This Week in the Art World: Perceptions of Value in the Art Market

Phillip Pessar, Real Fake Art Basel, Digital photograph, 2013. Image shared courtesy of:

Phillip Pessar, Real Fake Art Basel, Digital photograph, 2013. Image shared courtesy of:

The value of self-truth is much less in what is said and much more in the fact of saying it. Saying everything is the only fact that matters. Or, at least, it is the fact that matters most.
— Eliane Blum, El Pais, July 16, 2018

So, I hereby inaugurate a new series titled “This Week in the Art World”. Since the title is self-explanatory, let’s jump right in.

On October 5th and October 8th respectively, Art Forum and several other major art world press outlets reported on the following: the city of Chicago’s intention to sell Kerry James Marshall’s 1995 artwork “Knowledge and Wonder” with speculations that it could sell anywhere between USD$10 and $15 million; and, the sale of Banksy’s 2006 painting, “Girl With Balloon” at Sotheby’s, which immediately, upon being sold for USD$1.4 million dollars, began to shred.

The internet has been abuzz about these two events and it’s residents are chiming in with a level of vigor that ranges from amusement to indignant shock. For the sake of intellectual interest, and a commitment to the milieu in which I work, I too am working through these events. And yes, if your inner sociologist is attempting to recall Pierre Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production, we are on the same page.

First, Chicago. The goal of selling the artwork is to generate money for the refurbishing of one of the city’s west side library branches. It is purported that the proceeds would also go to the establishment of a new public arts initiative that would benefit underserved communities. Organizations sell off assets all the time. In this instance, Kerry James Marshall’s work is an asset. Yes, it also an amazing piece of art imbued with an aesthetic and conceptual value that matters and has agency and energy; however, in this instance, it is an asset that the city wants to sell. While the city’s actions may be perceived as unethical, nothing about their plan is illegal.

I do think, however, the scenario would be different if the artwork being offered up were made by someone other than Kerry James Marshall. To expound further, I share this quote from Art Forum’s summary of the matter,

I am certain they could get more money if they sold the Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza. Considering that only last year Mayor Emanuel and Commissioner [Mark] Kelly dedicated another mural I designed downtown for which I was asked to accept one dollar, you could say the City of Big Shoulders has wrung every bit of value they could from the fruits of my labor.
— Kerry James Marshall, Art Forum, October 5, 2018

In one fell swoop, Kerry James Marshall nails it. This is about labor and value. The city of Chicago could easily sell the Picasso and get 10 times, if not more, than they will get from Marshall’s work, but they won’t. Why? The implied reasoning is that Picasso’s intrinsic value merits staying power as an exemplar of the best of modern art. It is an ideal to work towards.

Marshall’s work does not [yet?] possess that value and so it can be bought and sold on the auction block. The reality is that Marshall’s work is likely to go to a private collection, or possibly to a Museum, which is unlikely to show it regularly. Thus, Marshall’s genius does not get the same visibility as Picasso’s has always received. Needless to say, the other rub is the fact that even once the sale is completed Marshall will not receive any portion of the money generated. Ironically, if this work ends up back at auction after the City of Chicago sells it, it’s very possible that the price will increase notably precisely because of this debacle, but the work, won’t necessarily - though I hope I am wrong - do what it is was originally intended to do.

Now, Banksy. Banksy has been sticking up his proverbial middle finger at the art world for years now and this latest stunt, for me, has been the most amusing and head shake worthy. As of yesterday morning, Sothebys issued a statement on Instagram indicating that the purchaser of the work agreed to proceed with the purchase. The new work is now titled “Love Is In the Bin”.

Where value is concerned, we have the opposite situation than what occurred/is occurring in Chicago. Banksy, who is a known art world trickster, created this work with the intention to destroy. He is acutely aware, as evidenced by previous tricks, of how [seemingly] random art works are priced. He knows that his stunts have made him a darling and that status gives him an ever rising market value. He also toys with the odd tendencies of those who are obsessed with art world trends, in this case, his tricks. In a matter of minutes, Banksy reconfirmed that prices of art works are often arbitrary, and are based more on desire and market demand (which can obviously be manipulated) than anything substantive.

Watching the art market from my remote little corner of the art world, this is an immensely teachable moment for me. A few of my takeaways:

  1. Art market value incorporates, amongst other things, who made the work, the provenance trajectory, the visibility (where it is shown, who curated it, who wrote about it and how often all of this happened), and trends (fetishism included);

  2. The art world will tell you every time what it values, for how long, in what measure, and why. There is room for unbounded growth just as there is room for austere contraction;

  3. Art market valuation reminds me of the opening quote of this post on self-truth. Applying this term to the art market, I would consider that the value of an artwork is much less in what it is - an artist’s technical and conceptual labor plus cost of tools and materials - and much more in the fact of saying what it is. Saying what it is is the value. Who initiates that declaration and who contributes to it adds additional value and how many times that declaration gets repeated and within which circumstances are, to my mind at this writing, what makes an artwork valuable in the market;

  4. If you are an art dealer, you have an immensely precious opportunity, precisely because of the aforementioned to be intentional and sharp in your pricing and exhibition of artists, particularly emerging artists.

In conclusion, value is created and just as it can be created it can be destroyed. The wild part is that we must come to grips with the fact that destruction can birth increased value, where conscious, mindful creation often ends up, however well intentioned, being reserved for those for whom value has already negotiated and forever cemented.

Negarra A. Kudumu

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