Art's true value
The early-20th-century philosopher Irwin Edman gives a remarkably simple bit of insight into what art offers us in everyday life:
"Painters speak of dead spots in a painting: areas where the color is wan or uninteresting, or the forms irrelevant and cold. Life is full of dead spots. Art gives it life. A comprehensive art would render the whole of life alive."
The history of art includes the history of icons in every imaginable variation. It's a history that goes back as far as the cave drawings at Lascaux.
Examples of iconic images range from Christ and the Virgin Mary to Warhol's Campbell's Tomato Soup Cans.
Icons help connect us with not only religion, but also with culture, nature, human events and the inner self. Icons form a language of symbols we use to connect with and find meaning in our lives. The greater the meaning a symbol or image can convey the greater the value we place on that image or icon.
It's easy to understand how iconic imagery becomes an artistic commodity in the commercial side of art. The term "value" takes an entirely different meaning when we talk of the business of art. In this context the dollar is the supreme icon. Imagery becomes a means to a profit rather than a symbolic dialogue on the meaning of things.
PBS recently aired a 90-minute biography of Frida Kahlo. After detailing her life, her art and the intensity of the imagery in her paintings, the credits rolled over a video of an auction for one of her simple self-portraits. The bidding closed at $1.2 million. That's a strong statement, but I wonder about the message it sends to the average person who will never see that kind of money and doesn't have much knowledge of art.
Why are people so eager to lay down such a huge sum for a single painting?
The desire for ownership of famous works by famous artists is the common way of rationalizing such purchases. We covet cultural icons familiar to us and to society at large.
On a deeper level it's about the desire to own anything that is the product of genius. Owning the work of a genius offers a material connection with the artist, maybe even a window into the mind of the artist.
For the artist and the collector the artistic process is about making a commitment to an idea and an ideal as a means of defining personal identity. The artist creates and the collector adopts as both follow a path of self-discovery. With the discovery of a unique identity comes the creation of a bridge between the self and the rest of the world.
When, as an aspiring musician, I adopted Picasso's "The Old Guitarist" as a personal symbol, I had unconsciously started down a path that lead me to a greater understanding of who I was at a particular time. That enhanced consciousness helped me let go of one phase of my life and move on to another. The end result was personal growth.
We are faced with the duality of the commerce of esthetics. The art business is the production, marketing and sales of artistic windows into the mind, heart and spirit.