the value of things

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

“It is scarcity and plenty that make the vulgar like things to be precious or worthless; they call a diamond very beautiful because it is like pure water, and then would not exchange one for ten barrels of water.”

Galileo’s Diaries

What do you value in your life? Have you ever wondered that? I was once asked this question and I suddenly said, “right now.” It seems a little stunted and badly thought out now but what I meant was that I can only value something that I feel. I can only feel something in the present moment. You can’t feel the past, you can think about the past and then have feelings surface. But I digress. The most valuable experiences I have had in my life have been because of love and art.

It’s an important word, value. Derived from Latin it means ‘of worth’. I’ve always felt that things of value are usually ineffable. When it comes to art it isn’t actually the sculpture that is ‘valuable’ but your relationship with it. The experience one has with art is what makes it valuable, not just the object. But the object has to inherently inspire this; therefore artists need to imbue their work with an aura that lasts. How this happens will probably never get figured out but it is an endlessly intriguing discussion. Artists themselves don’t know how it happens. Leonard Cohen once said, “If I knew where all the good songs came from I’d have written more of them.”

The value of art is often debated to boring and maddeningly stupid ends. I refuse to part of these discussions. These debates are usually organized by art galleries or by art clubs in art galleries or groups of arty types who want to get to the bottom of all that crazy conceptual work that makes them feel like morons. What I can never understand is why the debate isn’t, “why does this exhibit make me feel like an idiot?” instead of “what is art? Or is this art? And why should we care?”

A detail from the Kushim Tablet from Matthew's Facebook page. Possibly 6000 years old perhaps not a piece of art but accounting. Things like this put contemporary work in perspective.
A detail from the Kushim Tablet shared by Matthew Ward. Possibly 6000 years old, perhaps not a piece of art but a receipt or some such account of a commercial transaction. Things like this put contemporary art work in perspective.

The value of art as a topic in our culture has now become a kind of super ball, bouncing back and forth wildly around, ricocheting from one discussion to another, some smart, some turgid and intellectual and some embarrassingly brainless. I think we obviously value art and think it plays a significant role in our culture. The only reason these debates happen is because there is much confusion about the object that is the art and the artist that makes it.  My brother Matthew, a guest here on this blog said this in reference to an artist being uninvited to perform because of their political opinions on Twitter:

“That’s the wonderful thing about art – it stands apart from its creator once created. This extremist view of social conformity is attempting to conflate the two, and is dangerous to the idea of creation itself. It’s a dead end philosophy.”

I think we need to discuss this whole idea of what we value. If you are deeply cynical you think that all we value is money and stuff. Bill Maher, who I quite like even though he is a bit misguided on the topic of religion (but he’s allowed to have his opinions), quoted some ass from the GOP in the US saying that what they love about the Earth is that you can punch wholes in it and out comes oil! Bill responded by saying that what he loves about the Earth is that it sustains life. I think this kind of simple, blanket statement is appealing.

If only we could make this kind of short and extremely simple argument for art. I value art because its existence has had more positive impact than negative in our world. I value art because it helps guide us through life. I value art just cuz. Of course this would all be easier if artists were seen more as working people than wizards who dwell in the mystical. This wall of genius is a hard one to crack. Art and artists are like the diamond industry that way; their supposed rarity is what makes them valuable. But art like water is just another entity that humans seem to need to sustain their lives. We need to close this gap quickly before everything about art, like pure water becomes it’s own precious trophy for people who will never see its true value.

4 thoughts on “the value of things”

  1. I think that the importance of art and its reason for existence is that it brings balance to our lives and our culture. When we are out of balance in ourselves and in our culture, we seek things to bring back balance. A lack of something important outside of sustenance, sends us out looking for art. For me, this can be the only explanation as to why we have always had art in every culture. And why we always will.

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