Arts | Travel | Lifestyle

What Dictates the Value of a Work of Art?

A couple of years ago I went to the Ayala Museum with my husband. After visiting the gold artifacts section and seeing samples of clothing dating back to the Spanish era, we headed to see the current exhibit where I saw paintings of straight lines and all sorts of geometrical shapes.

I inspected one of the paintings closely and saw pencil markings underneath the thin layer of white paint. Very high school project-like, I thought. I must say I have not been back there since.

I have always been fond of art, ever since my Humanities professor at the University of Santo Tomas introduced our class to the works of the Impressionists. My personal favorite is Edouard Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass (1863), which was so cleverly recreated in the 1990 Uma Thurman movie Where the Heart Is.

Luncheon on the Grass (1863) by Edouard Manet (left) can be found at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The picture on the right is a scene from the movie Where the Heart Is (1990) by Touchstone Pictures.

As I said I’ve always loved art, but I’m no connoisseur. I just appreciate beautiful paintings, or at least what I deem beautiful, for what they are. I love how each work of art tells each onlooker a different story. Art is a personal experience. It impacts each of us in different ways.

But what makes art art? Who decides what is art and what is not? What makes one piece of art more valuable than another? What dictates the value of art? What makes Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera a masterpiece, while a painting of a sunset being sold by the side of the road unworthy to be placed side by side a Monet at the Met?

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the painter was considered a skilled laborer who worked with his hands, according to Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker of Smarthistory. The value of the painting was dependent on the kind and colors of the paint used. Ultramarine was an expensive paint because it came from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli which could only be found in Afghanistan. Paintings back then were a reflection of the wealth of the painter’s patron. The painter didn’t matter as much.

The Rucellai Madonna by Duccio Di Buoninsegna (c.1285) with the Virgin Mary wearing an ultramarine cloak.

The way people saw the painter changed after the 1800s. All of a sudden the painter gained a “rock star” status. It started to matter who painted what, and even if the medium is merely a used paper napkin, if Picasso drew something on it, it would be worth a fortune.

Card Players by Paul Cezanne (1890-92) was sold for $250 million in 2011.

In an article titled “What Gives a Work of Art its Value” by Joe Belanger, Jennie Kraehling, associate director at the Michael Gibson Gallery in Ontario says, “I concluded that what gives artwork value is a combination of elements: the artist’s education, exhibition history, critical acknowledgment, public collections, commercial success, and of course, perhaps, the most important — originality and quality.”

Of course, sometimes it doesn’t hurt that one is already popular in another field before he or she ventures into the world of visual arts.

In the Philippines, there are people who become successful painters, having one sold out exhibit after the other. However, in this Kardashian-obsessed world that we live in, where popularity is perhaps the most valuable commodity, any famous person can be a bestselling author or world-renowned artist with or without talent.

I remain hopeful, however, that true art will survive this Kardashian Era. As long as there are discerning people to guide us and to help safeguard art for humanity’s sake, we’ll be safe from a hostile takeover by a bunch of artist-wannabes who are mediocre at best. As long as these discerning people remain steadfast and not easily swayed and influenced by trends, then we’ll have quality art that will be appreciated for years and years to come.

By: Cynthia Yushida


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