investment, we always advocate choosing artworks to own because you love them, or you love the artist behind them. While it might turn your stomachs when we say this, the value of art truly lies in its meaning to you. You can’t put a price on that! Well… we technically do, but you get our point…