I just watched, "What Makes Art Valuable?" a documentary put out by the BBC. It describes the 10 most expensive paintings ever sold and in the process discusses the elements that can raise the price for which a given piece is sold at auction. The monetary value of each piece is determined only by the price one is willing to pay, which can be increased or decreased based on many components, all relative to each interested buyer. At these prices paid for the top ten most expensive paintings in the world, materials and quality have very little if anything to do with it.
I was fairly disheartened to discover that for the most part, motives for paying outrageous sums of money to add a particular work to a buyer's collection typically had little to do with love for the artwork, itself. Most of those top ten paintings were purchased to serve as status symbols or financial investments. The key elements to an increase in value appears to be regarding the provenance of a given work.
In the case of a popular painting called "White Center" by Rothko, the auction price reached 72 million dollars in 2007, more than 3 times the record price of any other Rothko painting sold before it. The reason for the increase in auction value? It was owned by the Rockefeller family. In fact, this painting is widely known as "The Rockefeller Rothko." Now, not only does the purchaser get credit in the title, but first billing over the artist.
The conspiracy theorist in me suspects that the prices are pushed as high as they are with the aim of keeping the game exclusive to the ridiculously wealthy. I further suspect that any object could be chosen for this game as long as there is only one of each object in existence and the sophistication level were respectfully high enough to be considered a classy investment. Otherwise, I am now convinced that if Beanie Babies were made singularly without ever being copied, we would occasionally hear reports on the Today Show of “Puffapotomus Perry” being sold at auction for a record breaking 45 million dollars.
What is worse is the fact that so many of these paintings immediately disappear from the public eye. Many collectors whisk the work away to be locked up in some vault. I simply cannot fathom the kind of greed it takes to purchase a painting made by an artist whose intentions are to communicate with the world and hide it away, possibly never to be seen again by anyone other than the buyer and a few other similarly wealthy and elite friends.
The highest amount paid for a painting was over one hundred and six million dollars. The piece was made by Picasso and titled, “Nude with Green Leaves and Bust.” This is the kind of money that could buy enough homes to house approximately one to four million homeless families in America.
Is one painting actually worth that much, just because someone is willing to pay that much, despite their motives for wanting it? I am offended by this as an artist as well as a human being. This is the kind of greed that sends makes artists like Banksy destroy their own work rather than allow it to be sold to some greedy collector with purely money on the mind.
In Colorado Springs, an artist named Ben Gonzalez experiments with the value of his own paintings. He creates work for his own enjoyment and need for expression, but also work that is intended for selling at whatever price the work will fetch. He has been known to sell art on the street as much as art in a gallery. This means a painting that he could easily sell for $1500 in a gallery, to a stranger, he will sell to someone he meets on the street who has fallen in love with the piece for whatever is in their pocket. He has sold some of his most successful pieces for as little as $20, simply because he felt the buyer connected so deeply with the piece. While this knowledge could lead to buyers taking advantage of this philanthropic dedication to furthering art appreciation, Gonzalez doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, a favorite way to share his work is to make a beautiful painting and then lean it against a wall or garbage bin in an alley in downtown Colorado Springs and wait hours for someone to take it. Interestingly, when he began dropping work off in regular places at regular times, he began noticing the same people sneaking out from their hiding places to collect his work, running away with their treasures. Each location had a different collector and none of them appeared wealthy or even middle class. Gonzalez has found this process very fulfilling as an artist and plans further experimentation.
Recently, I spoke with a group of artist peers about the work I have been doing with lined school paper. I told them about an artist who made a stack of hand drawn, lined, 3 hole-punched school paper as a work of art. We talked about the work and patience that it took this artist to complete the piece, which was over a year. One made the suggestion of wrapping the paper in plastic and inserting a label of some kind and somehow creating a working barcode and then placing the pack of paper on a shelf at Walmart, allowing it to be purchased by anyone shopping there. We all gasped and went silent as we considered the thought of it. I was surprised to suddenly feel exhilarated by the idea, which has led me down this road of discovering all the angles of the value in the art we make and the art we buy, as well as the art we give away or let go of, possibly never to lay eyes on again.
I am curiously excited about the freeing feeling I get from purposely making art that is meant to be consumed, destroyed, or lost in some way. Having been an artist who has a very hard time giving myself permission to start a piece for fear of failing myself and consequently my family or the even the entire world, the thought of creating work with the intent of letting it out of my grasp let alone existence itself is both frightening and liberating. And, at this time in my artistic life and career, It is an exercise I am most eager to explore.