The Age in Australia has this trenchant run trying to explain the mix of meaning that comes when we talk about art in terms of its exchange value. The art market is a fascinating place where works are distributed by forces that seem like alchemy. But price of a work of art is not a measure of its value. That’s one reason there’s such tension between the commercial world of art and the academic world of museums. But let’s let the editors of The Sydney Morning Herald have a stab at the subject:
Painting and money have a special relationship. Music is performed over and over again; novels are printed by the thousand. But there is only one of any painting for the dollars to chase. That is why the art market reaches its astronomical heights. In fact a painting is worth only what it is made up of: a canvas, some wood and some paint, plus the work undertaken by the artist who will often have sold it originally for a fraction of its present value.
All the rest is a cultural overlay we as a community place upon it. Without any other way to measure its artistic or cultural value for certain, we use the only readily comprehensible measure we know – money. It becomes a circular process: someone has paid $5 million for a painting because it is good; the painting is good, because someone has paid more than $5 million for it. The market, moreover, feeds on itself in familiar ways. A herd instinct takes over, pushing artistic fashions at the expense of others. Contemporary trends can price craftsmanship at a discount. Painting gets lost in all this.
In the end, huge prices are not the mark of achievement, but a confession of failure. They are the tribute paid by those who believe they cannot see the world in new ways to those they hope can.
That last bit might go a little too far. But there’s a point to be made that when we remember the price more than the value of the picture, the painting has failed.