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December 11, 2013

What is Art and How is it Valued? Latest #UnlockArt Film Gives Insight

UnlockArt_Film2Click the image to watch the film at the Le Méridien Unlock Art site

Understanding today's art market is kind of a universal challenge; the question 'what is art' is one that many are afraid to ask for fear that we should just know. Well, fear not, it's a valid query and has been since the early 20th century! It can be even trickier to get our head around how art is valued. In November I was back in London to screen the second of eight films in the Unlock Art series, Browsing the International Art Market, produced by Le Meridien and Tate. (The film that opened the series was Bringing Perfromance Art to Life, presented by Frank Skinner.) The screening, at Tate Modern, was followed by a special tour to explore the theme of the film, led by Professor Linda Bolton, a writer and art historian who has published 12 books on artists and art movements. (I have to mention that Linda is an exceptionally charismatic speaker, and whose brain I wish I could download into my own.) The tour focussed on exploring the sales and value of works and artists with particularly fascinating backgrounds; for example, Mark Rothko's Seagram Murals came to live permanently at Tate Modern when he pulled them from the Four Seasons commission, not wanting them to essentially serve as wallpaper for fancy dinners. Linda wrote a guide as an accompaniment, calling it a 'throwaway', but I kept mine because her choice of facts and ideas to highlight had a unique slant. . 

These are the key points we learned during the tour:

  • In many cases, a privately owned piece of artwork will be lent to a gallery on the basis that it will benefit the owner – firstly it is a form of insurance, secondly people can see and enjoy it, thirdly, they receive a copy for their own home and lastly and most importantly – the status of the located gallery adds value to the painting for future buyers.
  • Some keen art collectors trust their art buyers so much, they don’t even view the art before purchase.
  • ‘Art’ is formed of trends, fashions and ‘sexiness’
  • What is art? People have to have an emotional connection to art – for example, if you stub your toe and exclaim in pain, that isn’t art. If you pretend to stub your toe however, that is art because there is emotional thought involved. Artists like Van Gough wanted to be clear about how his paintings were meant to make you feel. But over the years, artists encourage the viewer to make their own opinion, have their own emotions for the piece and be ‘transformed’ by the artists into a certain thinking
  • Joseph Beuys – his abstract art is designed to make you think and try and understand its meaning. Joseph believed we are all artists.
  • Man Ray Gift – we viewed the Dada/ Surrealist sculpture of this famous iron; by adding a row of nails, Man Ray transformed a household flat-iron into a new and potentially threatening object.

JosephBeuys_ManRayLightning with Stag in its Glare, Joseph Beuy, date not known (left); Gift, Man Ray,1921

I've been struggling with what makes something art since I was an art student, witnessing incidents where my peers made up joke rationales of their work only to pass them off as legitimate statements during the critique. One time this happened during a juried show, and the guy won. (Needless to say, there were some awkward moments following the announcement!) Now years later, the idea I took away from the film and the tour is that there is no 'absolute' when it comes to what makes something art, and like Linda told me prior to our talk in so many words, it's best just to open your mind and think of the questions later. I saw what she meant; once you accept that there is no clear answer - I liken it it to Tarantino's mysterious, glowing, briefcase in Pulp Fiction - it's a bit of a relief; it's endlessly frustrating to seek a definitive answer when one doesn't exist! Well it doesn't today, anyway. Linda pointed out that if the question 'What is art' were asked in the late 19th century, the answer would be very straightforward; at that time, art was clearly defined. All one had to do was look at the common threads that made the masterworks great. But in the 20th and 21st century it's very muddled. Blame it on, or thank, Dada, the ' anti-art' art movement. It all began when Marchel Duchamp placed a urinal in a gallery for exhibition, transforming this ordinary, utilitarian thing into something that begged for contemplation simply because it was there. (Is it just me who wonders if it had been previously used or not?) Without Dada, we wouldn't have this:


What exactly is that, you ask? Here's a close-up:

Rubbish_2"Sometimes the pieces on show can be a little bit surprising. Now that anything can be art, anything can be bought and sold as art." - from Browsing the International Art Market

The name of this work translates to The Last Dirt, and is described as "a memorial to the concept of the traditional artist studio" and it was for sale for 17,000 euros at Basel Art Fair a few years ago. For me, the bottom line is that if a work can have meaning for the individual viewer, it's worth something. We don't all have to agree that whatever sells for millions at auction is justified, or feel bad about ourselves for just not 'getting' the point of a piece. But I do think that it's wrong to simply write off something before taking the time to try to understand it, the same going for anything in this world, really. When we explore art, we learn something about ourselves, and that's a worthwhile endeavor. 


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Beautifully written, yes those questions have always bugged me ........usually after a trip to the Baltic! ;) xx

Thank you, Kathryn! I think it's art's duty to keep us asking those questions! xx

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