Monday, March 8, 2010

i heart putting a price on Art

A picture is worth: well, how much?


When the news came of a record amount paid for a work of art at auction, the reaction of TV news media was predictable.

Jim Waley, the redoubtable newsreader-walrus on Sky News, gave his best wry smile and raised eyebrow as he advised stunned viewers that Alberto Giacometti's L'homme qui marche had sold at Sotheby's in London for $117.7 million. His look said it all: can you believe it, a statue of a man walking is worth how much?

The story occupied the traditional space left for art stories in commercial TV news - after the sport, before the weather, the place where we can see amusing footage of swimming cats, conjoined twins or the discovery of dwarf planets. It's art's natural home, the freak show end of serious news.

This is, of course, unsurprising in itself, but what is curious about these kinds of stock stories is how they point to a nagging contradiction in the way people think about the value of art.

What we value is the authentic voice of an artist, someone whose vision of the world is underscored by their integrity and dedication to their medium. That has a value beyond mere currency.

Although Giacometti was exactly the kind of artist that you could respect, we get twitchy when big dollars are spent on art such as his. The money spent sullies the credibility of the art, and the people who spend it are also suspect.

That the rumoured buyer of the bronze sculpture was said to be either a Russian or a Middle Eastern collector seemed to confirm the worst suspicions of many - the purchase was simply for a conspicuous trophy by someone with no clue to the work's real value.

To put this attitude into perspective, it's interesting to look at art at the other end of the spectrum - art that is considered worthless.

One of my favourite TV shows at the moment is Selling Houses Australia, where a rude Englishman goes around telling people how to sell their suburban dumps. The answer is a home makeover where all traces of individuality are erased and a bunch of hired furniture and bed linen gets trucked in to turn the house into a glossy magazine's idea of good living.

Along with the brown and black furniture comes some stock art to line the walls chosen for its colour, texture and size. The show has a limited budget so they always use the same art - abstract pieces in brown, beige and black with tasteful frames.

Looking at these ''art works'', you know they're just generic space-fillers, perhaps made by real artists, or just as likely they're churned out of a factory. They have no integrity and no one in their right mind would ever consider spending more than $100 for the lot.

Yet on the one hand we value the genuine artistic impulse while on the other we collectively revile something we consider overpriced or, by contrast, truly worthless.

So where does the true value of art actually lie?

No matter how much integrity a work of art may have, when its monetary value passes a certain point the public thinks it's therefore rubbish - and so, too, for the art works that end up as actual rubbish awaiting council pick-up.

It's been argued the proper place for art is in public museums where it can be enjoyed by the people, instead of locked away in the Black Sea palace of some Russian oil baron.

Museums are repositories for works of art considered so valuable that their market price is meaningless - can anyone imagine what the Mona Lisa would sell for, or would they even want to imagine such a thing?

These historically and culturally important art works exist beyond consideration of their market value - never mind that the people who put up the money for their purchase by museums are usually the same banks, financial funds and billionaires who populate the auction rooms.

Like the public outrage over executive salaries and pay-outs, the value of art is a story that can be replayed endlessly because we seem to have no real idea of how we estimate the worth of a cultural object like a painting or a sculpture.

Since the material value of art is negligible, we're paying for something - but what?

Andrew Frost is an art critic and the writer and presenter of The Art Life on ABC1.

Source: The Age

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