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The Cost of Everything ... and the Value of Nothing

Lindsay-Hunt-art

And now, another rather long-winded ‘word’ from the Company Secretary.
(Image: “The Company Secretary”, Lindsay Hunt)

I write this, in a state of shock, after learning of Christopher Hitchens’ inevitable demise.

His death has underscored a number of existential issues that have danced wildly in my head the past few weeks; not the least-most, art, and its value. And although I am nowhere near as an accomplished writer as the venerable Mr Hitchens, I shall attempt to explore this subject in some depth.

By value, I do not mean some wildly abstracted (yet valid) proposition that art brings joy, contemplation, and even decoration to one’s life. No, I refer to the land-mine issue of how art is “valued” (in a financial sense), and what it is worth - slightly different issues, gentle reader.

If we restrain the discussion to the question of “how is art valued”, to one of proper & fair remuneration to the artist, this alone raises even more questions regarding the role of galleries, what patrons will be prepared to pay, and the inevitable position of the artist themselves.

Have you ever been to a gallery and witnessed a piece that was, to your mind, mediocre at best, yet commanded a price that made you wince? Indeed, has the reverse happened to you? Is there an instance where you stood before a work that beguiled you so; and whereupon glancing at the price, your blood quickened as you raced for your coins? (Lest any other appreciative eye steal it from beneath your very gaze?). Of course!

This is a most vexing issue for all in this small industry, (yes Virginia, it IS an industry, and has been for centuries). It raises fundamental issues about what an artist does, what it costs to do it, and how much a buyer is prepared to pay. Is the production of “Art”, “work” in the popularly understood meaning of that word? Yes and no. Yes, it is work in the sense that an individual toils, physically, intellectually, and emotionally to produce an object, or at least an idea, that then has its own life, independent of the artist. So, in a traditional deterministic market sense (and indeed, a Marxist sense), yes, the production of art is work. That said, many folk including artists, dealers, and ourselves, would argue that it is more than mere work (in its utilitarian sense). It is the packaging and transmission of some of the artist’s “soul”. It, like virtually no other human activity serves the seemingly contradictory Gods of “creation” and “re-creation”, in their now unfashionably Marxist sense.

Art is a product, to be sure, and like all products, occupies a dizzying galaxy of price points. However, the old axiom of “you always get what you pay for” doesn’t always apply in the art world. Sometimes you get more, sometimes you get less, often, you get a fair deal. But before we examine that, let’s look at what it means to be an artist. Readers will forgive the simplification, (sorry, I’m writing a blog, NOT a PhD.), but artists fall primarily into two distinct camps:

1. I’m interested in art and I enjoy painting, and have produced work over a period of time, but I’m no fool, I’ve got a “real” job as well.
2. I can’t help myself. Art is my life, it is who I am, and without the ability to do it, I’ll die.

Artists in camp #1 occupy an interesting position. They do art because they like to do so, but for reasons self-determined (perhaps valid & invalid), they have relegated their art to the status of “serious hobby”. They may feel rightly or wrongly, that their art isn’t good enough, or serious enough, or doesn’t have a real possibility of sustaining them financially.

Many times they are right, and sadly, sometimes they are dead wrong.

Camp #2 do art full time and it is their life. They are fascinating creatures that are broadly split into two sub-camps: “The Professional Artist” and “This is my life”. Of course, there is a broad shade of grey that traverses these two positions, indeed, many times the artist will occupy both ends of this camp. Allow me to explain.

It goes without saying that most artists in camp #2 are dedicated to their art. They view it as something innate to their being, way more than a job or vocation. They wake each day with the excitement and dread of a blank canvass/stone/metal/page (insert your medium of choice here). For them, making art is a fundamental challenge that goes beyond mere production; it is the naked revelation of self. These people have devoted their lives to their art (yes it sounds corny I know, but for most of them, this is absolutely true). For these folk, art is not an occupation, a 9 to 5 activity, something to fill in the time and generate an income. It is so much more than this. Some of the more professional (read ambitious) of them may be chasing every art prize, schmoozing with dealers and collectors, and planning their next assault on the Tate. Others may be ensconced in their dimly-lit studio producing stunning work, most of it not ever seeing the light of day, let alone a gallery wall or a collector’s house. Regardless of the wide range of self-perception and self-promotion that exists amongst these artists, all in camp #2 have one thing in common, they live for their art, whether you like it or not.

Ok then, how do we value art?
Perhaps we should consider how we should NOT value art first, and then move on.
So, pretend for a moment that we are economic reductionists, let’s look at what it costs to make art in the real physical world and for the moment, forget all the airy-fairy abstractions regarding dignity and creativity. (Oh, by the way, please, no emails/letters/firebombs protesting my generalisations please, remember, it’s a blog and I’m a writer exploring ideas, not an accountant covering all financial contingencies!).

An artist (painter in this instance) has an idea for painting.
It is of small to immense size.
It will take a few days/weeks/months to execute .
It will require materials.
It will demand creativity & patience (whoops, no cell on the spreadsheet for that!).

So, materials and time (labour), are the very baseline we start with.
Our furrowed brow accountant pronounces that the manufactured cost of the work lies somewhere between $300 and somewhere significantly beyond this, (depending on the variables above).

Let’s ask a qualified tradesperson about their hourly rate; a QC, a professor, a drug dealer. And that’s just for the execution of their respective duties. If we include the time and effort involved in the task of conceptualization, we add another significant cost to the equation.

So, ignoring “skill”, “beauty”, or any other non-empirical consideration, we have a price, (for produced cost – let alone final sale).
But is this any way to value art?

As sober as this may appear to some readers (God help us all), would this not be absurd applied to a Caravaggio, Dali, Smart, or Hirst? (OK,OK, I’ll give you Hirst - sorry Damien!).
“Gee, that DaVinci is bloody small! ‘Mustn’a cost him much to slap-up Ol’ Mona eh?!”
Indeed ....

Yes, I’m being facetious, but I want to make the point that the vast majority of the artists, in this country at least, are living so far below the average wage, it’s not funny. Yes, there are a few spectacular exceptions, and we eagerly await the day when most artists achieve the financial success of exemplars such as William Robinson. (Don’t hold your breath).

A number of things continue to irritate and fascinate me in equal measure. After years tromping around the periphery of the art world, I find myself very much “in it”, and the veils are lifting at a frightening rate. It continues to amaze me that some folk who claim to represent the artist’s best interests are actively pursuing the opposite. Instances where certain artists have been paid ONE SIXTH of a sale price abound. Even more sadly, accomplished artists, who may be new and emerging, are sometimes given no guidance as to pricing, allowing them to undervalue their work encouraging the cheapening of the gallery, the industry and the expectations of buyers/collectors. At the other end, please don’t get me started about folk who think galleries are the aesthetic equivalent of “The Good Guys” and the artworks are white goods waiting for discounts to fall upon the canny shopper. Classy; and respectful.

Oh, and we didn’t even get around to talent and the transcendent nature of some art, that would be the “worth” thing I mentioned before - another blog kids.

The creation of art, and the disposition of the unique creatures that do it well is a rare and valuable thing. It deserves respectful consideration and should be accorded a price commensurate with its lasting effect. Good art lingers longer than a case of Grange or a nice European car; but often costs considerably less.
What price lasting joy?

Artists and their work (the good ones!), are worth more than we think and care to give credit to.

Live long & prosper ...