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How to Assess the Value of Nothing?

In terms of economics, assessing the value of a good is usually quite straightforward. Whether it is economic or market value, whether we’re dealing with a free market economy or a socialist one – the factors influencing value are almost the same. One compares price of a good to its quality, availability and subjective, personal needs to assess their ‘willingness to pay’, as it is quite often cited. Until some point in history, the art’s value was assessed as easily as that of any other good. Paintings were supposed to be ‘a window’, allowing to see things as they are. They had to be a mirror for the reality – the more accurate it was, the more valuable it would become.[1] However, a drastic change came with the development of photography. The purpose of art was undermined and had to face the modern ages – ones in which both the art’s purpose and definition got blurry. And blurry it stays nowadays, to some extent constituting a nearly philosophical issue. Along with it, assessment of modern art’s quality and, therefore, value is a difficult challenge. Especially for an outsider, what can be considered art and the way it is valued can be unexpected, not to say ridiculous in appearance.

When I decided to become involved during the last Amsterdam Museum Night, I volunteered to surveil one of the exhibitions. The work turned out to be hard to that, especially that the room I was taking care of was an almost genuine reconstruction of a construction site. It was filled with ash trays, wooden sticks and boards, styrofoam, rumbling pipes, broken technological devices and, what has proven especially difficult to control, empty beer cans. To explain to the drunk part of the audience, in the middle of the night, that adding cans to the composition is not required, moreover not allowed, has proven not to be an easy task. The task of discouraging art enthusiasts from teasing and feeding an alive chicken, which was part of another art piece turned out to be even more difficult.

An example of laymen unable to recognise the value of art was a quite famous case of an art piece thrown away by a cleaning lady during her night shift. However, the poor woman cannot really be blamed – the art was indeed nothing else but a bag of trash, quite literally. There were cases as well when art was not only literal trash, but as well literal shit. ‘Artist’s shit‘ was a successful installation, which the artist created out of cans supposedly containing his own feces. The most transparent example, however, of how easy it can be to create an art piece, but how hard it can be to assess that piece’s value can be the case of selling NOTHING. At first, a sucessful hoax was made, which surprised and provoked the public. It consisted of photo of a crowd staring at empty walls, with an access to them restricted by the classical museum ropes and badges on the wall describing alleged pieces, and a suggestion that huge amounts of money were spent that day on nothing. Nothing in a quite, again, literal way. But it was not long to wait for the said case to happen in reality. A Kickstarter project called ‘Museum of Non-Visible Art’ managed to sell non-existent art pieces for big amounts of money, supplying the buyer with just a brief description of what she gets.

The question that comes up, question of what art is, is strictly connected with the one I would like to pose, even though the answer seems for now out of my reach: how to assess what is art worth? How can we correctly value something if we, the big part of the society, are not even able to understand it or assess its authenticity?

“I have never been against new art as such; some of it is good, much is crap, most is somewhere in between.” ~Robert Hughes

It is really hard to value an illusion correctly. To value something that doesn’t exist or differs from regular object only by an intention that accompanies its creation seems impossible. With old masters the reputation sets the value – we can be sure that a piece of Chagall or Picasso will, in the future, keep its worth. But how can we be sure that a piece of a temporarily appreciated and popular artist will not become worthless in such a tentative market? Because a market in which the rules are not by any mean clearly set and which is selling intangible assets is not one in which we can gain any certainty.

When it comes to art, the same rules seem to apply as with luxury products – it is not a good itself that is being sold, but a certain attitude towards life, social status and an elusive feeling of uniqueness that comes with it . And as much as I would love to one day be able to spend millions on unnecessarily exclusive cars, I would also be thrilled to have a possibility to spend hundreds of thousands on nothing, just in order to feel posh and dainty.

[1] Danto, A. C. (2013). What art is. London: Yale University Press.


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