It used to be, when the world was not much younger, priceless meant of incalculable value or beyond price; of things removed from the monetary realm, of things intemporal.
Priceless objects were bought and sold, of course. But the amounts exchanged in these sales were beside the point; they represented circumstance not cash value. The use of money was only one of many factors facilitating transfer of ownership, transactions which were necessary because of the transience of corporeal existence. Understand: the objects themselves were not thought to be transient. They were eternal. They were beautiful.
You once could not put a price on art. Now you must. Except in the rarest of works, all historical—those behind glass walls and fronted by armed men—price is now the only means of judging “quality.” Priceless now implies that which would not fetch money of sufficient size to warrant a press release.
Thus we hear stories like the one about the hapless charwoman at the Ostwall Museum in Germany who gave a good scrubbing to Martin Kippenberger’s “installation” of art called “When the Roof Begins to Leak.”
The woman came across what looked like an object set aside for the rubbish pile. The pile had a bucket to catch leaks under it which the charwoman noticed was water stained. So she cleaned it.
The headline at the Washington Post, a prototypical example, read, “$1.1 million sculpture damaged by cleaning woman in German museum.”
Every report mentioned money. They had to. There was no other way to draw attention to the enormity of the event except to say it was costly. If the charwoman had accidentally scoured the smile off the Mona Lisa, the world would know that a treasure beyond value was lost. But at Ostwall nothing of permanence was lost; news reports were necessarily no different than those announcing a dip in the stock market.
The art elite, it’s true, would have known something horrific had occurred just by hearing that a work by Kippenberger was damaged. But that’s because those who follow the art world would have known what the New York Times said of the man when he died, that he was “one of the most talented German artists of his generation”.
In making that judgment, the Times must have had in mind such path-breaking works like Kippenberger’s “1 meter high scuplture of a crucified frog, titled ‘Feet First‘.”
But never mind. What is clear is that except for a minority of people who have been told to think differently (and thus do so), comparing Kippenberger’s art in the state prior to and after it was mistakenly cleaned would not have provided sufficient evidence to conclude something untoward had occurred.
The work was certainly not rendered less beautiful by its scrubbing. If anything, it was made more beautiful. But it was never beautiful nor was it meant to be. And when was the last time you heard a work of art created within the last half century as beautiful anyway?
No: cost and cost alone is the only measure meaningful to the modern art elite. Works of art are valued because they sell for large amounts and it is large amounts that create the value of the art. Similarly, the talent of an artist is gauged by the amount his work fetches: the larger the amounts the better and more respected the artist, and therefore the more valuable (in an emotional sense) his art. It is a perfect circle, a continuous tulip-bulb bubble, entirely detached from any external measures of goodness.
This is why any comment on art by outsiders is dismissed as irrelevant, uneducated, and ignorant. The art elite laugh, and rightly so, at the Philistine who says of a modern work, “My kid sister could have painted that.” It is right that they laugh because your kid sister’s painting would not fetch an enormous price. Her work is, in the modern use of the word, priceless. (What propels the artist from anonymity to worthiness is a different question; it is not money, not initially.)
Take these two kid-sister paintings by two of “Britain’s most eminent artists.”
The first is by Sir (presumably, he slayed the dragons of conventionality to win this title) Howard Hodgkin and is called “Swimming.” The second is a joint effort by “Turner Prize winner Martin Creed and Bridget Riley.” It is called “Work No. 1273”, a number whose magnitude indicates the difficulty of creating such works.
We know these works are valuable because the artists who created them have fetched large amounts for their previous work. Therefore, by the modern theory of artistic goodness, these works are worthy, too. There is no other reason on Earth for discussing these works except in terms of money.
If Keats were alive today he would have to write: ‘Goodness is money, money goodness,’—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
UpdateReports are everywhere that Andreas Gursky’s dull photo has sold for $4.3 million at auction. Wired asked the right question: “Whatâ€™s so special about a picture of a river and some grass? What elevates that photo above so many others? And how did the price get so astronomically high?”
Their answer? “[I]t’s not uncommon for a Gursky to sell for millions of dollars.” Also: “Another factor appears to be the piece’s rarity.” No other reasons were given.
In other words, the photos are valuable because they sell for a lot. Just as was explained above.