For as long as humans have existed, we have been innately drawn to works of art (pun very much intended). Cave paintings and carvings dating back tens of thousands of years are a testament to the universal language of images and their age-old significance.
So it’s no surprise that, earlier in January, one of the last privately owned paintings by Italian renaissance artist Botticelli was sold for a hefty price of $92.2 million. And even then, that doesn’t lay a finger on the current most expensive piece of artwork in the world – Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci, which sold in 2017 to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia for $450.3 million.
The question on most peoples’ minds is, of course: why? Why are people willing to go to such extreme lengths to be the owners of these artwork? What are the parameters that determine whether or not a piece of art has any worth?
Unfortunately, there is no one definitive answer. Rather, it is a plethora of factors that dictate whether a piece of art is valuable or not, such as the scarcity and age of the artwork, whether the artist is deceased, what art critics have said about the piece or its artist, and also the context in which the artwork was created.
The figure of Venus being born out of a scallop shell, long golden hair flowing around her? Yep, that’s one of his
Almost everyone knows of Botticelli, if not by name then by his paintings. The figure of Venus being born out of a scallop shell, long golden hair flowing around her? Yep, that’s one of his. The original illustrations for the entirety of Dante’s Divine Comedy? Also his. It makes sense that the works of someone so renowned would sell for a substantial amount. Botticelli has artistic significance on his side: scarcity in work, an artist rooted in the time of the renaissance, immense cultural importance, and a genuine skill in all of his creations.
History plays a large role in determining the value of art, both through a work’s historical impact, or from what critics have previously said about it. Even Michelangelo, one of the most critically acclaimed artists and sculptors of all time, might not have achieved the sheer amount of fame he did were it not for Giorgio Vasari, cited as being the first ‘art historian’, and his encyclopaedic biography ‘The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects’. However, historical significance does not necessarily equal a higher price. For example, Medieval artwork is often valued less than Renaissance artwork despite being older, due to the differences in style. Whilst Renaissance artwork is often more detailed and has more depth, Medieval artwork is often flat and less aesthetically pleasing.
Astounding, considering Van Gogh only ever sold one painting in his lifetime
Stories surrounding pieces of art or their artists also contribute heavily to demand. Everyone has heard of the tragic tale of Van Gogh, and everyone wishes to own a piece of that tortured soul, buying into the exaggerated myth that history and pop-culture has perpetuated. In 1990, his Portrait of Dr Gachet sold for $82.5 million (around £60 million) – astounding, considering Van Gogh only ever sold one painting in his lifetime.
Another significant element is the context in which a piece of art was created. For example, in 1991, Félix González-Torres created his semi-interactive exhibition Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), to commemorate the life and loss of his lover, Ross Laycock, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 and died later that year. The instillation consists of around 175 lbs of individually wrapped sweets (Laycock’s bodyweight when healthy), and onlookers are encouraged to take a sweet, and therefore ‘take a piece of Ross with [them]’. The sweets are then replenished by the caretakers of the instillation. At a time when AIDS was on many peoples’ minds, Portrait of Ross grew in recognition because of its blunt, relevant message, and has managed to maintain that relevancy due to its applicability to other diseases such as cancer and, now, COVID-19.
But modern art seems to throw all conventions to the wind, operating inside its own confusing, often elitist sphere of influence. On the list of the most expensive artworks sold by living artists, Jeff Koons tops the chart for the sale of his stainless steel sculpture Rabbit for $91.82 million in May of 2019. What is also notable is that, out of the 22 names catalogued on this list, all are male. In fact, on the list of the 89 most expensive paintings of all time, all names listed are male. The only female named on such a list is Louise Bourgeois, whose sculpture, Spider, sold for $32.1 million in 2019, placing her in 17th on the list of highest prices paid for sculptures. One need look no further than the disparity between the price attributed to works by Willem de Kooning in comparison to his wife, Elaine de Kooning, to garner a sense of the inequality female artists face.
Many of her works were attributed to other painters, as scholars did not believe that she would have been capable of producing such works of art
This is not a purely modern complaint. Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, whose beautiful and often distressing works easily rival those of her male counterparts, such as Caravaggio or Rembrandt, was only rediscovered in the 1900s by art historian Roberto Longhi. Even then, many of her works were attributed to other painters, as scholars did not believe that she would have been capable of producing such works of art. The current highest selling price for a work by Gentileschi was $6.1 million, for the sale of Lucretia in 2019. In comparison, Rembrandt’s Pendant portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit sold in 2016 for $194 million.
But the amount of money spent on a piece of art is not only a reflection of the intrinsic or perceived value of that piece: it is also a reflection of the way in which wealth has become concentrated in the hands of the elite. If someone is willing to spend $92.2 million on a single painting, it is probably the case that they can afford to “lose” that money as it is a proportionately small amount of their total wealth. In many cases, the purchaser may hide the work away, unseen by anyone but themselves, or even store it in a bank vault like any other item of superficial monetary value. It could therefore be argued that spending that amount of money in some ways devalues the work of art, as it reduces the meaning of the artwork to nothing more than another asset to be owned.
Art comes from the soul, and worth is derived from how it makes us feel
Art has always been a deeply subjective medium. It plays heavily into the idea that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but even this presumption is influenced by auctioneers pitting bidders against one another to explosively inflate prices. The myth that the only people who can appreciate art are those who have the money or the education to ‘understand’ it disregards the fundamental, human approach. Ultimately, the price of a painting does not necessarily signify its worth: worth comes from a far more personal perspective. You don’t need to ‘understand’ something to have an opinion about it. Art comes from the soul, and worth is derived from how it makes us feel.
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