The Value of Art


¨Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.¨

–Oscar Wilde

The phrase could mean a lot of things to different people unless we define the ¨language-game¨ where it belongs. From the viewpoint of an art collector or an art gallery owner/administrator, value is more calculated in terms of the pecuniary aspect. Though, such aspect largely depends of course on a few factors like the exquisite intricacy of the art work which in a more basic sense depends essentially on the prominence of the artist. The more widely acclaimed the artist is, the higher the price the artwork commands. It is almost always the thinking that the bi-condition between the artwork and the artist is pre-established and hence defines the ¨value¨ of the artwork: The artwork is highly priced IF AND ONLY IF the artist is extensively celebrated.

But this bi-conditional statement is not an inherent truism for it has passed through an evolutionary process. To say that a Dali is highly valued/priced because of the fame of its creator is a later development. Originally, what mattered more was the creator—Salvador Dali who initially was not famous—later became a celebrated world-class painter because of the first exquisite artworks he produced which captured the discriminating taste of respected art connoisseurs of equally world-class significance. In a more reasonable sense, the value of art is in the exquisiteness of the artwork itself that delights and captivates the appreciative sensitivity of its beholder regardless of who the artist is.

In certain instances, though, the ¨pecuniary value¨ may not be totally divorced from an artwork´s aesthetic value. Genuine patrons of the art who truly understand the aesthetic worth of an artwork spend a fortune to claim such a treasure as a lasting possession. However, there are also the ¨filthy rich¨ who basically do not have an iota of artistic taste. But to keep up with the standard of their more ¨cultured¨ acquaintances, they would compete with them by making their presence felt in an art gallery show and in shelling out a lot of money to bring home an artwork deemed to be very well commended by discriminating connoisseurs milling around the place. They are the ¨social-climbing¨ variety of the ¨filthy rich,¨ so to speak.

But there is more to the issue of ¨the value of art¨ than the exclusively pecuniary and that is the purely aesthetic. Aesthetic valuation is basically human discernment/judgment of the beautiful. Its most fundamental media are the five senses of perception. Nevertheless, sensitivity towards the exquisite and the attractive that pleases, delights, charms and captivates the heart is much deeper than what is materially comprehended. Truly there is something cultural in this valuation but such is not ¨culture¨ in the language-game of ¨high society¨ but in the more primarily sociological understanding of the concept of society and culture.

Though not always cultural (in the sociological sense), but at times more personal and purely individualistic, even idiosyncratic, art finds a most meaningful expression in the culture of a people, more particularly in its material component. Art is the concrete/tangible/substantial materialization of the human creative impulse to convey her/his most vital desires and needs. Art is the channel that facilitates the release of humanity´s imaginative urge that makes life more liveable and more worth enhancing. In a broader sense, we may even contend that human life in its truest essence is art itself. It is the artistic spirit of humanity that sees beauty in the natural environ of earthly existence. The course of life on earth provides magnificent inspiration to the creative human being in the furtherance of the world which s/he started to create millennia ago and has been the focal point of her/his most determined struggles to survive, to improve and to make life more meaningful despite myriads of troubles, adversities and tragedies.

Even long before the human species invented the ¨art¨ of writing, cave-dwelling homo sapiens had already been actively carving pictures—pictographs—on cave walls which even appeared in colourful designs to express and communicate their ideas and thoughts. In the course of time, primitive societies composed poetry which they recited and even sang in public functions. Genealogical stories were formulated, recited and likewise sung in celebration of the dignity of a tribe´s origin. These artistic expressions were even enhanced and made livelier by kinaesthetic activities as in the dance performed before an audience. This is ¨spectator¨ art where special talents are called gifts which are not generally shared by many.

Primitive life was doubtless suffused with art. Even the fabrication of hunting equipment, farm tools and household paraphernalia required the ¨artistic¨ creativity of the primitive human. This is ¨utilitarian¨ art in its most basic form. In this particular category, there is a very thin line that divides art and technology. We know the basic pragmatic value of technology from its most archaic formation to its most exceptionally sophisticated configuration and along the way of its evolution is the interwoven presence of art. In carpentry and masonry, in fabric weaving and pottery, in engineering and architecture among others, the omnipresence of art is indubitable and persistent.

But more popularly perceived in the contemporary scene, we identify art more with its ¨spectator¨ kind—the so-called ¨fine arts¨. Art for us is painting, sculpture, music, literature, the theatre, culinary refinement, fashion elegance, among others. Special talents performing in these areas of artistic location are the ones most often—if not exclusively—called ¨artists¨. And they are rightly so because of the single-minded profundity and authenticity of their steadfastness to their respective artistic commitments.

Without undermining utilitarian art as a category closer to pecuniary valuation than spectator art, utilitarian-art practitioners and spectator-art performers, in a broader sense, are both artists. In the final analysis, what genuinely matters is the qualitative value of their artistic deeds more fairly reckoned in terms of their intense commitment and profound dedication to their crafts as the prime and foremost factor over and beyond the pecuniary consideration. The ultimate judge of the value of utilitarian art is the benefited technology-user while the final adjudicator of the value of spectator art is the appreciative observer who sees the noteworthy circumstances of real life—hers/his and that of humanity in general—remarkably reflected in an artwork.

In conclusion, we may say that the value of art is basically subjective for its appeal is more ¨coronary¨ than ¨cerebral¨. One piece of artwork could be delightful in the eyes of one beholder but hideous from the perspective of another. One thing is sure though and that is the value of art is the value of life because life is sustained by art and art is nourished by life. In the words of the great British wordsmith, Oscar Wilde, ¨Life imitates art far more than art imitates life¨.

© Ruel F. Pepa, 30 October 2013

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