“Buying In”: Art and Value

In recent times, the prices of famous artworks have soared to staggering heights. “Dora Maar with Cat,” an abstract portrait by Picasso (see Figure 1 attached), sold for $95 million dollars. Caude Monet’s impressionist masterpieces have sold for upwards of 30 million dollars, as does the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock, whose “No. 5” captured the world record with $140 million. What could possibly make a painting worth the price of a yacht, a mansion, and an extravagant retirement on a private island? To deal with this conundrum we must step back and ask a broader question. All pieces of art have some monetary value, falling within the vast range between negligible and obscene. What causes a particular painting to be worth a certain amount of money? Of all theoretical frameworks on art, the Institutional Theory of Art best satisfies this peculiarity of human society. Yet as we examine it, we must make a distinction between monetary value and a deeper kind of value: pure aesthetic value. By doing so, we gain a deeper understanding of art in the mystery of human nature.

To approach the issue of art prices, we must make a few key observations. First, cost stems directly from demand for an artwork. In this market of fixed supply and changing demand, the more people want to buy an artwork, the more expensive it will be. Hence we can define an artwork’s monetary value as the price that the highest bidder would pay for it in an auction. (Indeed, the most expensive works are nearly always sold by auctioning.) Second, we observe that the demand and therefore price of a particular artwork comes not from the art directly but from the reputation of the artist who created it. As explored in Who the #$&!% is Jackson Pollock, if Teri Horton’s painting is validated as an authentic Jackson Pollock, it would be worth around 50 million dollars. If not, it would run for less than the price of a fast food lunch. Galleries won’t even consider paying for a work of art without provenance, a documented history tracing the artwork back to the artist. Clearly there is a sense of status conferred on famous works that do not come from that work directly but from a reputation. Third, this reputation need not be unanimous or widespread to result in high cost: most everyday observers find little impressive in Pollock’s “No. 5.” Because cost is the price that the highest bidder will pay, this reputation need only be acknowledged by a small circle of fans, be they galleries or private individuals, with deep pockets. Hence an artwork’s cost stems from its demand, which stems from an artist’s reputation as considered by select individuals.

These observations lead directly to the Institutional Theory of Art with its fundamental conception of the Artworld. According to George Dickie, who coined the theory, the Artworld is “the broad social institution in which works of art have their place” (“What is Art”, 21). It is within the Artworld that demand is cultivated and reputation spreads. When a museum exhibits a work, it intends to solicit praise, conferring a kind of status upon it. Likewise, editorial reviewers spend their professional careers evaluating works of art and recommending favorites, thereby affecting the fame and reputation of the artists. Even if an artist faces rejection in these spheres, he or she may find acceptance in others, as controversy is bound to create loyal followers. Over time an artist may gain a revered status of founding a new genre, as the case of Picasso and his style exemplified in “Dora Maar with Cat.” These phenomena are only a few expressions of the abstract but very real Artworld in action, and each example has profound effects on what people will pay for art. Admittedly, Dickie did not apply the Institutional Theory in this manner; rather, he used it simply as a way to classify works as art. But the very same factors necessary to make that classification for an artwork affect its monetary value as artwork.

Although the Institutional Theory of Art can deal with reputation and therefore monetary value, it can say nothing definitively about the quality of a work itself. Dickie is clear on this: “As far as I can tell [evaluating art] has no necessary connection with the institutional theory of art” (Evaluating Art, ix). Regardless of what a work may cost, each of us will appreciate and connect with certain artwork more than others. (Indeed, while wondering through a museum, the cost of the artworks displayed is almost never known.) Surely art has some other kind of value. Surely there’s something in it that markets and economics have no sway over. This “something” is aesthetic value. And if the winds of the Artworld are difficult to predict in determining cost, aesthetic value is even more difficult to pin down. Though we have numerous different ways to look at aesthetic value, perhaps the most promising is found in John Dewey’s theory of art as experience.

With Dewey’s theory, we can define this aesthetic value as the ability of an artwork to draw us into an experience—“connecting” with it. “To be truly artistic,” argues Dewey, “A work must also be esthetic—that is, framed for enjoyed receptive perception” (23). As an example of this experience in action, we can look at Thomas Kinkade, exemplified by the photo “Evening Glow ” (see Figure 2). In the 60 Minutes presentation “Thomas Kinkade: A Success“, an enthusiastic fan describes how he imagines the people inside, where he can almost feel the warmth and taste the hot chocolate. This attitude is exactly what it means to experience art, and this is what makes people lovers of art, whatever style or genre it may be.

Thus art carries two different kinds of value: monetary value, which has nothing to do with the work itself, and aesthetic experiential value, which has everything to do with the artwork. At the same time, whereas aesthetic experiential value requires only one observer, monetary value depends on the complicated and intricate social behavior of the Artworld. Of course, these two values are related—at least, we would hope so. Indeed, for work to develop a reputation, it must develop fans, and to develop fans, it must draw them into an experience. And as art reviewer Dave Hickey bluntly states, “Beauty sells” (8). Nevertheless, the distinction between monetary value and aesthetic value comes as a relief. Though the Artworld has power to set prices, it cannot control our experience. When we see artworks selling for millions of dollars, we need not buy in. Instead we simply shake our heads at the peculiar nature of humanity revealed in the Artworld.



Figure 1

“Dora Maar with Cat” by Pablo Picasso, which sold for 95 million dollars.

Figure 2

“Evening Glow” by Thomas Kinkade

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. Chicago: Perigee Trade, 2005.

Dickie, George. Evaluating Art. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

Dickie, George. “What is Art?” Culture and Art: An Anthology. Ed Lars Aagaard-Mogensen. New Jersey:
Humanities Press, 1976.

Hickey, Dave. The Invisible Dragon, 2nd ed. Chicago: Art Issues Press/Foundation For Advanced Critical
Studies, 2009.


Major: Computer Science
Expected Graduation Date: December 2009
Hometown: Seabeck, WA
Ever since the first day of this class, when we were presented with Pollock’s “#5” selling for 140 million dollars, I had been searching for a good answer to the question “why?” While preparing a presentation on George Dickie, the “light bulb” turned on as I found a theory that could actually explain it—although I still think such prices are absurd. This particular issue fascinates me in how economics, sociology, philosophy, and art all meet.