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How the Commercialization of Art Has Ruined It


Price and value are wholly different categories when it comes to art. Price is simply what something costs. Or the amount of money expected, required, or given in payment for something. Value is what something is worth — financially, emotionally, subjectively, personally. Or the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.

The walls in my house are covered in art. I have a storage unit full of art. And I loved working with artists and curating exhibitions. But I still think the entirety of the art world valuation system is inflated conjecture. When it comes to art, people often think that price and value coincide at the time of a sale or auction. But they couldn’t be more wrong. Art, in and of itself, is priceless and valueless at the same time. Here’s why.

Classic art gallery.
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Why Art is Priceless

You know it when you feel it. Priceless is defined as so precious that its value cannot be determined. And value, value can be subjective. Because emotional value can be worth so much more than financial value. That’s why art is priceless. Or at least it can be.

When I had my galleries, setting the prices of the works was a delicate balance. A balance between an artist’s ego, the need or want of the artist to sell work, the local market, and the national market, if there was one for the artist.

I worked with a lot of emerging artists which meant that pricing was very important to help get their work out of the gallery and inside collectors’ homes. I always knew when a price was too high and never thought a price was too low as long as the artist was ok with it.

Art is priceless because it is uniquely subjective. And so visceral. Some people buy art for investment which is more a play on value. But the majority of your regular art aficionados buy art because they fall in love. You and I can look at the same de Kooning and have completely separate reactions.

If you love it, it could be priceless to you. If I hate it, it could be valueless to me. But there will be a price if it’s for sale. And that price does not dictate the emotional reaction that you have to it. It only dictates the opportunity cost that is in the way of you having it.

People like to say everything has a price, but when it comes to art that’s not as easy as one might think to cosign. I am very attached to most of my art. Sure, if someone wants to give me a million dollars for something I paid $1,000 for I will do it. But I would probably feel bad. And miss the work.

For art collectors and art lovers, art brings joy into every room. I spend days, weeks, months curating my house to make sure the art makes the room feel good. To make sure that it doesn’t pull energy away from the room. It may not be science. But it’s a science.

Interior design with shelves full of art and objects.
Photo by Jonny Caspari on Unsplash

Art gives you feeling. I have one particular drawing that I am obsessed with. It currently lives directly above my headboard so I can see it every time I get into bed. I would never sell this drawing. No matter what. Never. For any price. That’s priceless. And that’s why art is priceless.

Why Art is Valueless

Value is something we discussed ad nauseam when I was teaching. Because all of my Master’s students wanted to pursue jobs in the museum field. Or work in galleries on their way up. And value is a distinguishable factor in the art world because of the crazy excess.

Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci sold for $400 million. It was triple what it was expected to fetch. Um. $400 million.

But what is its value? It’s financial value, at the time of the sale, was $400 million since it was won at auction via bidding. But do you think this was purchased as an investment? Likely. So is it really valuable? What if someone bought it and will never show it to anyone? Is it still valuable? In the context of the world.

Four large pieces of art on white walls in open gallery space.
Photo by Tony Lam Hoang on Unsplash

This is where I go off on a tangent about value and how art is really valueless. Because the commercialization of art has made it that way. Take one of the biggest collectors in the world. Jose Mugrabi owns 800 Warhols. 800.

Is there are a market for him to sell? Sure. Is there technically value to them? Yes, in theory. But what if the art world went sour on Warhol (unlikely) and his alleged value crashed? Because that can happen. So how is art really valued?

Art is valued mainly through auction records as gallery sales records are not widely disclosed. The valuations given by auction companies are based on past performance at auction for an artist. So let’s think about Jose Mugrabi again.

He owns 800 Warhols. He obviously has a substantial net worth. If he overpays for every Warhol that hits the market, he only increases the value of his other 800 works. And this is the hypocrisy of value in the art world. You can increase the value of your own art portfolio by intentionally overpaying for works from artists that are already in your stable.

But for something to have intrinsic value in the context of the world, doesn’t it have to be seen? What if 680 of his Warhols are in climate controlled, beautiful storage? Do they still hold actual value? If they can’t even be seen by anyone. Is it useful? Is it valueless? This is why art is valueless.

How the Commercialization of Art Has Ruined It

The art world is elitist and secular. Because it’s been so commercialized. And because of the interpretation and evaluation of price and value. But neither of them are real. Because at any time something could happen and the art world, as a whole, could just decide that an artist is no longer worthy. Especially when they are alive.

Young artists get picked up by high-end galleries in Chelsea and sell out a show at $20,000 a painting. But then the gallery dumps them. And nothing has gone to auction. And when something does, no one knows the artist and it sells for $4,700. Now, what does the artist do?

They don’t have a new gallery. They can’t sell their work for $20,000 a pop with a recent auction sale of $4,700. This is another way the commercialization of art has ruined it. It’s a very cannibalistic pipeline, the art world. The art world devours artists and spits them back out to Bushwick in a frenzy.

Photography exhibition on the walls of an art gallery.
Photo by Eric Park on Unsplash

It hurts that art is commercialized so much. And I was involved in it. Trying to find the right price for artists to sell their work, but also to establish a precedent for future sales. But one critic could say their work is crap and their value would drop instantly. So how does art really have value?

Emotional value — yes. Personal value — yes. But that’s what makes it priceless. And valueless. Because maybe you are the only one who understands a work. The only one who wants to wake up every morning looking at it. And that’s why art is such an amazing creative vehicle.

The Wish For Art

Why can’t we just let it be art again? To be appreciated. Viscerally. Internally. And without a price. Or value.

It would be nice. The pipe dream I am scribing. But it can’t happen. Being a visual artist is one of the hardest ways to make money ever created. And they deserve people to love their work when they take it home. And not stick it in a warehouse.

The auction houses and the retail art world are fast-moving and won’t stop the runaway train long enough for us to get a gauge on what it all means. We may never really know if a price or value is accurate.

If you love art just for the sake of art, it may never matter to you. Price may not matter. Value may not matter. You may just want to look at the same painting every day. Or an abstract painting that means nothing to your partner, but means everything to you.

This is why art is so beautiful.

But it’s also why it’s priceless and valueless at the same time.

Jonathan Greene was a small participant in the Art World. He owned Greene Contemporary, which moved from Sarasota, Florida to the Lower East Side of New York City in 2008. In that time he participated in nine art fairs. He worked as a Gallery Manager at Nicholas Robinson Gallery in New York City and as Director of Business Development at Collectrium. His last job in the Art World was as Director of Exhibitions at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, New Jersey in 2012. He also taught Exhibition Design, Art & Law and The Business of Art at Montclair State University as an adjunct through 2014. Since then, his appreciation for art has been dead.

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