Oscar Wilde once wrote: “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.”
A true artist therefore should be the exact opposite, but not due to ignorance towards the ever-present concept of money; the real truth of the matter is that putting a price tag on an embodiment of love, hate, reminiscence or longing (and all the other messages that art can communicate) just isn’t as easy as adding up ones material and overhead costs and slapping a 20% markup on the sum.
At least not to those that really understand the depths of their own work, because they know that while symbolism allows us to represent temptation by painting apples, temptation itself cannot be sold in the same way as apples.
Because unlike this common tree fruit, temptation cannot be grown, packaged and distributed (even though the media will tell you otherwise). True temptation, unlike her watered-down cousin, lack of self-control, does not come in chocolate or vanilla flavours, it does not make you giggle and say: “Oh, I’m bad, but I’ll have another piece.”
True temptation destroys kingdoms, not waistlines — something corporations still haven’t figured out how to manufacture on an assembly line (or perhaps just decided not to do). But it’s exactly what the best of us are doing, and people like us have been doing since before the Dutch invented oil paints.
We create altars to truth, to the essence of what makes us human, and just as there is no universal truth to speak of, there are no all-in-one solutions of valuing it. But there are intimate, personal ways with which verities are created and in today’s blunder I would like to explore them and try to shine a bit of light upon the convolution that is added value in art.
As its name implies, it is a form of worth that is added, not inherent to the object, and because our time is defined by value as no other time ever was, all of us know that added value is present in all human creation, not just in art.
From bread loaves to trousers; because of the abundance of stuff that is floating around us, the value proposition or the amount and type of added value that any one product has, has become the defining factor by which people decide to either spend their hard-earned money or keep it in the bank.
Back in the day — by which I mean mid nineteenth century Europe and before — this wasn’t the norm. When Zara and H&M didn’t exist and a clean pair of un-tattered cotton trousers was more of a luxury item than a commodity for many people, you could make trousers for everyone because added value hadn’t been invented yet.
Of course you had to measure your customers, so that they’d actually fit the person, but the question of: “Do you maybe have these in salmon red?” had absolutely no chance of existing. Not because the idea of red trousers was too abstract for people to get back then, but because the demand for “trousers” was far from being met.
There were no electric sewing machines and fabric was hard to come by. It was only after many technological advancements and the continued outsourcing of child labour into places, where labour laws could not reach, that the idea of “trousers” became a commodity. And by doing so, the ideas of “red trousers” and “blue trousers” and soon “light khaki skinny-fit jeans” replaced “trousers” as the only available option.
Every time a quicker, cheaper, or better way of producing something (the same goes for service) is invented, the thing being produced slips a bit more into the oblivion of commodities — making it possible for more and more people to be able to afford it and consequently producing a need for more sophisticated versions of that particular product for those who already had the means of buying it in the first place.
And while there are no real technological advances in painting (at least not compared to bio tech or computers) the basic ideas of supply and demand are the same.
Art in its core is the polar opposite of what the idea of commodification is to trousers — though print-on-demand services and the overflow of uneducated artists painting pretty flower pictures have taken their toll on the market.
Because, while any other form of creation is roughly limited by the means of production on one side and the specific tastes and capital of the consumers on the other, paintings don’t behave like trousers or laptops. Because no work of art is the same as the other, scarcity is next to infinite (well, it’s precisely one, if we’re not counting editions).
This is the first and most important added value that a work of art has — scarcity. While philosophically one could even argue that it might actually be the only human creation that has inherent added value (I’m not, because I don’t believe this to be true), scarcity defines art unlike any other trait it might possess.
In any art economics book (and there sadly still aren’t that many), you can find at least one long paragraph that glorifies art as the ultimate product; one can have a bunch of villas, a dozen yachts and hundreds of beautiful old cars, but lose all interest and excitement about them eventually, because it’s not that hard to add one more into the collection.
Vintage wine, like all the “good” things in the world, tastes the best when we first try it, then it slowly but surely slips into the oblivion of commodity. The only real thrill then is to own a Salvator Mundi, Picasso’s Boy with pipe or Pollock’s No. 5, because there exists (and ever will exist) only one of each in the world. The one we have. The one others cannot possess.
But scarcity has to arise from somewhere, because nobody just wakes up with a sudden urge to buy our art. Scarcity needs an ecosystem in which it can exist — it needs demand. But to really understand demand, we have to understand need first, and there’s no better place to go than the nineteen forties, 1943 to be exact, when most of the western world was at war and people’s demands for almost everything were far from being met.
While the zeitgeist of the fifties created many questionable things, it had also sown the seeds for one of the most important scientific papers of our times, titled: “A Theory of Human Motivation”.
Maslow’s paper would become the bedrock of the social sciences for many decades to come, because it stated something groundbreaking; namely that all people share a common hierarchy of needs that follow certain rules and influence our lives as never thought of before.
He found that people do not and cannot experience certain needs — located higher up in the hierarchy — without first satisfying the more basic ones, like hunger, sex and security. Thus he concluded, that without first giving priority to the basic securities of life, like food, water and shelter, we humans are unable to even feel the urge to want something more complex; the need to have a family or the need to be respected in the eyes of our peers for example.
The trick is that demand for art, unlike trousers or bread, isn’t as popular amongst the masses, and we can find a clue as to why in Maslow’s theory: unlike most of our physical needs, that could be described as being a reaction to a certain deficiency — needing sustenance, love, affection, camaraderie, etc. — the need for collecting art comes from abundance and the need to grow.
Be it as a person, a society, a business or a local community; art gives us the tools to express ourselves and to connect, create a common identity and express our power. And if we see it as such, it gives us a much easier time understanding why the majority of people don’t collect art or just don’t give art the same importance in their lives as we do.
They just don’t feel the need for it.
Imagine you’re working two jobs and supporting a family of four; the chaos of having to put food on the table, paying the electricity bill and god forbid a mortgage on the house with less than 100€ in the bank to last you for another two weeks of grocery shopping, while your child is telling you she will be needing a new textbook for next week’s class that costs 50€.
No sane person under such conditions will ever think about how the empty wall space in the kitchen could use a nice still-life with a bunch of flowers or maybe an impressionist seascape in the colours of the living room couch.
But on the other side of this equation are the people who are privileged enough to live in abundance; those who strive for power, fame, beauty or morality. Here, in a place of abundance the demand for art has a chance to sprout, but because there’s millions of artists around the world (1,2 million just in the US), it takes a bit more than a vague demographic analysis to find ones fertile soil.
We need a niche. Without it, we’re no more valuable than a no-brand drill bit at the local hardware store; forgettable, replaceable and most likely dull.
Think about it. There are many different companies that sell drills and accessories, all competing for the same customers. Some differences do exist, of course; you have different sizes, varying quality of the bits, their intended purpose — to drill into wood or metal or stone etc. — but apart from the obvious, there is one that is equally important, but resides on the customer side and is quite often overlooked.
What I mean by this is that when a person goes to their local hardware store and buys drill bits, do they really go there with the sole intention to own drill bits or do they buy them only because it lets them make a hole in their wall to hang a painting of their dad?
Even then; did they buy drill bits and the painting for the sole reason of owning it, or did they maybe see in the portrait of their father an object that would remind them of what a wonderful person he is? Maybe he recently passed away and the painting means a lot to them? As does the process of commissioning it, receiving it, unpacking, framing, … and especially hanging it.
And in a world full of drill bits, more or less similar in size, quality and defined usage, would a drill company that focuses on evoking a certain emotion in their customer like pride, or a feeling of usefulness or maybe even self-actualisation, not only have an edge over their competition, but provide a lot of value to anyone with such a need?
Imagine your dad was somebody that made you feel like you needed to be useful in your life, like it was your duty as a person to do good and create great things with your hands. To pride yourself on a simple job well done.
What if the company that makes drill bits tried to enhance this experience with their products? They could invent a great advertisement campaign to place their products in such a demand niche, reinvent the packaging so that is helps enforce this feeling, maybe as simple as a slogan that says: “Nothing like a job well done.”
Maybe they could put a small chip inside their drill bit boxes (and call them Drill Beats) and make them play Ain’t No Mountain High Enough by Tammi Terrell & Marvin Gaye every time you open them? The goal would be to help you actualise your wish for feeling proud, helpful, self-reliant and in charge when you are preparing the wall to hang your painting, and a good tune goes a long way for a lot of us.
Would you not buy these bits over the competition if this was this exact experience that you are searching for? You might just pay a bit more, maybe 10% or 20% because you would see the added value that they embody.
Or, you might laugh at the sight of them and take the cheapest ones — preferably returning them after you don’t need them anymore and persuade the cashier or manager that you never opened them and just bought the wrong kind.
The difference is, that there would be a lot less people willing to buy Drill Beats, of course, because they would only sell to those that identify with the added value that they provide. But at the same time such people would probably cherish the added value immensely and may even talk about their newly-found novelty drill bits with their friends. All in all, they would be deemed more valuable than the other, generic bits, if the right people got their hands on them.
The cheaper ones on the other hand would still be bought by folks that need a hole and don’t mind the quick and dirty way, if they can save a few cents because of it. The difference wouldn’t even be connected with the functionality of either drill bit — both make holes and nothing else.
All that would be different would be the customers perception of them, their ability to connect with the core need that made them go into the hardware store in the first place. And with drill bits, it’s usually never to buy drill bits.
People don’t buy drill bits, they buy the ability to create holes. But even then, they don’t need holes, they might need to hang a painting of a loved one, to pay respect, to remember, not to forget … to feel proud that they did it themselves.
The real question for us then, is what do people really need when they buy our art?