Monday, December 3, 2012

Art and Value

I felt like a change from political theory, so read The Value of Art: Money, Power, Beauty by Michael Findlay, an art dealer who used to be head of Christie's in New York. He discusses the art market and how art is valued, broken into commercial value, social value and essential value.

It's an interesting read. One of the things which is most striking (unsurprisingly) is the uncertainty of the enterprise. He quotes James Rosenquist, who said the process of art is " working like hell towards something you know nothing about." P175

Rosenquist also has a striking piece of advice for students:

Fine art is not a career. You may be very good and no one looks at your work until you are dead. Most artists don't cut it. I have had thirty-five assistants in the course of my fifty years as a painter and not one of them has achieved any success as an artist. What you need is luck. Nothing is guaranteed or automatic. P175

Findlay argues there is social value in art, such as the benefits for families of having art in the home, the social circles it brings, the opportunity for philanthropy and legacies. I was thinking about small-time art on holiday in New Mexico back in the early summer, and much of the value of art far from the auction houses of London and New York is social and personal in character.

Of course, as Findlay is a former leading auctioneer, his description of the commercial process of valuing art is very interesting and makes up most of what is absorbing about the book.

Naturally, considerations of quality and - especially - rarity apply. Dealers will know which private individuals own what, and which paintings may come back on the market in the next ten years. Provenance, condition, whether it was an "important" point in an artists' career, whether it has been shown in prominent musuem exhibitions, even previous ownership make a difference to valuation.

But so much has to do with titanic waves of wealth and booms in the art market. It is more a story of the vagaries (and pathologies) of the super-wealthy more than anything else, despite his occasional claims that anyone can collect art. It is a story of substantial extra spending by the auction houses on PR, glossy catalogues and private dinner parties in the last twenty years, and broad shifts in taste and fashion.

Art can overlap with branding and short-term financial speculation, although art investment funds, interestingly, almost never do well. Most of the market is still private, without public auction prices, he says. And choosing the few artists who will do well out of thousands is hard. And then sellers find the market is illiquid and the transaction costs enormous.

He comes from a side of the business which has to be able to make valuations which will satisfy IRS scrutiny for tax purposes, or insurance: a very prosaic angle of a very ephemeral and glamorous field. And purely financial motives are most often self-defeating.

The heart of it is the boundary of practical and eternal value - auction day stories and logistics and snobbery as against insight and talent and beauty.

He insists in the end perception is more important than information; art history, gallery labels, knowledge about the artist or the market are no substitute for, and can't replace, the experience of sustained attention to a piece of art.

Ultimately, he argues, there is essential value to the greatest art. it does not necessarily come from the twenty second glance that is usual in art galleries, however. Indeed, that may be the advantage of collecting and owning, he says: you get to live with a work of art. You get to feel it over time, rather than just have a right-brained summation of information in a quick glance.

Language can be a barrier. He quotes Barnett Newman: "The meaning must come from the seeing, not the talking."

It all sets up in clear terms the deeper issue of "what is value?", which economics often struggle with, as we shall see next.


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