Thought — 5 Min Read

Le Prix de l’Art

by Case Greenfield, December 18th, 2021

Thought – 5 Min Read

Le Prix de l’Art

by Case Greenfield

December 18th, 2021

The Dutch government agreed to purchase Rembrandt’s De Vaandeldrager for 150 million euro’s. It made me think about the cost of making art, the value of art and the price of artworks, and how I as an artist have to deal with all of this.

You may have missed the artnews, that the Dutch government last week decided to buy from the Rothschild family the Rembrandt painting De Vaandeldrager (The Standard-Bearer) for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. For a stunning 150 million euros. Here’s what the Vereniging Rembrandt, a Dutch association to “protect and enrich the art collection of the Netherlands” say about the painting:

Turning point

De Vaandeldrager marks the moment when Rembrandt presented himself as an independent artist in Amsterdam. It is believed that the painter himself was the model for the painting. This Baroque ‘self-portrait’ as a proud standard-bearer marked Rembrandt’s artistic breakthrough.

Prelude to The Night Watch

The painting probably also served to persuade the Amsterdam militia to order a militia piece – a prestigious commission for a 17th-century artist. About four years after De Vaandeldrager, Rembrandt was indeed given such a commission with The Night Watch (completed in 1642). As a prelude to that now world-famous group portrait, De Vaandeldrager has an important place in Rembrandt’s oeuvre.

Apparently, that is worth a 150 million euros of public money.

De Vaandeldrager

De Vaandeldrager by Rembrandt van Rijn (1636)

In the same period, I watched two documentaries about art and the art world, Blurred Lines In The Art World (2017) by Barry Avrich and The New Shock Of The New by Barry Hughes. One might say, a problem and an answer to the problem. But the eternal discussion about the art world, I do not find so interesting. It is what it is. No, it made me think of the value of art.

As an artist, and not a wealthy one, I have come to experience the financial cost of making art. It is not cheap to make art. Earlier, I wrote a story about the question whether an artist should be ‘romantically poor’, The Vincent Syndrome.

In the end, it all comes down to how we appreciate art: as a personal journey of the artist, as a cultural artifact for broader society or as an asset to make a profit from.

My point here is to clarify these three aspects about the appreciation of art. As you know by now, my art philosophy is based on the assumption that we create our own realities. Here are at least three realities, when it comes down to the worth of art: the cost of making art, the value of art and the price of an artwork.

The cost of making art

How much does it cost to create an artwork? Well, here’s a sum-up of the most important cost factors:

  • Expenses
    • Material – You need paint, crayons, pencils, brush, etc. You need a canvas, paper, clay, cast, bronze, etc.
    • Tools – You need brushes, and all types of tools, but also machines like drills and much heavier equipment
    • Workshop – You may own or have to rent a workshop to perform your artistic work
    • Logistics – Once finished or as semi-finished product, you must pay for transport of the artwork
    • Selling – You will make costs to actually seel the art work, eg. a fee for showing your work at an art dealer
    • Overhead – You will make costs for administration, legal affairs (eg. an authenticity certificate) etc.
  • Cost of living
    • Salary – If you take yourself seriously as an artist, you want a decent ‘salary’ from your art, based on your craftmanship
    • Inspiration – Also, you will want to make study trips to develop yourself artistically and other activities for inspiration and philosophical input
    • Buffer – And you need a financial surplus as an investment for future activities, and a bit of a financial buffer (how many artists have a decent pension?)

Most people underestimate the cost of an artwork. And these are only just the material costs and other necessary expenses to actually be able to produce an artwork. For many artists, the biggest cost may be the mental cost. So, what is that?

  • Mental cost – There is this romantic idea of the artist letting his creativity flow freely, detached from influences in the world, tormented by illness, or even wilder, under the stimulating influence of – sometimes literally – mind-blowing drugs, alcohol, tobacco or beautiful women (like eg. Amadeo Modigliani), fluently resulting into a masterpiece. Well, face the brutal facts! Artists may pretend they ‘make art for themselves’, but no mentally healthy creative human being can live without the appreciation of their creative work by other people.
    • Creativity and craft – Reality is that the creative process often takes a lot of energy: frustrating lack of inspiration, great ideas won’t come or ideas do come, but you don’t know how to put them on canvas, or you do know it, but somehow you don’t get it right, you don’t have the skill.
    • Creative guts – Another aspect of creativity is that by definition you try out new things. But, inherently, this means that you expose yourself to a critical conservative public that isn’t ready for your ideas. So, it takes guts to expose yourself to the risk of being laughed at, publicly or secretly.
    • Sequel pressure – Once appreciated and acknowledged as an artist, many artists feel the pressure of themselves, their agent, the public, to keep on producing more striking artwork. More, better, …
    • The black hole – Unappreciated as an artist ‘after all these years’, many artists doubt themselves, doubt whether they were ‘born to be an artist’ at all and ask themselves continuously what the @#$%& they are doing and whether to stop.

And if you are not mentally extremely strong – which many artists aren’t – dealing with these uncertainties can easily lead to depression or worse. Yes, Vincent … but there are many more examples.

The value of art

Next, there is, of course, the value of art. Because many people believe that ‘good art’ or ‘real art’ has an intrinsic value (for humanity) that goes beyond the practical value of a regular utensil. So, what constitutes the value of an artwork, beyond the actual cost of the artwork?

  • Art history – Traditionally art experts, especially art historians, are in a good position to place the artwork in its context, eg. the art historic context, but also the relation to cultural context and other factors. In the case of De Vaandeldrager, the art historic value is largely determined by the fact that it was the prelude to one of the most famous paintings ever made in history. And of course, the painting has an artistic quality in itself. A good example of art historic value is the work of Marcel Duchamp.

But I believe there are two other factors, at least as important: story and beauty. Story and beauty are two topics Barry Hughes talks about at length in his documentaries.

  • Story – A good artwork has value, because it tells a story. And not just a story. It has meaning. A good artwork tells a story that expresses identity, something that we can relate to, something that we recognise ourselves in. A story that helps us make sense of the world, not in a scientific way, but in an intuitive way. The things that we cannot express well in regular language. The artwork gets a place in our life, in the narrative that we, consciously or unconsciously, create of our life. It is transformative. This is what I call ‘warm grounding’. A good example is La Guernica by Picasso.
  • Beauty – A good artwork has value, because it has beauty. That is, beauty beyond decorative value. It creates a pleasant experience, that goes beyond the joy of eating a hamburger. A good artwork has heart warming beauty. It stays with you. It is enchanting. It touches us, like a boy can be enchanted by the natural beauty of a girl. We fall in love with the artwork, well, at least a little bit. It gets a place in our life, again. A good example is Mona Lisa by Leonardo Davinci.

And, maybe the most important value of art:

  • Public value – Art is made to be shared with people, many people, ideally. Whether it is to share a warm grounding story, or whether it is to share warm grounding beauty. The more people can experience an artwork, the better. Examples? Mona Lisa by Leonardo Davinci, Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, The Scream by Edvard Munch, and fortunately, many, many more.

Clearly, determining the artistic value of an artwork is not mathematics. There is no ‘algorithm’ by which one can easily calculate the value of an artwork. And there is a strongly subjective aspect: the beholder’s share (but when many people say that it is beautiful, it probably has public value). One thing is certain, though, artistic value is strongly related with historic and cultural meaning, tells a transformative story, has enchanting beauty and is, ideally, enjoyed by many people. Great examples are many of the paintings of Jheronimus Bosch or Vincent van Gogh.

The price of an artwork

And then there is the price of art. The money that people actually pay for an artwork. 150 million euros for De Vaandeldrager. Now, let’s be clear: price is not the same as value.

First this. What is a fair price for an artwork? I would keep this discussion relatively simple. A fair price is at least the value of an artwork, with the minimum of the cost of the artwork. Period! And if someone decides to pay more, that’s up to them.

Price = cost + value + ‘something’.

Some artworks, however, are offered for sale, but in reality never sold. The (market) price is zero. But the all-in cost may have been, realistically, let’s say, 3,000 euro’s. So, there is a – what I call – negative exposure of 3,000 euro’s. Apparently, the artistic value is minus 3,000 euro’s! And sadly, some artworks do have a lower value than the cost to produce them. But many don’t.

So, why do I call this ‘negative exposure’? Because I believe that many artworks that do have artistic value, simply haven’t had sufficient attention from and exposure to the public. If the art historic importance and the story of the artwork would have been communicated, and if the public would have experienced the beauty, many now unsold artworks would have been sold after all. Happily, that is changing rapidly now as art markets become globally online. To be perfectly honest, this is one reason why I expose my art and philosophy through my website.

So, it is a matter of presenting your art. Yes, it’s a market place, after all. And in our economy, markets are the places where prices are set. So, what determines the price of an artwork, next to cost and value? What is this ‘something’? Now, we are getting very much in the realm of what is discussed in the Blurred Lines documentary.

  • Exposure – Is the artwork known to a broad public? If so, chances of a fair price grow significantly. Introvert artists who store their art in their attic will not sell much – hence, limiting their creative potential; it is what it is … My old neighbour, the late artist Hans Frisch, was one of them.
  • Artist reputation – Art buyers want some degree of certainty to buy quality art. The reputation of the artist is a good start. Picasso, Rothko, de Kooning are always a save bet. A sound art philosophy is a good start.
  • Collector appreciation – Art collectors buy art that they like and that fits in their collection philosophy. A very subjective measure. The beholder’s share. A contemporary example is the Broad collection of Eli and Edyth Broad. Even the rich don’t live forever and they know it; through the ages, from the Dei Medici family in Middle Age Florence, through kings and queens, up to ultra rich entrepreneurs, oil sheiks and oligargs, ‘the rich’  have always wanted to leave a legacy with a spectacular art collection – demonstrating their refinement and good taste.
  • Trophy value – Next to the desire to leave a legacy with a spectacular art collection, some ultra rich buy art to show off their wealth: “trophy art”, similar to how some men collect trophy wives as a status symbol. There seem to be many examples of ultra rich, who buy very expensive artworks just  to decorate their super yacht.
  • Trading value – There is a complex mechanism of art markets and all of its players – as explained in the Blurred Lines docu – with its own dynamic, that determines trading prices. Key factors are available supply of money and all the parties that play a role in the art trade, such as galery owners, art consultants, etc. Examples are a number of artworks of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst.
  • Speculation value – In our capitalistic economic system, art has become an ‘asset class’ that you can invest in, hoping to make a profit. Some people simply buy art to sell it later-on with a proft. We call them art flippers. A famous example are the brothers Ezra and David Mahmad, who – with a background in investment banking – are not art lovers, but are in art collection to sell for a profit. Another example is the company that was specifically founded for this purpose.
  • New market dynamics – Since the existence of the internet, more and more art is sold online. This has openend a whole new, global marketplace for selling art. The latest development obviously is selling NFT’s for digital art (not presented in the 2017 Blurred Lines docu, because NFT’s didn’t exist then). The obvious example is the artwork Everydays, The first 5000 Days NFT by the artist Beeple that sold for a stunning 69 million dollars value in Ether coins. It is said, that before that sale, Beeple never sold an artwork for a price higher than 100 dollar.

But there’s more. What I like to call “the ultimate price of a valuable artwork”.

  • The ultimate price – The art freeport! Many of the – with the current rising prices of art mostly very rich – people who collect art – for whatever reason – fortunately feel a moral obligation to lend their artworks to museums and other places for public display. Bless them. And some don’t feel so much a moral obligation, but they just want to show off. Bless them, too. Unfortunately, partly because of the high prices, displaying artworks to the broader public comes with a number of risks, such as theft, damage from handling or eg. light, insurance issues, etc. This has made it riskier for the good-willing owners to have their precious artworks displayed publicly. But … there is a growing group of art owners who feel no moral obligation or need to show off at all. They don’t care about public value. For them, the artwork is an asset to make a profit from at minimal risk. So, they hide the artwork in a safe place, the freeport, like a good wine, waiting in a cellar to become even more expensive. That is the saddest fate of any artwork.

Now what … ?

So, there are many factors, beyond the cost of making art and the value of art that in the end determine the price of an artwork. Now, the interesting question to me is, how do I have to deal with all this as a simple artist? My answer: warm grounding!

The artist must strive to make art of value: exposing hidden realities with a meaningful story that shapes identity, and with seductive beauty that enchants your mind

I tend to agree with most of the artists in the Blurred Lines docu. Do not make art to sell it at a high price per se, but make sure you make the art that you love, find fulfillment in the process of making the artworks and always keep your artistic creative freedom. And last but not least, always strive to make art of value with a warm grounding story and warm grounding beauty.

And then expose it sufficiently to get paid the value of your artwork, including the costs for creating it. It is what it is …

Share This Story: