decentralizing cultural economix | The Value of Art

“All art is quite useless.” -Oscar Wilde

Before we consider the value of art, we must define art.

What is art?

Art is whatever one declares is art. It is not necessary to be the maker to utter the declaration; when your dessert is served you may proclaim “this is a work of art,” and so it is.

This is because “art” is a label that gives voice to a recognition of aesthetic value. Thus, it is only necessary for one person to appreciate the artistic value of a slice of cake—your dinner companion or waitperson need not concur.

You’re describing a self-satisfying feedback loop! I thought value is something that is shared?

Unless you made the cake yourself, from ingredients you farmed yourself, with tools you made yourself, then your aesthetic valuation of the dessert-art is inherently an interaction with multiple beings and systems outside of yourself. Your aesthetic appreciation of the dessert-art is made possible by Planet Earth’s ecosystem and thus your valuation is a personal connection with, and acknowledgment of, your interaction with the environment at large. That’s why you, evolved animal that you are, paused to appreciate the cake as art instead of just gobbling it down like a feral dog. That’s why tomorrow’s cake made on a terraformed Mars colony is more likely to be declared “art” by post-humans.

Yeah, but art is best when it’s a medium of connection between people!

Value may be a medium of exchange between two or more appreciators. Aesthetic value may be shared; your dinner companion may gaze upon your cake and agree your dessert is a work of art, or declare that their slice of pie is art while your cake is not. Either way, the desserts have thus acquired additional social value because they became something to talk about, as art/not-art. If you enter into a long debate about whether or not the cake may be art by proclamation, then the dessert-art has acquired philosophical value as a fulcrum of that exploration of value. Hell, this imaginary cake has philosophical value just because I’m writing about it and you’re reading. If you argue with your friend about who has the power to call the cake art, then the dessert-art acquires political value. If the contemplation of the dessert-art leads to insight on a physical phenomenon or spiritual revelation, then – boom! – now the dessert-art has scientific-or-religious value. Let’s cryogenically freeze the cake or mummify it!

Thus, the primary value of art is aesthetic value and the secondary values of art are social, political, philosophical and potentially inspirational values.

All these values may emerge even in the absence of the portrayal of recognizable objects, or subject or theme in an artwork. Artwork that is “about” something may or may not enhance the value of the artwork. Abstract art has been used as a cold-war propaganda weapon and banned as Entartete Kunst.

What if the chef does not agree the cake is art?

If you tell the chef “you are an artist, and your dessert is art,” the chef may accept the compliment but need not agree with you. However, it is likely the chef made your dessert with care and love and thus earned your aesthetic appreciation and may therefore accept your assertion, for artists are the makers of aesthetic value, a deep and rare kind of value, especially when that aesthetic value is shared and fosters social-political-philosophical-inspirational value.

“Beauty is a rare thing.” – Ornette Coleman

May art engender valuation beyond aesthetic and social/political/philosophical/inspirational value?

If you eat the dessert, then the slice of cake also has nutritional value. If you offer friends a bite, they share the nutritional value.

So, the tertiary value of art is its utility value?

Correct. Usefulness may reduce the aesthetic value for many beholders, hence our special labels for utilitarian art. Excepting culinary art, we call these “useful” arts “design,” when mass-produced by machine, or “craft,” when individually crafted by a crafter’s hand. We may amplify the aesthetic value of an artwork merely by denying its utility: a Tiffany vase is no longer used to hold flowers when it’s exhibited in The Met.

So, utility value and monetary value impact aesthetic value?

Usefulness compromises and reduces aesthetic value; usefulness compromises social value not so much. If we accept that impermanence has only a relative impact on aesthetic value—for all is impermanent and aesthetic value may persist as a memory of an experience—then dessert is rarely declared art merely because it offers nutritional value, not because it spoils quickly. If that cake delivered all of the taste with no nutritional value, or were rendered as hologram without advertising a business, we may describe it as “pure” art.

Thus, the most arty art is primarily an advertisement for its own useless self—useless except for its aesthetic value, less so its social value, and less yet for its monetary value. The more down-to-earth an artwork’s non-aesthetic value, the more quotidian its function, the less exalted its ethereal artiness. Similarly, entertainment culture is useful for-the-people but folk art is beauty for-the-people-by-the-people-of-the-people, and thus is more aesthetically valuable in its pricelessness (just ask Mark Zuckerberg.)

What about monetary value?

If you paid for the dessert or split the cost with your friend, it has monetary value.  For all this shared primary aesthetic and secondary value received, merely by naming the dessert-art, your friend has also enforced the monetary value of the dessert, whether or not they pay for dinner. Even if the waitperson forgets to charge for the dessert and you choose not to point out the billing error, you and your friend have still participated in the financial valuation of the slice of cake by stealing it.

As you fall asleep that night, you may think about how you just spent your last dollar on an expensive dessert-artwork, but on your deathbed, you’d only remember the aesthetic and social-political-philosophical-inspirational value of the cake and your experience that evening. If your friend paid $1000 for that cake, you would be very grateful to your generous friend. If your friend is the chef, having made the cake just for you, that dessert-art is priceless. Does not a child appreciate art, before they learn the hard lessons of the value of money?

Thus, we may assess monetary value to be a tertiary, utility type valuation as well.

I just want to collect art to make bank! Monetary value still trumps aesthetic value! An artwork is just a token of all the pent-up value that the establishment has invested in the work. The artist is not important!

Look up Cady Noland, the living female artist with the highest monetary valuation, and you will see that aesthetic value and the artist is fundamental to that monetary valuation. She is known for declaring her art, once “art” by her assertion, as now “no longer art”, in a very effective “f***-you” to financial speculators.

“This is not an artwork.” – Cady Noland

What does this have to do with the Mona Lisa?

Like the nutrition-less cake, there are classes of art which do not offer utility value, except incidentally, say, hung to cover some dangerous exposed electrical wiring or a safe embedded in a wall.

For example, Leonardo da Vinci painted the best-known work of art on our planet, the Mona Lisa. If you steal the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, you may set it on fire to keep warm or cook a meal, but you would be unlikely to do so as you could pay for all your meals and heating bills and every other expense for you and your extended family by successfully selling the artwork (good luck with that.) Thus, unless you are insane or stupid or a conceptualist who sees aesthetic value only in destruction the-bigger-the-better, you steal the Mona Lisa for personal enjoyment, bragging rights and/or to make a lot of money.

Wait… you just criticized conceptual art! I thought you’re proposing that all art is a recursive container of the concept of aesthetic value, the purer-the-better; “I think it’s art therefore it is art”?

Not at all. The concept of destroying the Mona Lisa also has aesthetic value that need not be actualized to be beautiful. There’s no need to destroy the Mona Lisa to enjoy the aesthetic value of its destruction. Instead, we may merely conceive, or create, a new artwork—the destroyed Mona Lisa—to unlock this aesthetic value. The original need not be destroyed (please!)

“Conceptual art? Tell me about it.” – Bill Etra

You need not steal nor destroy the Mona Lisa to enjoy its aesthetic value. Many make the pilgrimage to see the painting in person, but most do not. That is because a viral work of art spreads itself virally through myth and simulacra, which may themselves become derivative works of art. More on this later…

Nearly all recognize the Mona Lisa as art, perhaps the ultimate artwork—a synecdoche for the whole world of art—then they change the channel to watch the football game.

In fact, you may aesthetically value your slice of cake more than the Mona Lisa. Aesthetic value is entirely in the eye of the beholder. That’s why entertainment culture and folk art are more widespread than what the experts put in the museums.

Philistine! I’m into art which won’t go stale by tomorrow’s meal.

“The temperament to which Art appeals … is the temperament of receptivity. That is all. If a man approaches a work of art with any desire to exercise authority over it and the artist, he approaches it in such a spirit that he cannot receive any artistic impression from it at all. The work of art is to dominate the spectator: the spectator is not to dominate the work of art. The spectator is to be receptive. He is to be the violin on which the master is to play. And the more completely he can suppress his own silly views, his own foolish prejudices, his own absurd ideas of what Art should be, or should not be, the more likely he is to understand and appreciate the work of art in question. An educated person’s ideas of Art are drawn naturally from what Art has been, whereas the new work of art is beautiful by being what Art has never been; and to measure it by the standard of the past is to measure it by a standard on the rejection of which its real perfection depends. A temperament capable of receiving, through an imaginative medium, and under imaginative conditions, new and beautiful impressions, is the only temperament that can appreciate a work of art.” – Oscar Wilde

Though you may create aesthetic value merely by naming what you see as Art, think before you wield your power. Do you want to proclaim your dessert-as-art simply because it feels good, man? Are your eyes open wide to recognize aesthetic value, or are you merely saying your cake is art because an algorithm reminded you that’s your favorite dessert? Do you always order chocolate cake? Why not order pistachio gelato simply because you never tried it before?

Do you aesthetically value only representational paintings and sculptures that were popular two centuries ago? Or, are you a digital native who only has eyes for memes? If you’ve stuck with me this far, I’d like to share some art for your aesthetic valuation consideration…

…but next, however, we will examine our present day Dystopia and how you and I created it, under the spell of AI.

“It is Art, and Art only, that reveals us to ourselves.” – Oscar Wilde

Benton C Bainbridge
July 4, 2018 | The Bronx

(Thanks for critical feedback: 99 Hooker, A. Susan, Tom Swirly)