Why are some paintings so valuable?
Works by Rothko or Matisse are worth millions. The Mona Lisa is truly priceless.
There are four reasons, all working together, all quite relevant today as we remake our culture around digital goods:
Beauty/decoration. Since before the 20,000 year old cave paintings in France, we’ve been putting things on our walls. Things that are beautiful, or remind us of important stories, or simply our humanity. It happens regardless of income or culture.
Status/scarcity. When gold became revered for its scarcity, it began to show up in the decorations of households that aspired to be seen as high status. The same happened with spiritual relics and items from antiquity. A decoration that is scarce and in demand acquires a sort of cultural beauty that some people seek out.
The printing press. Until 500 years ago, no given painting (or tapestry) was seen by many people. And then, quite suddenly, images began to spread. Durer sold many thousands of the eight editions of his woodcut, and it was one of the first famous pieces of art. And the Mona Lisa? It’s so valuable because it was stolen just as newspapers (in color!) were becoming widespread. Her face was on the front page of newspapers around the world, ensuring her celebrity for generations.
While the fame and cultural currency that the printing press created was a boon for artists, art collectors and dealers, it was also a huge problem. If a print could be had for a few dollars, what good is the original? How to satisfy those that sought status from the decoration on their walls?
First and best version. And thus the last pillar. An original oil painting is truly different from a signed print, which is different from the mass market poster. People wait in line to see a famous painting. They gasp in its presence. They take selfies with it, and it elevates the way they feel about themselves and the world.
Museums exist to show us what we all own, our shared cultural heritage, the output of our culture in the form of original work created by artists with something to say.
I’ve sat in the Art Institute for hours, simply breathing the same air as a Magritte. I grew up at the Albright Knox in Buffalo, with the DeBuffet’s, the O’Keefe’s and the Still’s. The Marisol is an old friend. They were worth the trip.
There used to be museums that forbid people from taking photographs. Over time, they’ve come to realize that this is foolish, because sharing the photographs don’t take anything away from the value of the painting, they add to it (though the sometimes annoying act of the person with a flash or a shutter click is a different story).
The top of the painting market is 50 billion dollars or more a year. Wealthy people and institutions trading scarce originals, and sometimes, perhaps, exhibiting them, for the public or for people who come over for dinner. When there’s a huge signed Jill Greenberg on the other side of the dining room table from you, it’s unforgettable.
But now, we’ve taken the printing press to a whole new level. That has made some existing paintings more famous than ever. But it has also created a billion images that were never paintings in the first place.
There are millions of painters who aspire to be at the most expensive tier of working artist creating for the auction houses and collectors, but very few achieve this goal every year. And there are countless collectors who buy paintings hoping that there value will soar, but most fail to succeed.
The art market has shifted from something that supports art to something that is mostly a market. Some collectors bought art they didn’t like, simply because they were persuaded that the system would make it increase in value or that their perception of status was so shaky that they needed the next big thing. Some painters were pushed to create painting that would go up in value instead of work they believed in. Museums ended up with tens of thousands of paintings in storage. Wealthy collectors put priceless paintings into tax-free havens, simply as a hedge, not for any of the emotions that painting originally set out to produce.
And now, if you’re a fine artist, hoping to make a living selling canvases for far more than they cost to produce, beauty is insufficient. The market for this sort of status is demanding curation and approval and yes, celebrity.
And if you’re a cyber-person, intent on pushing NFTs (the abbreviation for Non-Fungible Token, unhelpful shorthand for ‘an unduplicatable digital code that’s easy to trade and speculate on’) then it’s worth noting:
Digital tokens aren’t beautiful.
Digital tokens will never make someone gasp.
No one wants to see your hard drive.
It’s quite difficult to display the status or beauty of something that isn’t connected to 20,000 years of cultural expectations, institutional embrace and design evolution. And if you can’t display your status or enjoy the beauty, then it’s simply a speculative trade.
People buy and trade stocks in order to make a profit. Most of them are largely indifferent to what the stock certificate looks like.
I think we’re always going to be hooked on status, and we’re always going to seek beauty. I’m not sure, though, that just because we can marketize and digitize something that it will inherit so many of the cultural tropes that are at the core of the human experience.