Priceless Now Means Of No Value

It used to be, when the world was not much younger, priceless meant of incalculable value or beyond price; of things removed from the monetary realm, of things intemporal.

Priceless objects were bought and sold, of course. But the amounts exchanged in these sales were beside the point; they represented circumstance not cash value. The use of money was only one of many factors facilitating transfer of ownership, transactions which were necessary because of the transience of corporeal existence. Understand: the objects themselves were not thought to be transient. They were eternal. They were beautiful.

You once could not put a price on art. Now you must. Except in the rarest of works, all historical—those behind glass walls and fronted by armed men—price is now the only means of judging “quality.” Priceless now implies that which would not fetch money of sufficient size to warrant a press release.

Thus we hear stories like the one about the hapless charwoman at the Ostwall Museum in Germany who gave a good scrubbing to Martin Kippenberger’s “installation” of art called “When the Roof Begins to Leak.” Kippenberger's art

The woman came across what looked like an object set aside for the rubbish pile. The pile had a bucket to catch leaks under it which the charwoman noticed was water stained. So she cleaned it.

The headline at the Washington Post, a prototypical example, read, “$1.1 million sculpture damaged by cleaning woman in German museum.”

Every report mentioned money. They had to. There was no other way to draw attention to the enormity of the event except to say it was costly. If the charwoman had accidentally scoured the smile off the Mona Lisa, the world would know that a treasure beyond value was lost. But at Ostwall nothing of permanence was lost; news reports were necessarily no different than those announcing a dip in the stock market.

The art elite, it’s true, would have known something horrific had occurred just by hearing that a work by Kippenberger was damaged. But that’s because those who follow the art world would have known what the New York Times said of the man when he died, that he was “one of the most talented German artists of his generation”.

In making that judgment, the Times must have had in mind such path-breaking works like Kippenberger’s “1 meter high scuplture of a crucified frog, titled ‘Feet First‘.”

But never mind. What is clear is that except for a minority of people who have been told to think differently (and thus do so), comparing Kippenberger’s art in the state prior to and after it was mistakenly cleaned would not have provided sufficient evidence to conclude something untoward had occurred.

The work was certainly not rendered less beautiful by its scrubbing. If anything, it was made more beautiful. But it was never beautiful nor was it meant to be. And when was the last time you heard a work of art created within the last half century as beautiful anyway?

No: cost and cost alone is the only measure meaningful to the modern art elite. Works of art are valued because they sell for large amounts and it is large amounts that create the value of the art. Similarly, the talent of an artist is gauged by the amount his work fetches: the larger the amounts the better and more respected the artist, and therefore the more valuable (in an emotional sense) his art. It is a perfect circle, a continuous tulip-bulb bubble, entirely detached from any external measures of goodness.

This is why any comment on art by outsiders is dismissed as irrelevant, uneducated, and ignorant. The art elite laugh, and rightly so, at the Philistine who says of a modern work, “My kid sister could have painted that.” It is right that they laugh because your kid sister’s painting would not fetch an enormous price. Her work is, in the modern use of the word, priceless. (What propels the artist from anonymity to worthiness is a different question; it is not money, not initially.)

Daily Mail ArtDaily Mail Art

Take these two kid-sister paintings by two of “Britain’s most eminent artists.”

The first is by Sir (presumably, he slayed the dragons of conventionality to win this title) Howard Hodgkin and is called “Swimming.” The second is a joint effort by “Turner Prize winner Martin Creed and Bridget Riley.” It is called “Work No. 1273”, a number whose magnitude indicates the difficulty of creating such works.

We know these works are valuable because the artists who created them have fetched large amounts for their previous work. Therefore, by the modern theory of artistic goodness, these works are worthy, too. There is no other reason on Earth for discussing these works except in terms of money.

If Keats were alive today he would have to write: ‘Goodness is money, money goodness,’—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

UpdateReports are everywhere that Andreas Gursky’s dull photo has sold for $4.3 million at auction. Wired asked the right question: “What’s so special about a picture of a river and some grass? What elevates that photo above so many others? And how did the price get so astronomically high?”

Their answer? “[I]t’s not uncommon for a Gursky to sell for millions of dollars.” Also: “Another factor appears to be the piece’s rarity.” No other reasons were given.

In other words, the photos are valuable because they sell for a lot. Just as was explained above.


  1. William Sears

    Priceless has become worthless. For the examples that you give, I’ll accept that.

  2. Ken

    Somehow a number of people have figured out how to cash-in on the pompously-exclusive-[“hoity-toity”]-rich-gone-idiotic-to-stand-out-from-the-crowd by creating extraordinarily expensive artistic masterpieces.

    In other words, instead of doing what Sokol did with social research papers for fun & education (aka the Sokol Affair or Sokol Hoax), they’re doing it for profit.

    I can respect that.

    In fact, I’d like to cash in on that as well. We’ve got some old house & spray paints in a variety of colors, also some plywood, etc….a six year old who likes to throw things….and some nearby fields. I bet we could whip up some exclusive “art” in no time by tossing the leftovers on an appropriate canvas (getting the spray cans to hit nozzle-down to leave truly creative marks might be a problem, or not…). With a good story I bet that might sell quite nicely.

  3. David

    In the old days of the masters, paintings were a commercial commodity like others, bought by rich patrons. The art reflected their demands (as would be the case for any product bought and sold). I am wondering if this commercial bond that influences the direction art takes is not altered by government money. Museums have public money, with criteria that differ from individuals. Normal people want something nice in their house. Museums want what they think defines the times we live in. I think this leads to the extravagances we see in the art world. We would probably need some democratization of the buying process of museams (a voting scheme?). Of course, the art world would decry it as a leveling towards mediocraty. But maybe would would start seeing nice stuff out there.

  4. Bob Ludwick

    The art world consists of ‘artists’, ‘critics’, and ‘patrons’.

    Collectively, they provide an example of what is known generically as ‘a self-licking ice cream cone’.

    If you are a putative artist and paint something described as ‘beautiful’, neither you nor the describer are part of it.

    There are other examples. Composers and music critics come to mind. Has anyone ever listened to an orchestra performing ‘modern’ classical music and been able to tell, without the pregnant pause and the director mounting the podium to wave his wand, when the orchestra ceased warmups and started the concert?

  5. Person of Choler

    See Tom Wolfe’s slim volume The Painted Word for some amusing observations on art and the valuation thereof.

  6. DAV

    “Swimming” actually does resemble someone swimming so perhaps it needs more abstraction.”Work No. 1273″ suggests an artiste who doesn’t get out much but nevertheless is quite capable of piling it on. Both though are good examples of Twain’s Nonesuch* as are most abstracts works in general.

    Any Warhol must be laughing or spinning in his grave. Not sure which.

    *from the essay “The 50 Cent Nonesuch” (or thereabouts) vs. the “Royal Nonesuch” (also 50 cents) in Huckleberry Finn

  7. JH

    I guess sometimes a piece of art has no monetary value unless it’s sold for a price, which may depend on some degree of name recognition.

    My younger daughter ran her hand cross the scanner serve al times at the grocery store when she was little. I asked her what she was doing. She said she wanted to know much she was worth. Priceless, of course.

  8. Rich

    You meant to refer to “Wenn’s anfaengt durch die Decke zu tropfen”. No poseur worth his velvet trousers would refer to a German work by its English translation.

  9. Eric Anderson

    This reminds me of the short documentary where they had some little kids create works of art and then invited a couple of art critics to “evaluate” the works and see if they could determine which works had been created by an emminent artist. After much examination, hand-wringing, analysis and declarations, it was revealed that the works were created in a matter of minutes by kids, to the consternation of the art critics.

    In a different realm, but relevant to the idea of “fine tastes” being possessed only by those in the know, Penn and Teller did an episode with people in a restaurant being offered various fine bottled waters to taste, costing a huge amount per bottle. After tasting the waters and offering numerous flowery descriptions about the wonderful and differing tastes of the various waters, it was revealed that they did not come from luscious mountain springs or exotic wells, but had in fact all been filled from the garden hose in back of the restaurant and were all the same.

  10. GoneWithTheWind

    I think the janitor was the only honest “art critic” in the place.

  11. These people are so 20th-century! This sort of thing was pretty cool in 1920 when it was a protest against the Old Order and 15 million dead people. Y’know, Duchamp and his urinal and all that.

    I predict that when the European financial Götterdämmerung really takes effect these works will fall a bit in price. The sculpture looks to me like it could keep a family of four warm for a full hour if carefully fed one piece at a time into the fireplace.

  12. Doug M

    Kippenberger was looking to answer “what is art.” Furthermore,he was known to repurpose work created by other artists. This episode attacks the “what is art” question. We have Kippenberger, improved by the cleaning lady. I would say that its value has been enhanced by this incident.

    As far as dollar values go, it is the media that is obessed with dollar values. But what is the dollar value of this piece. Kippenberger did not fetch great prices for his work in his lifetime. He sold most of his work for a few thousand dollars. It is only after his death that people have paid large sums of money.

    As far as the posters for the London games, they are so mid-century.

  13. Richard Hill

    Neuroscientist Semir Zeki in UK is working on a method of measuring human appreciation of beauty using brain scans. This could automate the critic step in Art appreciation.

  14. Adam H

    Um. I have a most awesome idea, guys. We all make/paint some abstract art, send a picture to Briggs, and Briggs can put up a post with all our art, plus a couple of “legitimate” pieces. Then we all guess what the going price is for each painting! What fun!

  15. Good idea. What follows is my interpretation entitled “Two Rabbits Mating During Snow Storm”.

    I think it’s valuable because it captures the essence of nature in the raw.

  16. Gary C

    Should be Snowshoe Rabbits. 😉

  17. Much art is beautiful, but the definition of art shouldn’t include the words “beauty” or “beautiful.” Idealized reality is like fantasy, as both are something other than reality.

  18. Alan

    I know an abstract sculptor who maintains that is not about the beauty of these pieces of modern art, but the emotional response that they evoke. Therefore if you get angry that these squiggles are bought and sold for millions of dollars, they have evoked a response, and therefore fulfil his criteria! All complete baloney of course

  19. Rich

    I know an abstract sculptor who maintains that is not about the beauty of these pieces of modern art, but the emotional response that they evoke.

    I asked an artist once, while standing in front of a muddy swirl of browns and blues that he’d created on an 8-foot canvas, since art is meant to be communication what his painting was intended to communicate. He replied, “Whatever you feel it is.”

    I suppose my feeling that it was infantile tosh actually proved him right. But only if I was right too.

  20. JH

    $4.3 million!!!

    I think I might buy myself a wide-angle lens for Christmas this year.

  21. Walter Sobchak

    Chuck Shepherd’s News of the Weird has called this type of story a “Recurring Theme”

    “Once again, housekeepers at a museum mistook part of an art installation for ordinary garbage and tossed it out (this time, a bag of newspapers that was part of Gustav Metzger’s “Re-creation of First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art” at London’s Tate Britain gallery, in August). [Reuters, 8-26-04] ”

    You just have to accept that Art World is a social phenomenon that has nothing to do with the type of artistic work created by Michelangelo, Shakespeare, or Mozart. It is a place where very rich people get to show off how rich and how they have made it into the inner circle. Its fashions have nothing to do with any message or idea beyond that. Don’t look for it, you would be wasting your time.

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