We may have never been a Galileo of the artistic firmament, but as citizens of a global age, we should be clear-eyed enough to see the true value of art. The term “starving artist” is relevant now more so than ever, used to refer to someone so dedicated to their artistry that economic gains do not matter — after all, they’re not supposed to be in it for the money. Once an artist ceases to starve, we label them a sellout, and we dismiss their work as overvalued. Because of how pragmatic and economically focused the world has become, art is now commodified and its worth is reduced to the price tag it is labelled with at Sotheby’s. Yet Art is worth much, much more, because its true value lies in its capacity for societal change, human connection, and social commentary.
The most pragmatic thinkers among us will point out that people pay exactly what they think art is worth, so art must only be worth what people are willing to pay for it. Since art does not nourish our bodies or maintain a roof above our heads, its only worth can be measured in monetary terms — basic economics where demand and supply intersect. Paintings composed of oil, canvas, and silk tend to fetch more than watercolour and crayon. Colour is priced more than its monochromatic counterparts. And because demand for the works of the Renaissance geniuses is high, Michelangelo’s sculptures may even be considered priceless, since the Italian government is unwilling to part with them. Likewise, supply (or lack thereof) determines the prices and hence the (apparent) worth of much art. Supply of films is aplenty, whether at the Cinema, on Netflix, or Hulu. On the other hand, Cirque du Soleil only has so many live performances each year, so it is no wonder that movie tickets are $10 a pop but one must be willing to fork out tens, even hundreds of dollars for a front-row seat at the big red tent. We covet exclusive, limited edition, limited supply forms of art, which we believe defines most of its worth and hence its price tag. So, to the most cynical, who believe every good and service can be estimated in monetary value, Art is only worth the economic value Keynesian framework bestows upon it.
However, price tags rarely (if ever) take into account the social value of the artwork. Because such influencers are intangible and wide-ranging, it is almost impossible to quantify, let alone be reflected in their price. Consider Amanda Gorman, the youth poet who bewitched crowds at Biden’s inauguration, then the Super Bowl. Her spoken word poetry was broadcasted live and funnelled into the screens of millions for free, yet the anger and disappointment, and still, hope, evinced a kind of spark in her listeners. This spark is evident as well in Langston’s Mississippi 1995, a tribute to Emmett Till, a reflection of the German Coast uprising. This spark can also be found in the Shattered Glass exhibition in Deitch Gallery, Los Angeles, that featured only artists of colour — the spark that gives a voice to the underrepresented who have been marginalised following decades of slavery, racism, and police brutality. For the Black community, they have long had to perceive their own narrative through a predominantly white lens. Art is a way for them to reclaim autonomy and overturn the history which dictated that blackness must be suffocated by the imperialism of whiteness. For the new generation of filmmakers in South Africa, art in film is another way to widen the aperture on a continent that the rest of the world has dismissed as ravaged by apartheid. The upcoming Netflix film, Blood and Water, is no longer about cliched slums and poverty, but high-powered Black women navigating money, politics, and power in Cape Town. Nollywood (Nigeria’s nod to Hollywood) is still a very new industry worth a fraction of L.A.’s Hollywood, but the gains it will make in terms of redefining a whole country and changing the way people perceive its citizens may be priceless. The overwhelming worth of Art is made all the more evident when we realise that the societies more opposed to the other (the Soviet Union, China under Mao Ze Dong, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge) produced almost no cultural artefacts worth anything. The change Art evokes varies too greatly between people and communities, but it is undeniable present and cannot be quantified in monetary terms alone.
Moreover, Art today is increasingly accessible and affordable such that people pay close to nothing for most art. This is not because art is worthless but because governments — our arbiters of social welfare, our paternal protectors who have our best interests at heart — deem the arts so valuable that they have heavily subsidised it for more citizens to benefit. In Singapore, entry to all museums is free for citizens and permanent residents. Some exhibits cost only $10 per entry. The Louvre is free on Mondays for students. Virtual tours of almost every internationally renowned museum are available online. It would be utterly myopic to claim that entry is free because our cultural institutions, rich with history and knowledge, are worthless. Education in the arts is also heavily subsidised, made possible because governments understand that the humanities cultivate imagination, which is crucial for a prosperous society. Primary school students enjoy virtual drawing, pottery, floral arrangements, cello lessons without having to pay a single cent. And in our daily lives we are exposed to advertisements (it goes without saying that we do not pay for the luxury of viewing ads that make us more educated and conscious citizens — at least, that is the rationale for the Singapore government’s funding of Healthy 365, 10,000 steps a day campaigns. Art takes up 3.5% of our GDP, and most of it is advertising. Hence, even if we pay little for the artistic experience, its worth is valued not monetarily, not even by the number of subsidies and support by the government, but instead its positive externalities and intrinsic worth that is often overlooked.
Lastly, the immersion of art is such a universal experience that it does not require payment of any kind (from consumers, governments, stakeholders) for society to enjoy its social commentary. Simply discussing art has an intrinsic worth. “In order to create a new art, one must destroy the ancient art”, wrote the French poet Marcel Schwob more than a hundred years ago. Today, that call to action has been made in the form of a change.org petition demanding that Jeff Bezos — the richest man in the world — buy and eat the Mona Lisa. People have stolen the Mona Lisa, copied the Mona Lisa, even thrown a teacup at the Mona Lisa, but no one has ever eaten the Mona Lisa. While seemingly trivial and childish, the change.org petition garnered tens of thousands of signatures. It reflects the modern-day internetscape of resentment that the wealthiest live in an entirely different world from the working class bourgeoisie; disgust at how frivolously the rich seem to behave; and acute desire to have their demands heard, no matter how ridiculous, through the collective power of the internet. Bezos did not end up buying the Mona Lisa, no money changed hands, and yet we witnessed social commentary. Similarly, a German magician named George Faust lived above 1540 and made claims to fame, including the ability to restore the lost works of Aristotle and Plato, and repeat the miracles of Christ. It was not until poets like Christopher Marlowe took up the legend that he became mythic. The Faustian deal reflects the torment between Good and Evil, a psychological duel characteristic of religion in Renaissance Europe. Marlowe died penniless, having earned hardly anything for his art, but today the ethics of Doctor Faustus are priceless in reminding us of moral limits then and now. Clearly, isn’t it right to say that Art is almost always undervalued monetarily because its intrinsic worth is too abstract and poignant to be comprehended by price-setters?
For many of us, art is woven so thoroughly into our lives we have taken it for granted. Our calculated focus on bread and butter issues might cause our distorted worth of art to pale in comparison, but we should think less about monetary worth and more about stepping over the threshold. Once we realise the inestimable worth of art we may only then become, for the first time, citizens of a global age.