Valued Ambiguities

Van Gogh ended his career dead as a failed artist with a couple thousand paintings and only two sells during his lifetime. He was a starved artist dispassionate by his lack of success, but is now modernly considered one of the greatest Impressionist artists of the day, his works selling for millions of dollars by eager buyers. Why is it that Van Gogh, like so many artists, arose to fame only after their death? How can a painting that used to be completely worthless in the eyes of buyers suddenly become the epitome of artistic ability valued at millions? It is an interesting thought that scratches at the question, how does a work of art acquire value? Value being monetary wealth, emotional or personal significance, or historic relevance in a society. The value of art can be measured using different schools of appreciation: aesthetics, institution, and intention. Using these schools as a foundation, the contemporary standards of society of art selling for exuberant amounts of money will be analyzed and built upon.

In modern society some works art have been so absurdly high valued that only the extremely wealthy sectors of the population can even dream of affording it, while other works have been left behind in thrift stores and dumpsters in the rain. What differentiates the good high valued art from the castaways? There have been many different art theories set by several philosophers trying to answer this question of what is art? and how the value of good art is to be determined. Three main schools of thought seem to be more used than others in today’s modern society. The most basic of which is pure aesthetic value or infectiousness of the artwork. Tolstoy envisioned this style of artistic appreciation. He earnestly believed in the notion of infectiousness in which an artist uses his emotions to create a work of art and infect his audience with their feelings. Through this infectiousness the artwork would be more highly valued for the feeling portrayed to the audience than a piece of art that clung lifelessly to the wall. The philosopher Kant also believed in a similar notion of disinterestedness, pure aesthetic value where the viewer has a feeling of disconnect from the world only focusing on the aesthetic appeal of the work. These themes of aesthetic appreciation can be visualized in the artistry of Jackson Pollock whose paintings are now valued at millions of dollars such as Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950,
Enamel on canvas. The extreme value of these works is based extensively on aesthetic appeal of the ensnaring continuous motion and emotion captured in each of his paintings. Aside from appeal of art based on pure physical superficial beauty and skill, art can similarly be valued based on deeper authentic inner intent of the work.

As suggested by Danto, art is the communication of a message between the artist and the viewer. He believes that anything can be art as long as it holds significance or intention behind it. Art, in his opinion, becomes a matter of philosophy where the artist wants to convey a sense of life, how we feel, or cultural significance in society. Nothing is art without interpretation that constitutes it as such, and in modern society there appears to be a new dimension to art that requires discussion of intent behind each work. Without this intention of trying to convey a message or a feeling to a certain audience, the art is invalid and without much value. Plato toys with the idea that artists and the art they create cannot be trusted due to his theory that all art is a mere imitation of the real truth. The essence of Plato’s thought can be viewed as originality where to have a unique message that is being conveyed, there must be an air of creativity that makes the artwork unique and not a mere imitation of another. With imitation it is difficult to convey a message to an audience that is uniquely your own and therefore the message is lacking in intent. The feeling conveyed by Danto and Plato can be embodied in artists like Picasso and Diego Rivera who often conveyed messages of solidarity, historical imaginary, and political outrage and rebellion within their paintings and murals. These works are often very highly valued both in monetary value and emotional significance in society. Beyond physical and internal content within works of art that create immense fame and value of various artists’ and paintings, value is also overwhelmingly determined by the institution of the artworld.

The artworld institution proposed by Dickie consists of artists, experts, and the artworld public viewers. In the artworld the monetary value of art is largely defined by connoisseurship. A general consensus by experts in the art field determines the wealth of the art, or deems it generally invaluable in a largely a Hume manner where education is needed to determine good art. A large part of this value in an artwork stems from namesake of the artist. If the work of art is a Picasso, even a hastily done sketch, the work can sell for substantial monetary value if proven. Many pieces of art have been deemed masterpieces by the artworld solely on the artist who painted them and sold for many millions of dollars. Namesake can be valuable because certain artists define an age, like Warhol with modern Pop Art, Van Gogh with Impressionism, and Velazquez representing the Spanish Age.

Value in works of art whether monetary or personal can be determined by many combinations of factors including aesthetic value, artist intention, and institutional influence. In modern day the works deemed to possess value sell for grand sums of money to eager buyers, while others are left to the dust and forgotten.

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950, Jackson Pollock, Enamel on canvas <>


PICASSO, Pablo Guernica Paris, 1 May to 4 June 1937 ?Oil on canvas <>


ANDY WARHOL Eight Elvises, 1963, sold $100 million <>