What determines the value of an artwork?

Two little warriors

We could swear that the colorful sticks my cousin and I found at the neighbors trash can when we were little kids were not any garbage, they were real swords. 

We both were amazed at our neighbors negligence. 

"How would they throw away such powerful swords?"

My little cousin and I wondered while already putting the sticks in our pants and on our backs and sneaking back home.

At that moment, we knew we officially became warriors.

Immediately our training began in the backyard of my mom’s house.

We spare with each other for the next several days, jumping, running, spinning and swinging our colorful sticks… excuse me, I meant, our swords. 

Finally, we were ready to go to war.

I cannot stop smiling everytime I remember that time, which became one of my chore memories. 

How could simple sticks found in a trash container be so valuable to us (of course, not counting the high level of imagination two bored kids were capable of)?  

For my mom who was calling us from the balcony to come over to eat dinner we were just two boys fooling around with colorful sticks only God knew where we got them from. 

For my neighbors, the sticks had served their purpose and now they were just trash.

For my cousin and I, humanity’s future depended on us harnessing the full power of our swords. 

I think with works of art happens something similar in regards to its perceived value. 

For some, a certain artwork is worth the same as nothing, while the same artwork can be highly valuable to someone else, like those sticks my cousin and I found: for us valuable, for others, trash.

What determines the value of an artwork then? 

Unlike the value of other more utilitarian objects, for example, a toilet paper or a phone, an artwork’s value is more subjective than we feel comfortable admitting.  

The first audience

If not pressed by external forces, an artist will create art for himself, and his own pleasure. That’s the hard truth. 

In such situation, the only pressing force is internal, and to a degree, selfish, however, necessary.  

In a past article (What is the purpose of artists?") I wrote about the ability of an artist to navigate his own emotional landscape and reflecting it outwardly into an aesthetical object worth of contemplation. 

Due to its high sensibility, an artist attunement to his own emotions compels him to create a piece of art that serves as a depository of his emotional energy that would be otherwise hard to express outwardly and bottled up, creating inner disruption.

For the artist, to create art is more than a mere caprice, it is a need.  

And in the fulfillment of such need, the artist finds value on his artwork. 

Regardless if nobody else thinks the same way. Regardless if others don’t even know his artwork exists or think it is just not that great. 

Under these circumstances, the function of the artwork at its core is to please the artist himself, and nobody else: the first audience, an “audience of one”, like Srinivas Rao and Robin Dellabough would say in their book: “An audience of one: Reclaiming creativity for its own sake”.

The second audience

Once the audience of one for an artwork has been fulfilled by the artist himself, almost certainly and through time, this audience of one will start growing.

The growth of this expanded audience will develop into what in a summarized fashion you could call: the art market (although the actual art market is more complicated than that).

For the sake of simplicity, I decided to call “the public” basically anyone that is or could be interested in the artwork other than the artist himself, which includes the art professionals and the non-professionals alike.  

The acceptance from the public, or what the art market would refer to as the “collective consensus” in regards to the value of a particular artwork, might experience another layer of value to the artwork beyond the one the artist himself experienced. 

Out of the public, two peculiarities will be most prominent. 

Firstly, the artist himself becomes a subject of study and admiration by the public, enhancing the artist's perceived social value through popularity or relevancy, which naturally will leak onto the artist’s art.

Secondly, a demand for the artwork starts to occur at a greater or lesser degree.  

If the public has agreed the artwork’s value is worth it, or if they themselves can provide another layer of value beyond the one the artist himself assigned to the artwork and that satisfy their own inner desires, they would want to own it.

The question then arises: how does this perceived value of an artwork by both audiences is reflected or materialized?  

The handshake

In our communities, a common and more tangible way to show the value of something is by means of a currency.

However, not all currency is monetary. 

Currency could be thought of as anything ranging from attention, time, convenience, entertainment, applauses, pleasure, a favor… Anything that shows some sort of informal or formal agreement between two or more parties to a certain exchange. 

Basically, an “I-give-you-this-and-you-give-me-that-other-thing.” situation. Think of an abstract negotiation handshake.

Needles to say, these different types of currency have their own rules and dynamics that must be respected. 

For instance, an artwork with an audience of one, namely that of the artist himself, clearly could not get any monetary currency from his own artwork, as long as the second type of audience, the public, is not available.  

In order for a monetary currency exchange to occur there must be another party willing and able to provide such monetary currency in exchange for the artist’s artwork. 

It wouldn’t make sense the artist would pay himself with monetary currency. 

The artist could instead get, let’s say, pleasure currency resulting from the art creation process. That will suffice the artist very much. 

On the other hand, if to the example from above we add the second type of audience, the public, then the artist could, in theory, get in exchange from his artwork monetary currency besides the pleasure currency, assuming there is from the public an actual demand for his artwork and are willing to compete among themselves, normally, by means of monetary currency. 

In exchange, by acquiring the artwork the public could get prestige currency by owning one of a kind artwork, or entertainment currency, or an emotional currency, to name a few. 


Answering the question posed initially: what determines the value of an artwork then? 

I think an artwork will receive its perceived value from external forces, and retain "some" value as long as at least one of these two types of audiences remain interested in it. 

As I mentioned, we have two audiences for any artwork: the artist, and the public.  

If none of these two audiences remain interested in the work of art, said artwork will most surely lose all its value, since it will be depleted of any meaning, plus there would not be any demand for it. 

However, I do not consider the value of an artwork dependent upon the existence of these two audiences at the same time, all the time.  

With one of these two audiences available and interested at some point in time, an artwork will surely have "some" value, which could or could not fluctuate and transform as time pass by. 

Final words:

I am certain I would not put a monetary value to the memory of my cousin and me playing to be warriors with the colorful sticks we found in the trash can of our neighbor when we were kids.

To me the emotional value of that memory is unmeasurable. 

Assuming it could be done, I would not give away such memory regardless of any possible demand for it. It’s mine, and it’s emotional value is priceless. 

I think such stance happens with artworks. Not all of their value can be measured only by monetary currency alone, a price tag, and doing so is a reprehensible abomination of the human condition. 


Author: Jason Berberena

Visual artist and co-founder of Kreation Artzone

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