Illustration by Oliver Raw.

Cost, Value and Price

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

. . . the advent of a significant market for Asian and Chinese contemporary has finally given these art worlds a proper place in popular and critical discourse.

Ingrid Dudek, “Fast and Furious: Building Critical Taste in Asian Auctions,” ArtAsiaPacific, no. 85, p. 41.

In 1970, when former art student Ray Davies, lead singer of The Kinks, wrote the following words for “Lola,” he could not have realized their relevance for the art world today:

Well I’m not the world’s most physical guy

But when she squeezed me tight she nearly broke my spine . . .

Well I’m not dumb but I can’t understand

Why she walked like a woman and talked like a man . . .

Girls will be boys and boys will be girls

It’s a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world except for Lola

Referring to a transvestite, possibly transsexual, milieu, Davies gives voice to a situation we can all recognize: the state of being neither one thing nor the other. If we extend this idea to the world of contemporary art, a territory (as we all know) of hybridities, palimpsests and blind ambition (to name only a few of its characteristics), we find a similar ball of confusion.

Part of this results from the leaching of the language of aesthetics and art criticism into other, particularly commercial, fields—even to the extent that displays in shops are now “curated,” just as if they were the latest exhibition at Tate Modern! But the problem here is not with words. Language has a dynamic of its own that will not be restricted; it is the responsibility of those who use it to ensure that their own meanings are clear. The market, however, prefers opacity because it desires to present itself as much more than a mechanism for determining the highest price an individual will pay for a particular object, and would rather stress the mystique of being an instigator of “popular and critical discourse.” To an extent it is, but, as the author of these words made clear, its ability to do this is compromised by commercial intent.

Increasingly, throughout the art world, distinctions of “price” and “value” have become conflated, leading to the erroneous conclusion that because a work costs a lot it must be “good.” An expensive work may indeed sometimes be a good one, but the most superficial trawl through the galleries and auction houses of the world will quickly reveal that there is no causal connection between the two, and that this is by no means a general rule. Auction houses and commercial galleries, however, are repositories of great numbers of skilled, knowledgeable staff, trained to spot bad (perhaps I should say “less good”) works when they see them, but it is not their job to raise questions of aesthetic value publicly—unless the work in question happens to be a fake.

The boom in the contemporary art market since the 1980s, with the connected phenomenon of art as financial investment, has led to spirals of hype in both the commercial and public spheres of art. It has also funded a huge expansion in the commercial sector, which has been made evident by the large Kunsthalle-type spaces that many galleries have been able to build or adapt, as well as by the heavy museum-like catalogs and artists’ books they have produced. This has been of benefit both to artists and the public yet, over the same period, in terms of funding, the “rise” of the commercial gallery sector has been mirrored by the relative “decline” of public art spaces, which increasingly have been expected to support themselves from private sources in order to keep afloat in what is now a very expensive game.

It is hardly surprising that the whole idea of a public sector, whether in the arts or the wider realm, is running out of steam. In the North American city of Detroit, as well as in London and a number of provincial British towns, the “Men in Suits” who rule the show are considering selling all or part of their art collections so that they can use the money to stop gaps in other social or cultural provisions. The public galleries and museums themselves could be held to account for not being more articulate or forceful about their unique role in the creation of value in art and culture. But what protests are being made crash against the deaf ears of neoliberal ideology. Resistance seems pointless, and the institutions are forced to comply in order to survive.

Judging aesthetic quality in art, deciding on whether a particular work is any “good” or not, is rarely straightforward because it depends on a combination of subjectivity, knowledge and skill and, thank God, there can be no single “correct” conclusion, although some works are evidently much better than others. The “value” of the process is in elucidating why a work is “good” or not. Unpacking goodness in this way leads to a consideration of the contexts within which the artwork has been produced and shown, as well as of the individual talent of the artist and how this is expressed.

It is the task of any “good” curator or critic who works in a public institution to communicate such matters clearly and constructively, free of the pressures of financial or other material interests. Such skill is of great value and far beyond price. Public or private, we all have to live and work within different networks of obligation, connection and respect. Auction houses and commercial galleries perform vital roles within the ecology of contemporary arts, but within this ecology the public sphere is the touchstone, a stabilizing disinterested core. If public institutions are not valued, others will step in, but to the detriment of an open and critical culture; the cost of this will be immeasurable.