Let it be done
Curated by David Greenhalgh
I hear a phrase with alarming regularity, amongst my group of artist friends and that is how much should I sell my work for? It’s a difficult question and determining the value of an artwork is a herculean task- up there with pushing a camel through the eye of a needle.
Yet we do it anyway. We manage to put a monetary value to an artwork. It seems silly when we, as contemporary artists, very rarely operate with the sole aim of selling art. If we wanted to sell art, we’d all be painting landscapes populated by non-threatening animals and nudes. Most contemporary artists are motivated by a desire to say something significant about the world, and, at a more base level, to appease our own self-loathing and insecurity.
The value of art in a society is usually the first thing to suffer when a market crashes, buyer confidence wanes or a government becomes fiscally conservative. It is the canary in the coal mine.
My reasoning is that this is because the valuation of an artwork is no simple task: it has no concrete objective measure, instead it is a complex mess of influence and context. The one thing that most art really lacks, that most other ‘for sale’ items possess is practical use value- this is probably the reason it is the first crate to be thrown overboard on a sinking ship.
Art used to have a practical use value, but this was when ideas of causality were lacking in a lot of the good-sense, nay, reason that we hold dear today. IT WAS MAGIC. An image held deep within it the will of gods, spirits and ghosts- the Christian god was appeased depending on easily quantifiable traits: Virgin Marys per square cubit (VMpC2) or upright symmetrical bits divided by the acre (Usb/acre).
But then came us, the contemporary artists who decided that art could be whatever it decided to be. At this point in time, if someone was to ask me what art is, my best reply would be that it is humanity reflected in creation: Self-determined, hugely varied and always in need of recognition: A sprawling mess of un-qualifiable existence. And yet we still price an artwork- we somehow feel the need to assess the value of an artwork based on some sort of assessable criteria. It is this assessment that led arts writer Peter Conrad to quip that ‘Warhol's Soup Cans certainly sold. When the blotchy canvases were exhibited in 1962, they didn't cost a lot more than the mass-produced supermarket items they so reverently imitated; recently, one of them was auctioned for $11m. Inflation as insane as that in the Weimar republic’
One of the criteria applied to art is originality within a conversation. How does the artwork say something new and progressive within an historical dialogue? This is one of the best criteria I can think of: For an artwork to enter a shifting dialectic and make a concise point.
But what about beauty? I hear you say. My impression is that traditional beauty has something to do with a combination of graphic design, mild pornography and horticulture. I argue that beauty takes many forms.
Amid the shifting sands of what few criteria for value we can muster, I present to you three artists that look at value in a different manner. They are all self-consciously creating something with an ironic worthlessness, yet it is art, and valuable.
Kay Orchison has taken the floorboards from beneath his feet, once worth very little and now, in real-estate terms, worth millions &mdash and burnt them. These floorboards are charcoal remnants consigned to the tip, but he covers them with gold (perhaps a reflection of sentimental value), gold is, by the way, the only thing besides art that somehow possesses a monetary value so inverse to its use value. Nigel sense takes the detritus of a drunkard (potato chip packets, beer bottle labels) and assigns them the care and attention of the artists hand, only to deride the work with self-conscious scrawling reminiscent of the deliberate vacuity and consumerism of the Pop movement.
Tom Mason has left a pile of junk on the gallery floor, old mattresses, swollen chip board and graffitied canvas. Yet this work possesses huge value if you scratch the surface: It resembles the ruins of ancient Rome, but far from upholding the moral ideals of an age, its use value lies in how it infuriates so many: those minds closed to what art is- a reflection of diverse human existence and the inherent value in all of it.
So how do we give value to an artwork? We do the same to money, the fiat currency. Fiat is latin for the authoritative statement with which money is given value: Let it be done!