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The High Price of Ignorance

ART TIMES October 2008

I DOUBT IT, but perhaps if I say it enough times, quote enough authors, I’ll get across the point that the price one places or gets on a creative work reflects little more than current market trends — it says nothing about the intrinsic value of a given work of art. Well, get used to it, because as often as I see articles breathlessly announcing the latest bundle of bucks someone spent on a work of art, I’m going to vent. Let’s begin with another comment from an author whose influence has been working on me since I first read him while I was in the Army, namely Marcus Aurelius. Here’s the quote (from Meditations): “Look beneath the surface; do not let the multiple qualities of a thing nor its value escape you.” I didn’t really have to cite Aurelius — anyone with even the least amount of discernment knows what I’m writing (some call it ‘raving’) about. There is just no dollar — euro, yuan, peso, whatever — amount that says anything germane about a work of art. That you spend a gazillion bucks on a painting or piece of sculpture might tell us something about you — but says absolutely nothing about the work qua work. Our current Iraq involvement is now costing us billions — does that fact make it a “valuable” war? Or just a “costly” one? Is a “cheap” war a less important one? Retired — or fired — CEOs walk away with bundles; does that make them intrinsically better persons than their hirelings? Does a $250 meal at a fancy restaurant really taste hundreds of dollars better than a fast-food burger? How much money does a celebrity have to spend on building a house before it really becomes a home for them? Are all million-plus-dollar movies automatically more enjoyable than low-budget quickies? Middling plumbers, teachers, carpenters, contractors, heavy-equipment operators, ball players, doctors, truck drivers — you name it — can and do command sizable salaries and we all know that we sometimes (too often, in fact) do not get the bang from the buck we expect. Anyone living in a badly built house quickly learns the difference between price and value. Why is it that we can’t make the transition when it comes to art? So, here it is again: The price that one places upon or gets for a work of art has relatively little bearing on its actual worth as a work of art. History — not dollars — makes the determination of whether it has genuine value for mankind. Get over it.

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