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Value, meaning and the crowd

I am thinking about how our artwork acquires value, how does it move from having an entirely personal value to having value to society in general and measurable value in the market?

My work has value to me because it has significant meaning. I make things that are full of meaning (to me) on many levels, they are rich with layers of ideas some of which are clear and direct, others of which are less clear and more ambiguous, or just not yet consciously identified. I judge my own work by the degree to which it seems to hold a set of meanings that are intended, if the work accrues other meanings by chance or whim during the making process then this may be to my advantage or of course it could spoil the work by distracting from my original intention.

As I work I make a whole series of incremental decisions that are individually difficult to identify but which add up to specific meanings embodied in the work. These meanings give the work its purpose and its character.

Inner meaning and investment

The processes described above are all about meanings that come from or through the artist, these only carry across into the outside world if the meanings are successfully embodied and discernible by others in the work. If this is the case you might expect the work to immediately start accruing real value as something desirable and profitable to trade: “if you want this meaningful work, please invest £xxxx which is the monetary equivalent to this meaning.”

From meaning to commodity

Grayson Perry described in his recent Reith lectures the process whereby a consensus of opinions confers value onto an artists works. To paraphrase his words, broadly this means that an artists works become assimilated into the art canon by an informal art crowd showing an interest and approval gathering around an artists work. For this to even begin happening the artists works have to appear on the art crowds’ radar through the kind of attention that shows, awards, articles and reviews can give. Firstly you have to make a body of work, then you have to bring it to the attention of a number of key people such that it starts to build you a reputation as a serious artist. If you can keep this marketing process going it should gradually imbue your work with increasing real financial value to the extent that your artwork becomes a commodity that can be relied on to grow in value so it can safely be invested in. This process represents the successful transfer of (some of) the meaning in an artists work from the individual to the collective and from an idea embodied in an object to a tradable commodity.

Art as a mountain

It has taken me a lifetime to understand that this is how the process is supposed to work and now I find myself still right at the beginning of it, perhaps the foothills are in sight for me but if the actual mountain range (a career as an artist where I earn the majority of my income through making art) remains a distant vision at least I now know where the path is which I did not when I left art school. A few years ago I was advised* that 80% of artists never progress their careers in art beyond the stage they reach at graduation from art school so I guess there must be a lot of artists, ex-art-students and latent artists in the same boat.

Are meaning and value equivalents?

So what conclusion could I draw from these thoughts, and what if I am wrong, that meaning is not related to value? What if value in art is entirely randomly attributed as it so often appears to the world outside the art business? I suspect there is a lot of guesswork and speculation involved in valuing art just as there is in valuing shares. Although in theory I would prefer it if value was fundamentally linked to meaning, I know this is too simplistic. Value in art is created and maintained by a consensus of ideas which evolve over time and can only be tested by history

my own work is driven by my need to make things and that is directed by my ideas and the meanings I want to convey. I also think some meanings emerge from the unconscious whether we artists like it or not, both these processes, getting ideas from our conscious and unconscious minds out into the world is what artist do for society -it’s why our work has value at all.

*Matt Roberts Arts


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