Last week I had the rather dubious pleasure of being present as a witness at a Harrogate County Court hearing. The matter under discussion was the loss (presumed theft) of two small unsold paintings, valued by the artist at £360, from exhibition held two years previously and whose proceeds, should there have been any, were to have been donated to charity. I was there in support of the person being sued, the organiser of the event. We lost.
These kind of things happen every day you might think, and in that you’re probably right. There’s little in the details of the event to excite interest. But while the case itself was perhaps unimportant, there were some unasked, and therefore unanswered, questions relevant to the world of art and commerce that might be worth exploring.
So back to the exhibition, in which I myself presented a couple of perhaps unsurprisingly unsold works. It’s obvious to even the casual observer that ‘art’ exhibitions are organized on a number of levels. At one pole there’s the London gallery scene, where paintings by folks generally dead, and sometimes excruciatingly alive, sell for astronomical sums. At the other end of the scale are the informally organized church basement sales in which lesser talented local artists such as myself participate, and which involve the concepts of both Caveat Emptor and Caveat Exhibitor.
One presumes – and I have to say that as I am not part of the London scene, I am in fact presuming rather than operating on the basis of experience – that the high end events are rather well organized, with all aspects covered including the possibility of theft or loss. There is simply too much money at stake. Although I do seem to recall that a couple of years back a fire destroyed a great deal of expensive work stored in an art ‘warehouse’. Not all eventualities can be assuaged.
At the other end, my end, things are, well, let’s say, not always quite as well planned. There’s less at stake. And to be honest much of the work is often of lesser quality and often doesn’t sell, no matter how many red spots might appear before your eyes. The prices are also often dubious. The exhibitions are held for ourselves rather than for the buyer. They make us feel good. We stand proudly about at the opening or drink ourselves silly while making vain pronouncements about our work or the art scene in general “the stuff that sells is all rubbish”. “Did you see that ridiculous work at the Tate Modern? It was just a hole in the floor and they paid millions” or “People have no taste, they just buy for decoration: ‘I‘ll take the blue one’ ”.
We have our difficulties with the buying and selling, after all we’re artists, we tell ourselves, not salespeople. I myself am not always a fan of the so-called market, it often leaves a great deal to be desired but, as far as art goes, I don’t see any other way unless we were to return to the make art projects of the nineteen thirties. As artists we put a price on our work that in most cases is quite arbitrary, it reflects what we would like to receive, it reflects our admittedly often rather biased opinion about its value. At this end of the spectrum it reflects aspiration rather than market reality. In the end, it sells or it does not. If you can’t sell the work, it has no commercial value. It matters little what emotional attachment a painting or sculpture may have for you the artist or how technically or artistically accomplished it may, or may not, be.
It is a part of any artist’s training to learn the painful lesson that your treasured masterpieces are not always appreciated by others to quite the same extent. That does not mean that if you eventually (posthumously) become as well known as Picasso, someone won’t enthuse publicly about the profound implications of the one you did with the bicycle seat and handlebars and then threw away, only to see it rejected by the bin-men and end up in the attic next to your Adam Faith record collection. Or that the shark in aspic that you once foisted on an unassuming world will always be worth the small fortune some presuming collector paid for it. The art world is like that. Prices, like tastes, are notoriously fickle.
So in the end, what is a painting really worth? The short answer: whatever you can get for it, in court or elsewhere.