How the Baffling Price of Art is Based on Society |

art value

Art and money have always been related; none of the most famous painters have ever worked only for the glory. Even back in ancient Greece, painters and sculptors worked only on commission. Michelangelo earned the equivalent of $10 million in today’s money with all his works. In 1928, Marcel Duchamp even described art as “Wall Street action”, while Andy Warhol used to say that “making money is the best art.” Picasso suffered from peniaphobia, the fear of becoming poor. Currently, the richest contemporary artist is Damien Hirst who earned around £315 million last year.

Despite the age-old connection between art and money, something has changed over time. In the past, a work of art’s worth was related to its artistic and intellectual value. A painting or a sculpture had to respect the classical standards of beauty, and the social standing of the patron. 

Societal Impact

Today, it is the market itself that decides immediately the importance (and value) of an artwork. What makes a painting good or famous is the amount of attention it attracts as soon as it is produced. The artist is free to produce anything they want, but to make serious money, their work needs to have a strong impact on the society.

The current boom in Chinese art is the best example to explain this relation between the market, society, and contemporary artists. Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist and activist. One of his most important works is the 15 million handmade ceramic sunflower seeds that he created to commemorate the victims of famine under Mao Zedong’s regime in China. While Ai Weiwei went to jail because of his protest, the value of his works jumped from an average of US$15,000 to US$1,500,000. 

Ai Weiwei & Sunflower Seeds

Yue Minjun is another Chinese contemporary artist whose recognisable trademark is the laughing face that appears in each of his works. It alludes to the image of the Laughing Buddha and is a nod to the heroic proletarians of communist-era Maoist propaganda. Today, the price of Yue Minjun’s works can go from US$100,000 to US$4,000,000. 

Even public art – aka graffiti – is making an impact as a social commentary as well as at auction houses. The elusive artist Banksy has been known for his series of works laden with social commentary, sometimes graffitied illegally. For example, “Love is in the Air” (2003) which was painted in Jerusalem’s West Bank barrier wall that separates Israel from its Occupied Territories, and “Slave Labour” (2012) which brought attention to the hostility of sweatshops. 

Love is in the Air, Banksy

The British artist’s growing cult following has seen skyrocketing prices for his controversial artworks, like the “Girl With Balloon” (2018) which was shredded after it got sold at £1.04 million. Banksy even broke his own sales record in March 2021 – “Game Changer” was sold at £16.7 million, with proceeds going towards the NHS and healthcare charities.

Dead or alive?

Many of the greatest artists were not appreciated as much in life, as they are now in death. For instance, while Vincent Van Gogh sold only one of his paintings when he was alive, today his works are regarded as some of the most expensive in history. Similarly, Picasso became more famous after his death. 

Even the value of art from street artists increases upon their passing. Brooklyn-born painter Jean-Michel Basquiat was a renowned graffiti artist who was popular in the 1980s for his work focused on dichotomies such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and inner versus outer experience. Upon his death in 1988, his work steadily increased in value. His piece, “Untitled” (1982) was sold at US$110 million to Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa in 2017, breaking the record for the highest price paid for an American artist.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Untitled”

There are good reasons for the importance that these artists earn after their death. Firstly, if a painter dies he won’t be creating any more works, in his own original style, so what was created becomes unique, irreproducible, and rare. Some of the greatest artists even created and influenced the following generations, so artists such as Manet, Monet or Picasso increased their popularity not immediately after the release of their best work, but decades later.

Other Factors

Apart from the impact on society, in order to have market value, a work of art needs to respect some specific criteria. A singular art object is often seen in the context of a larger art movement or artistic genre and culture. It can also be seen as an item within an artist’s “body of work.” 

The style is fundamental to establishing whether the work of art follows a certain artistic genre or not. For instance, when a Monet painting needs to be evaluated, what is carefully analysed is how much the painter respected the Impressionistic canons. The historical period of the work of art can also influence its value. Not every century is the same; some artistic periods such as Impressionism, Cubism and Surrealism have made a bigger impact on the contemporary public’s view. 

Also, the size of the work of art may be an influence. For example, an untitled canvas by Jackson Pollock of 21.9 x 21.6cm was just sold for US$37,500 while the painting “Number 12” which is 78.7 x 58.2cm was sold for US$11,655,500. 

Sometimes, a great artist is not really valued by the market (at least while they’re alive), while many contemporary art pieces which lack that special something can be extremely expensive purely because they follow financial speculation or media awareness.  

Take Non-Fungible Tokens, or NFTs, for example. The cryptographically-unique tokens make it possible to create real-world scarcity for digital objects, and artists have seized on the opportunity presented by the technology. This digital art scene has exploded in recent months, and a recent NFT boom has seen several artworks sold for upwards of US$1 million a pop.

Everydays: The First 5000 Days

The most expensive artwork ever sold was actually an NFT titled “Everydays: The First 5000 Days”, created by digital artist Beeple who created a collage of 5,000 of his earlier artworks. It sold for a whopping US$69.3 million at a Christie’s auction.

In conclusion

To art world outsiders, the distinctions in the price of art can be confusing. What makes one artwork sell for $10,000 and another for $10 million—or even $100 million? The simplest explanation could be economic: high demand and a shortage of supply creates high prices for artworks. But it’s never that simple; art is inherently unique and volatile in value because it’s ultimately a record of human culture, and humans can be quite fickle and unpredictable at times.

by Marta Ciaraglia