Deep Thought Thursday: What is art worth?

Art and money never touch. They exist in parallel universes of value at comparable levels of cultural generalization: Art does nothing to money but translate it. Money does nothing to art but facilitate its dissemination and buy the occasional bowl of Wheaties for an artist or art dealer. Thus, when you trade a piece of green paper with a picture on it. signed by a bureaucrat, for a piece of white paper with a picture on it, signed by an artist, you haven’t bought anything, since neither piece of paper is worth anything. You have translated your investment and your faith from one universe of value to another.

–Dave Hickey (winner of the MacArthur Genius Grant), “Dealing,” in Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy

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13 comments to Deep Thought Thursday: What is art worth?

  • Great quote Alyson. At the end of the day, there is nothing unique about money. $1000 can always be replaced by a different $1000, no big deal. Art however is unique. Even the little wooden box my 5 year old decorated at tonite’s daddy daughter dance is totally unique. There is nothing else like it. Uniqueness often can have enormous value — to those that appreciate it, not for the sake of uniqueness but for what it is.

  • Some of these art guys are pretty good thinkers! I’ve been pondering this concept for a long time, and I’d pretty much got to the part where art and money aren’t the same, but beyond that, I was lost. I’m thinking this might be a good quote to post on my web-site. Thank you, and thank Doug Hickey. Walt

  • That’s what all money is, simply a consensual agreement to some implied value in the object. It’s just a printed piece of paper actually. ;) These little piece of paper have value due to the trust in their backing. Artwork has value due to the trust in it’s uniqueness. There’s really little difference. He’s spot on about both being about faith. That’s why we could actually bypass the money and trade the art for Wheaties. Even the value of our artwork can only be assigned – it isn’t inherent. It’s down to the viewer, purchaser or even the artist him/herself to assign that value. Hence many artworks end up crumbling in an attic or in the artist’s trashcan. They have no value until someone says they do by admiring or desiring them.

  • I think this is a very cynical view of the world and am glad I don’t share it. Art is nothing? but a piece of paper? (very very very VERY narrow view of art).Pooh. Glad I’m not a genius.

  • Gam

    Tammy, I think that is part of Dave’s point. Art’s value cannot be ascribed to the “artifact”. It’s value is in the appreciation of the “artifact’s” ephemeral’s qualities found within those that appreciate them. The money is the means to “exchange” that measure of value.

  • I absolutely love, love, love this quote….I don’t think it’s cynical at all. I think we have to get over thinking we’re so special because we make art. Everyone is capable of creation. Everyone’s creation is unique. It’s the perceived value of our creations that is conditional–and it’s all in the eye of the beholder…(or the investor–now, that’s cynical!)

  • Do all the same sentiments apply if we talk about a baseball card signed by the athlete? I think so and some folks put more faith in those than they do art. Just a different value system.

  • Fascinating quote, getting us to think a bit more especially about the meaning of art. For artists and some others, art is a wonder, a mystery, a powerful statement full of emotion. But I believe there are lots of people not attuned to this aspect of reality; if they think about art as having value at all, it’s only because they were told or read that it does, not because they get it from the immediate seeing/hearing/touching a work of art. Why do I think that? In spite of being an artist at heart all my life, many works of art leave me cold, trying to figure out “what is here that I don’t get.” I assume this may be true for others about any art at all, not just some examples. It’s wonderful to me when teachers, writers, or tv experts can show me reasons why something I don’t “get” is worth another look. I appreciate it when I learn what I need to open up some kind of art that was closed to me before. Or on a different level, to see more even in art pieces that I already enjoyed! Money is easy: we’ve been learning about that since Grandma gave us a dollar to spend on candy. Or since we learned what to do to get Grandma to give us a dollar in the first place! Carol Lois Haywood, pacific marine artist

  • Ted: I’m sure that little box is much more valuable to you than any high-end piece of art. Walt: Use away! Tina: Do you think that there is a certain level of art–based on years and years of sales, critical acclaim, museum aquisitions, etc.–that is inherently valuable? In other words, does it have to be tested?

  • Tammy: I agree with Gam. I think you and Dave Hickey are closer to agreement than you believe. Mary: You are special. But, then again, everyone is special. Sometimes we forget that. Lisa: Yes! “A different value system.” Those people who fork over the money for baseball cards probably wouldn’t do the same for fine art. Carol: You wrote, “if they think about art as having value at all, it’s only because they were told or read that it does, not because they get it from the immediate seeing/hearing/touching a work of art.” Do you think it’s because we don’t ascribe value to things that bring us emotional pleasure or even intellectual pleasure? I love it that you’re open to the learning. Too many artists close themselves off from what they don’t “get” at first.

  • I find myself wondering: is this truly a deep thought or a rationalization? Hickey’s stance on the subject of how art and money influence each other is so philosophical and so intellectual (he is a theorist and critic after all), that I wonder if the only way he has been able to resolve this tricky issue for himself is by reducing art and money to perception, and placing them so far apart as to be in different universes – and thereby distancing himself from the whole messy struggle. It’s a very hygienic conclusion. Art and money never touch? If only it were so simple, tidy and pure. He never says that money is “bad,” but I think the appeal of his conclusion comes from what we fear money will do to our art when they do touch (i.e., will it be contaminated?). If they exist in separate universes, then we don’t have to worry about that (whew!). Except that it isn’t true. In my day-to-day life, money and art exist in the same universe and frequently touch. To deny that reality with an intellectual rationalization such as this one is not a useful response to the challenges of earning a living as an artist. [Once I started writing about what I thought of this quote, I found I had a lot to say – far more than would be appropriate to post here as a comment. For those who might be interested, I’ve posted my full “critique” on my blog: just click my name below.]

  • Tara Carey

    I like to keep it simple. When I think about artwork and money together I usually just ask myself, “What is it worth to me to keep this for myself?” Then I price it a little higher. I can always feel good about letting the piece go. And the reason the buyer wanted it – personal pleasure or as an investment – matters far less to me. Our views of the real value of artwork will always be different, but they can exist as truths completely independent of the other. Some will only see the emotional, some only the aesthetics, others just dollar bill signs and they are all right.

  • […] he said famously back in ’97 that “art and money never touch.” He first wrote: “Art does nothing to money but translate it. Money does nothing to art but facilitate its […]