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“How Do You Value Art?”

Passion Fit Gym, where Lee Weng Choy visits
Queries about art answered by Lee Weng Choy


“How do you value art?”


When I started writing “Ask a Critic”, my friends at Plural would send me questions they had gathered from various sources, then together we’d decide on which one to answer. They still supply suggestions, but these days I also approach my own contacts. A number of columns have resulted from my solicitations, including today’s, which comes from a friend who co-owns this wonderful gym in Kuala Lumpur. A large-volume, well-ventilated, uncrowded space, it’s been my lifeline during the pandemic — my one destination besides the supermarket, although it’s had to close intermittently during lockdowns. I’d like to give a shout out to all the great people at PassionFit.

Alrighty then. Value. It’s notable my friend uses the word “value” instead of “price”. We often use the two terms interchangeably. But there’s a crucial difference. One way to understand the distinction is to ask, what determines price?, and what determines value? The first question has a straightforward answer: namely, the market.

Mike Winkelmann (Beeple), Everydays: The First 5000 Days, 2021.
Mike Winkelmann (Beeple), Everydays: The First 5000 Days, 2021. Image credit: Christie’s.

How could something like Beeple’s “Everydays: the First 5000 Days” cost nearly US$70 million? Well, when it comes to price, it doesn’t matter what a thing is really worth. What matters is whether someone wants to buy it, and how much they’re willing to pay. Is there any better example of this market principle than Non-Fungible Tokens? With NFTs, you don’t buy any “thing” as such, so much as purchase the pure act of purchasing itself. In March 2021, at an auction at Christie’s in London, that Beeple transaction actually took place, making the digital artwork one of the most expensive pieces ever sold by a living artist. Apparently only Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons have sold works for more.

Now lots of people, who previously had never heard of NFTs, are talking about them. I myself have been reading a fair bit on the subject since the landmark sale. I’ve read about the persons behind the Beeple purchase, about an NFT which sold for US$1.7 million that is just a single pixel, about why NFTs are bad for the environment, how NFTs perpetuate the elitist structure of the art market, and how their prices are already going downhill.

Plural has an article explaining them in the context of other digital tokens. An episode of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, from a couple years ago, covered a related topic: cryptocurrencies. Art critic Jerry Saltz sold an NFT of his own, and his collaborator, digital artist Kenny Schachter, shared about the process. Finally, while most reports have pretty much ignored Beeple’s five thousand images, focusing instead on the money and the phenomenon, Ben Davis has written this piece of criticism on the work itself.

Simon Denny: NFT Mine Offsets, 2021.
Simon Denny: NFT Mine Offsets, 2021. Image credit: Simon Denny and Petzel Gallery.

When someone asks “how do you value art”, that person may be genuinely curious as to why some works can sell for so much, while others don’t. That person may also be somewhat skeptical, wondering if a lot of art today isn’t just a big con. To be sure, Beeple’s “5000 Days” has plenty of detractors. While I can’t say I’m a fan — I’m withholding judgement until I’ve actually thought about the artist more carefully — I think it’s wrong to be dismissive of NFTs, in spite of how much eye-rolling each new headline about some celebrity cashing in may inspire (for example, Ja Rule of Fyre Festival notoriety).

The history of contemporary art is also a history of negative reactions to it. The hubbub over the current boom of exorbitant NFT trading is just another chapter in this story.

Modern art was once disparaged as well. We know that narrative well. The Impressionists and those who followed were at first scoffed at by Parisian society. Decades later, Manets, Monets, Renoirs, van Goghs and the rest of their kin are among the most popular artworks in the world, the staple of many a blockbuster museum exhibition, and many an extravagant auction sale. Even the Abstract Expressionist Pollocks and de Koonings that were once denigrated as something “my kid could do” have become recognised as properly precious objects.

But general disdain continues for some of the things that today’s artists do, especially when it isn’t something conventional like painting. For example, before the second Singapore Biennale even opened, the country’s national newspaper published an editorial (Sunday Times 31 August 2008) complaining that many works in the exhibition — including Alfredo Juan Aquilizan and Maria Isabel Gaudinez-Aquilizan’s poignant forest made of bamboo poles and migrant workers’ slippers — lacked “the aesthetic pleasure, that communicated sense of beauty, purposeful effort and workmanship that are the hallmark of a work of art”. In a letter to the paper, a reader reminded them that their notions about art were rather antiquated, and suggested that perhaps the Times would like to put their prejudices aside and join the 21st century.

xA girl exploring Alfredo Juan Aquilizan and Maria Isabel Gaudinez-Aquilizan’s Flight at the 2008 Singapore Biennale.
A girl exploring Alfredo Juan Aquilizan and Maria Isabel Gaudinez-Aquilizan’s Flight at the 2008 Singapore Biennale. Image credit: imedagoze on Flickr.

Another history to keep in mind is that of the stratospheric rise in prices in the art market. The current record is for the “Salvator Mundi”, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, which fetched US$450 million at auction in 2017. In 2015, the sale of Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)” for US$179 million marked only the 36th time in the past three centuries that a world auction record had been set. Here’s an article that discusses the previous 35 record-breaking auction sales. It’s an illuminating list (note: it excludes private transactions). The first time a work sells for six figures is in 1957, when a Gauguin just breaks the £100,000 barrier. Then in the ‘80s things start to go crazy. A van Gogh sells for £2.5 million at the beginning of that decade, and in 1990, another van Gogh goes for nearly £50 million.  

Pablo Picasso, Les femmes d'Alger (Version 'O'), 1955.
Pablo Picasso, Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’), 1955. Image credit: Christie’s.

Art prices and the art market tell us little about art but a lot about wealth — rich people really do like buying expensive paintings. Denise Tsui has written an excellent commentary on this year’s Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report. Released in March, the Report notes that the COVID-19 pandemic triggered the largest recession in the art market since the 2009 global financial crisis. No surprises there. What was concerning for Tsui is how the Report attests to the growing wealth inequality in the world. “From March to December 2020, the top three richest billionaires increased their wealth by some 113%; the top 10 saw gains of 65%; and the top 500 billionaires worldwide became 50% more wealthy — all while a global health crisis was ravaging the world. While lives are being lost to the pandemic, jobs are being cut, small and medium businesses are going bankrupt, and governments are going further into debt, the uber-rich are getting richer.”

Yes, there can be many factors behind the price of any artwork, whether oil painting or NFT, and these factors operating in conjunction are what we mean when we say that the market determines price. For non-digital objects, considerations may include the size of the work, its condition, the reputation of the artist, rarity, provenance, and so on. Price is something relatively simple; it’s a number that represents a (possible) transaction. But what exactly is value? Is it what something’s actually worth, as I hinted at earlier?

One way of approaching the concept of value is through Marx (or maybe not, since he’s rather difficult reading). It may seem obvious that one shouldn’t think about the economy without also thinking about politics, history and society — and Marx deserves acknowledgment for making us better aware of all that — but many people have this tendency to behave as if our social-political-economic realities are a given and not historically contingent or ideological. Take the commodity form. Through markets, we buy and sell everything, from water, sand, oil and minerals, to computers, cars and clothes, our time and labour. It all seems natural to us. Even our own self-image has become commodified — we are no longer just persons, we’re data to advertisers, or, if we’re more fortunate, our own brands.

Marx analysed the commodity form through concepts like “exchange value”, “use value”, “surplus value” and just plain “value”. Someone with a basic familiarity with Marxism might appreciate the notion that capitalism exploits workers, as in the factory owners profit by extracting surplus value from workers. This idea often gets distorted, as in, an Indonesian worker gets paid just a few dollars for making one pair of US$100 Nikes … so, the surplus value is … over US$95?

The Nike Zion 1 PF. Image credit: Nike.
The Nike Zion 1 PF. Image credit: Nike.

Let’s break it down. Half the price of a pair of $100 shoes usually goes to the retailer, like your favourite outlet at the shopping mall you used to frequent before the pandemic. Total factory costs are around $25, of which labour is only a small part; the rest includes raw materials, overheads and so on. A few dollars go to taxes and shipping, and about $15 is allocated to what’s called SG&A, or Selling, General & Administrative costs, which covers everything from accounting to marketing. In the end, Nike profits around $4.50.

Those numbers make it seem like there isn’t that much surplus extracted from the workers. But that would misunderstand Marx; his larger argument is that the means by which workers have created “value” over the last few hundred years is possible only because of the entire capitalist system, which is exploitative.

While I did take us down an NFT rabbit-hole, don’t worry, I’m won’t go into a Marxist one. Yet I would like to emphasise the Marxist point that we should look beyond a particular thing in isolation, asking how much it costs or is worth, and consider the larger social-political-economic structures, relations and inequalities which make its very production and consumption possible. For example, capital can move very easily and quickly—unlike factory workers—and capital will often go to a country where the same work can be done, not only with lower wages, but with lower social protections.

So, is my answer to the question “what determines value”, capitalism? Well, no, because I don’t think that’s particularly helpful. Saying that price is determined by the market was helpful, I hope, in explaining something like the Beeple sale. Capitalism may be ubiquitous, but only in so many complex and contradictory ways. Even a short list of countries comprising China, Colombia, Germany, India, Nigeria and the U.S. reveals a range of diverse and even disparate socio-political economies that are ever evolving. It’s reductive to exclaim, “capitalism!”, as if that can explain any- or everything. There is no straightforward answer to the question about value.

Yes, artworks are regularly sold, and some can be “very valuable”, as in “very expensive”. Yet “price” and “artistic value” should not be equated. How a society will, in time, remember, appreciate and value an artwork usually has almost nothing to do with how much the work costs.

In the arts, the social-political-economic relations that contextualise the production of value include those between artists, collectors, curators, writers, scholars, audiences, arts communities, institutions, the state, the media and the market. But there is one relationship that deserves singling out. Many art workers in Southeast Asia, among them, curators Zoe Butt, based in Vietnam, and Grace Samboh, based in Indonesia, have argued that friendship is one of the most important enabling conditions for the creation of art in the region — especially given the lack of support from government agencies and other institutions (with Singapore being the exception).

One could argue, then, that in our various arts communities, friendship often plays a significant part in determining value. Among other things, it creates spaces where artistic integrity as well as trust between art workers are cultivated and nourished. But it’s hard to measure this contribution, to put a number to it. Friendship is not so easy to commodify. It’s not, nor should it be, transactional. Although there is the matter of debt. I feel terribly indebted to my friends, and while I always try to be generous in return, in many ways one can never really pay them back. All you can do is continue to be grateful.


Feature image: View of PassionFit Gym, Kuala Lumpur. Image credit: PassionFit.

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