Value is a fickle thing in the world of art. When there is very little inherent value in an artwork, how is it created and how is it lost?
It is true that while the value creation begins with the artist- by creating the work in the first place- once the artwork is in the market, it is subject to its conditions. Other factors include: the reputation of the artist, the reputation of the collector, the reputation of the art dealer, and the historical significance of the artwork. In fact, the only stable factor in this list is the historical aspect of the art- which is something that will never change.
Columbia University’s Arthur Ross Gallery currently has on display an exhibition that addresses this particular question. The timely opening for the exhibition, postponed because of Sandy, presents numerous artworks that at first glance appear to be quite normal, except that they are not hung on the walls as is traditionally the custom in an art gallery. Upon further reflection, more clues to the unusual nature of this show begin to surface. Besides the artwork not being hung, the first is that every visitor is told they are free to touch the art- something that anyone who has ever visited an art show or museum has been told is forbidden. Unless you are seeing a show at an auction house (yes this is an exception), touching art is not allowed! The next clue is the stack of booklets listing the value of every object in the room- sort of like the opposite of a price list- as zero. Until then, it is possible to hone in on the defects, which in some cases are miniscule, of the artwork on display.
It is like entering a twilight zone of artwork in a state of limbo. To an art lover, the experience of entering into this room and seeing all the beautiful art deemed as “worthless” is disheartening and feelings of confusion, anxiety, and even anger begin to emerge. One Ad Reinhardt piece that at one point was worth millions, is included in the show, and with it – the story of its demise: an errant sneeze left the unlucky painting irreperably damaged.
A large Robert Rauschenberg is on display with no conspicious signs of damage. I’m still not sure what caused its loss in value, possibly that it was ‘damaged’ in transit? However, this brings up another point. If Rauschenberg were still alive today, it would most likely be in his power to retain the value of this work. In an article I found, written by Peter Gena in ’93 on conversations he had with John Cage and Morton Feldman, he says: John once talked about the difference between Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. He said if a work is damaged in transit, it would be fine with Rauschenberg, but with Johns it would open up a whole new aesthetic realm.” Nevertheless, there it is in Arthur Ross, stripped of its monetary value. One article written about the show asks the question “If art has no market value, is it art?” Then what can be said of artwork that is donated to a museum? Museums are not allowed to deaccession works from their collections, unless it is absolutely necessary in order to update its collection. However, it is considered extremely taboo. Also, if the art is stripped of its monetary value, wouldn’t that make the exhibition itself more valuable? By the mere fact that without the aura of the commercial market looming over the art, it gives the exhibition a type of purity that is unusual in most gallery exhibitions.
Various other artworks on display, each linked to their own individual stories of loss, make this exhibition curated by Elka Krajewska an incredibly relevent and though provoking conceptual exhibition. A round-table discussion on the opening day included comments from political theorist Jane Bennett, President and CEO of AXA Art Insurance Corporation Christiane Fischer, artist Elka Krajewska, conservator Christian Scheidemann, Director of Exhibitions Mark Wasiuta, and GSAPP Dean Mark Wigley. The main point that was stressed was that the stamp of “total loss” on a work of art refers mainly to its market value, and that a “dead” art can still be resurrected in the name of science by using it as a way to improve conservation techniques or to study other aspects of the artwork in an academic setting.
Nevertheless, I still maintain that value is determined by the price anyone is willing to pay for something. Imagine the discussions that would arise if someone offered to buy any of the artworks in this exhibition!
Go see the show before it closes on December 20th!
Where: Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery, Buell Hall, Columbia University
When: Tuesday – Saturday until December 20th.