What is the true value of art?
Zane Oborenko, Visual Arts Theorist

Art has always mirrored changes in politics, economics and society. These changes mean that, individually and collectively, we must assess various values. Constant change is a fact of life for the world, society, individuals and cultures, but often these changes are difficult to detect. As a result, we pay little heed to them until the moment comes when they can no longer be ignored and the necessity arises for new viewpoints, theories, value systems or just plain opinions. Therefore, the question of the value of art is not particularly original, new or surprising, as Barbara Fässler cogently illustrates in her answer.

It was interesting to observe that those whose everyday work involves assessing works of art and writing theoretical and analytical studies of art and its problems had the most difficulty answering this question. Apparently, a foundation of theoretical knowledge doesn’t make it any easier to answer the question; rather, it can result in paralysis. Conversely, people who spend their days working with various forms of art and personally creating art had an equally creative and personal approach to the matter.

Thanks to everyone who found the time for this exchange of views.

Justin Ions, Lecturer in Philosophy at the Estonian Academy and writer: At best, there is no special value to be attributed to art. Art may quicken the imagination, challenge, inspire, appal, lie and disturb. Often as not, it bores and disappoints – though even at its most banal it can prompt curiosity. If we identify value as the defining art’s role, then we imply that any work that fails in that role is an artistic failure. But history is littered with instances of artworks that have challenged expectations and norms. Still, even works produced in accordance with rigid ideological constraints can be great art, for artworks have the potential to exceed and evade our critical and evaluative capacities and the intentions of artists, just as, for a witness, a traffic collision exceeds the cold facts of velo¬city, impact, damage and casualties. This evasiveness, which calls us to look again, should not be programmatic. As the goal, evasiveness becomes the norm, and such artworks rightly invite ridicule – evasiveness evading. If evasiveness invites us to engage with a work then it does so as an accident, as a by-product of other functions. This may be why we cannot adequately define art in a way that distinguishes it from other acts, such as carpentry, conversation or football. Art should not and cannot have distinct value.

Norma Jeane, Artist, freelance housewife: “The surgeon represents the polar opposite of the magician. The magician heals a sick person by the laying on of hands; the surgeon cuts into the patient’s body. The magician maintains the natural distance between the patient and himself; though he reduces it very slightly by the laying on of hands, he greatly increases it by virtue of his authority. The surgeon does exactly the reverse; he greatly diminishes the distance between himself and the patient by penetrating into the patient’s body, and increases it but little by the caution with which his hand moves among the organs. In short, in contrast to the magician – who is still hidden in the medical practitioner – the surgeon at the decisive moment abstains from facing the patient man to man; rather, it is through the operation that he penetrates into him. […] And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art”.
Walter Benjamin (‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, 1936).

Barbara Fässler, Artist: The question of what is the true value of art has been discussed since the time art was born. For Plato, works of art were completely worthless in comparison to thought. He considered works of art to be copies of items from the sensory world and these in turn were copies of the idea that existed in the skies of ideas. For him, a work of art, therefore, had the status of being a copy of a copy, and thus of no value at all.

The first thing that comes to mind today, on the other hand, is the economic or speculative value of an artistic object, as Andy Warhol said: “Good business is the best art.” Luckily, in this regard there are also ideas circulating around that are less aligned to the marketplace, for example the ironic coup of Piero Manzoni who, in 1961, put up for sale his Merda d’artista (‘The Artist’s Shit’) in a multiple edition of 90 copies. Yves Klein, for his part, in 1962 presented a performance where he made fun of the economic value of art: he sold his sensibility for leaves of gold. The buyer, however, was invited to burn the certificate that they were given in exchange, and Yves Klein threw the little pieces of gold into the Seine. Cesare Pietroiusti, present-day Italian artist, recently sold in a workshop “artist’s working hours”, where whomsoever bought them was to instruct the artist what to do in the said hours and would in return receive a contract drawn up and signed by the artist.

Clearly, in addition to material worth, we would wish that works of art were to have spiritual value also. For Walter Benjamin, the value of a work of art is in its aura, which he de¬fines as being “the here and now of a work of art, its unique presence in the place where it is located”. For Immanuel Kant, too, the value of a work of art lies in its intangibility, in beauty which can be defined as usefulness without function and which arouses disinterested pleasure in the viewer.

Let us not forget, beyond its economic and spiritual value, the visionary capacity of art. For André Breton, a work of art has value only if it is permeated with reflections of the future. The statute of autonomy that an artwork has, free of any social or political function, gives it the most powerful potential for broadening the mind and stirring the heartstrings of our senses and emotions. It is precisely in its non-functionality (as Kant underlined) wherein rests its great liberty, its revolutionary force and hence its deepest and most important value.

Luigi Negro, Artist and sociologist: For me it (art when it really is art) is the only place where life makes sense, despite its evident senselessness. It is the place where anybody can do without a function, without a purpose. Because real art, like life, is never functional. This is the reason why the best art is often close to the breath of God.

“Art that is truly art” is that in which life merges with inquiry and the suspense of conjecture (which is not solely attention), delving into that fragrance which at times illuminates the multifaceted beauty of the world. Here I am thinking of Bas Jan Ader and his miraculous death. Art is often like philosophy, – more than to be studied, it needs attention, tension and an opening of the heart and mind to the world in which we live, towards ourselves and towards the manifestations of art and of artists. It is only in this freedom that we identify meaning which art bestows us as a gift (often beyond the capacity of artists).

Stephen Piccolo, Sound artist, composer: To be really succinct, I think society attributes value to art because art is a sort of gym for the exercise of the mind and the perceptive faculties, both for artists and for the audience. Maybe that exercise helps us to evolve, or at least it keeps our neurological systems limber. This “true” value sometimes coincides with investment value, but not always.

Gak Sato, Sound artist: I don’t know what is the value of art. Maybe I’m looking for that in my life.

Art is a kind of message. The message creates communication. Art can communicate to the future. The real value of art is real communication, from artist to people (and vice versa). That is to say, art doesn’t need a common value. You need to give personal value to art. Art is a kind of flower for life. How¬ever, a flower is just a flower. Nothing else. But this flower is a flicker of hope.

Laima Slava, Art Historian: I hope that the question isn’t: “What is art”?

In my opinion, the true value of art is in a dialogue with the viewer. [That’s what it is] for me. This conversation may be brief, quickly exhausted and instigated by an alignment of momentary factors, or it may be renewed and continued every time one encounters the artwork. It may happen only at the level of visual or sensory attraction, or it may take you far away into other dimensions of thought and knowledge, or deep into the jungle of private insight.

In any case, it has as its foundation a rich and generous human personality that has found a living, appropriate form to express itself, and I speak to it directly without the hindrance of time or other barriers. I recognise my conversation partners through my own spontaneous reaction; I initially perceive the artwork in a purely sensory way, and then follows the conversation, which either develops or it doesn’t.

I don’t think that there can be a more loquacious or precise testimony to an era and a person than a work of art.

/Translator into English: Filips Birzulis/
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