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Value vs. Cost
ART TIMES June 2007

FOR ALL HIS idiosyncratic flamboyance, Oscar Wilde did — from time to time — come up with a penetrating turn of phrase. Among my favorites is a remark he once made about an acquaintance: “He knows the cost of everything — but the value of nothing.” In our market-driven society, we’ve lost track of the distinction — and more the pity that we have done so when it comes to the sad fact that we have lumped art as just one more commodity up for sale to the highest bidder in our materialistic society. To not know the difference between “cost” and “value” may not signify much when we are dealing with the commonplace products of daily life, but it seems to me that we really parade our ignorance when we apply it to fine art. To confuse the fact that a particular piece of “art” fetched “a zillion bucks” with the notion that the same piece in question has “value” is a serious lack of discerning judgment. We hear people readily jump on the notion that a life can be equated with a dollar value as not only ridiculous but insulting as well — but for some reason cannot stretch their minds around the fact that, like it or not, “culture” in any form is simply not a “for sale” item. I may well question the value of your aesthetic judgment if you choose to fork over a million dollars for, say, a Warhol print, but I cannot question your business acumen in doing so. After all, that print may fetch a much higher price in the future — but this has little to do with the value of that print. As Wilde knew, “cost” signifies price, dollar value, and little else; “value” connotes something a bit more — quality, desirability, importance, perhaps — but certainly more than a mere numerical quantity of negotiable currency. Granted that by now the words have been merged, sorely misused, their original intent (as we’ve done with a great many words) lost in the day-to-day usage of them. It took Wilde’s sophisticated sensibilities to try and separate the terms, to bring back to mind the essential difference in their meanings. This was not a new concept — Confucius once opined that if we could just use words rightly, apply them in their original intent, then the world would (or could) be once again aligned with correct principles. Back in the days when I used to teach, I was often asked how many students I had. “Oh, perhaps a half-dozen, or so,” I’d reply. “Wow, how did you manage to get such a small class?” would be the immediate comeback. “My average class size is thirty-five,” I’d tell them. “But most are just pupils — definitely not students!” Here again the words “pupil” and “student” have merged in most people’s minds, but the fact remains that a pupil attends class while a student studies. Most found (and still find) my nit-picking tiresomely pedantic. “Oh, you’re such a stickler!” they exclaim, and usually end with, “But you know what I meant!” Confucius would have said, “Then say what you mean!” (Wouldn’t it be nice if politicians did so!?!) Wherever you stand on the difference between pupils and students, I do not think it snobbish to bring back the distinction between “cost” and “value” — at least as it applies to fine art. The pleasures of mind, heart and soul that one can derive from, say, having a small Dutch 19th-Century landscape by some unknown master hanging on your wall is an intrinsically different experience from knowing that one’s net worth has significantly risen because you have the work of a modern Dutchman, say a de Kooning, hanging alongside it. Have we retreated so far into our commercial world that we can no longer rescue art from being seen as a simple commodity — and nothing else? Does “cost” really equal “value”? Oscar Wilde also said that America was the only country that went from primitivism to barbarism without ever having passed through civilization. Must we continually confirm that awful characterization by lumping fine art with buttons, buckles, and belts?

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