I am the first to admit that I have expensive taste. This position is rarely in congruence with my bank account – like most students, I am more Primark than Prada – but it doesn’t stop me from appreciating the finer things in life, even if at a distance.
We are generally drawn to expensive things because we believe that if something costs the big bucks, it’s probably worth it. This logic dictates the long established notion that the most expensive works of art are surely the best. However, this casts a value statement about what is considered to be good, and what is not. But according to who? An art critic’s opinion is, even if exceptionally well informed, just that: an opinion. We are generally quick to dismiss opinions as mere subjective markers of approbation, and yet we blindly accept that a Matisse is worth millions. Surely this is just another formulation of an opinion; a subjective marker translated into economics? After all, the price of a work of art says nothing intrinsic about its artistic merit; all it says is what someone else is willing to pay for it.
we blindly accept that a Matisse is worth millions
The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be an alternate way of measuring the value of something that is universally recognised. I would normally be the first to defend the arts, arguing that creative outputs transcend economics and are, in essence, invaluable. However, since we live in a capitalist society and not a hippy commune (sigh), the only means by which we can value things that we are all mutually invested in, is money. “Money makes the world go round,” and thus we attribute financial value to the things that deserve it.
But perhaps more convincingly, one could argue that the most expensive art is not necessarily ‘the best’ in terms of skill, but rather the most valuable in terms of status. The idea that what is expensive is valuable is hardly ground breaking. But, this definition allows for works that are of little economic value, but rich in sentiment, not to be excluded from what is considered ‘valuable’. The recent sale of Banksy’s self-shredding Girl With Balloon for £1.042 million aptly sums it up: this, Banksy’s most expensive work of art, might not be his most technical or political piece, but it has come to embody all that Banksy represents, and for that it has great value.
the price of a work of art says nothing intrinsic about its artistic merit
The Prada shoes I covet aren’t the best because they are expensive, but because they are cutting-edge. Just as, works of art that sell for squillions are the most influential and iconic pieces, and for this they are the best, not their price-tag.