The value of a work of art is an old question, with artists obsessing over it more than collectors or the general public. Most people probably never think of it unless there is some shockingly high price paid, or when a famous painting goes up for auction.
Underlying the question of worth is the debate on whether art has a function. Is art a need? Why does art exist if it doesn’t do anything, or is not a need?
In Neal Stephenson’s book The Diamond Age there is a character that talks about how everything is either stuff or entertainment. In the book all basic needs are met with cheap technology. Everyone can get free food and shelter just by walking up to a kiosk and waiting a moment for the machine to give them a cup of noodles.
So how does this apply to the value of art?
Art is entertainment. Buying art is like purchasing an exclusive ticket to a show that only you and the people you invite get to attend.
But it even goes beyond that. Think of going to the movies. How much is that movie worth? Is it just worth the eight dollars of the ticket price? I know of a few movies that I would say weren’t even worth that. But what about movies like The Godfather, Citizen Kane, or Star Wars? How much are those movies worth? How much would you pay to be the exclusive owner of them? What makes them of value?
A book I was reading once talked about how a landscape painting could not be appreciated until society reached a certain level of civilization where nature is no longer looked upon as an enemy or something that will hurt you.
But what causes this shift? Does simply having an extra potato in the pantry trigger something in our brains so we all of a sudden enjoy landscapes?
As with all questions worth asking the answer is yes and no. I believe that there is a hunger, or need of the human mind for stimulation. If we are scrounging for our next meal the variety of things we must do to get that meal is enough to occupy our minds. When we do get that extra potato in the pantry we no longer wonder where the next meal is coming from, but this leaves our mind with nothing to do, and we invent entertainment.
So, why is some entertainment worth more than others?
I contend that the value of entertainment, or art, is based on the answers to two questions. Does it make sense, and how complex is it?
Whether we are watching a movie, reading a book, or looking at a painting, the internal logic of the entertainment has to make sense to us, even if our idea of what makes sense is different than others.
After we figure out that it makes sense, we start to unconsciously examine how complex it is. The more complexity that is evident the more valuable it becomes. And if we don’t see the complexity, we will make it up, or bring our own complexity to the mix.
As an example look at this.
How much is this worth? In your mind put a real dollar amount on it. What if I added complexity and told you it was a real painting?
That last image was only part of this image. Is this one more interesting and valuable than the last one? What do you see in it? Is it a landscape? Are you looking through a misty haze or the glow of a sunset?
What if I said you could have this painting for just a little more than what you said the last one was worth, would you pay it? What if I told you this painting was over 100 years old?
Look how the artist has handled everything with such delicate use of color and value. This was painted by a famous artist. I wonder what all of those little people are doing? How much more would you pay for this one over the last one?
Wow! Here’s the entire painting! Would you pay more for this than the small section shown in the previous image?
How much would it be worth if I told you the title was The Finding of Moses?
How about if I told you the artist’s name is Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema. He was born in the Netherlands in 1836, and was one of the most highly esteemed painters in Britain during the Nineteenth century.
What if I told you that this recently sold at auction for over 35 million dollars?
How much is this painting worth? Is it more than the dollar amount that you first thought of?