But what is it?

What is value?

Let me make the distinction: I’m not asking “what things are valuable”, but instead “what is value”. How do we come by it; how do we measure it; and why do we seek it?

My name is Alexandra Taylor, George Alexander Foundation Fellow and budding conservator of paintings. This blog, ‘The Art of Value’, seeks to track my personal trajectory through the arena of art crime and cultural heritage protection. Disclaimer: by no means should everything I write be taken as the gospel truth! I will do my best to thoroughly research the topics I write about but if there are any gaps or errors in my research please don’t hesitate to get in touch via the ‘contact’ link above. Just keep in mind that I am no expert.

The level of proficiency required of an expert, whereby unconscious competence or higher performance in practice is natural/automatic, takes several years of competent training. If anyone requires further reading on the role of the conservator in professional practice I suggest you take a look at the ‘Novice to Expert’ scale set out by the Institute of Conservation (ICON)[1]. Clarification: I’m the “novice” in this scenario. This blog’s purpose is to enlighten/inspire others about the issues relating to art crime and cultural heritage protection… and also presents the perfect opportunity to reflect on my experiences with a likewise passionate and gloriously nerdy collection of cultural-heritage-enthusiasts.

So, without further ado, let’s return to the original query: what is value? Why is it so important for us to categorise things by degrees of importance, worth or usefulness? In doing so we’ve created a system of nature and terms to which we so desperately cleave. This idea is captured (far more intellectually) in an article written by J. Prescott Johnson who claims that in order to add value to something we must first recognise and judge against one of two factors: attribution or awareness[2]. Only by first understanding the relativism or absolutism of the thing itself can we then designate the appropriate response. In simpler terms, when something is desired – whether real or imaginary – we institute the state of value; value is the interest attitude. George Santayana likewise adopts the view, ‘Impulse makes value possible; and the value becomes actual when the impulse issues in processes that give it satisfaction and have conscious worth.’[3]

The context of my investigation is cultural heritage – specifically art. Art inspires vigorous response, particularly because assessing its value is an incredibly tricky business. As Amore jokingly contends, ‘It’s enough to give a tax accountant reason to choose another profession.’[4] The attribution of an artwork can metamorphose at the drop of a hat, simply by the discovery of an uncharacteristic brushstroke or incorrect pigment – and with it millions of dollars can disappear into the void. Take the painting ‘Salvador Mundi’ for example. How much of this work was actually created by the hand of Leonardo DaVinci? That very question has been in constant debate since the work’s discovery in 1958. ‘Salvador Mundi’ presents the ultimate conundrum; it was purchased for £45 and sold almost 60 years later for $450 million. Yet the true value of the work does not rest in its recently allotted monetary value – for no one is sure which figure is closer to the truth.

This is also a field where intrinsic value can be more important than dollar value. The crazy thing about art is that people care – oh so much – about it. To steal Santayana’s phrase art invites all manner of ‘conscious worth’, of human response, and for many it adds to the experience of being alive. This thirst for inspiration through artistic expression took me traipsing through the Sculptureum’s gardens and galleries in Matakana last week. There I came across a quote by the American sculptor Jeff Koons who beautifully surmised that art ‘…enriches the parameters of your life, the possibilities of being… That’s why people are involved with art’. (I found this sentimentality interesting, considering Koons’ ‘Balloon Dog’ sold for $58.4 million in 2013 – the highest price that had ever been paid for a work by a living artist.)

On a more somber note I suppose value is why the art trade ranks right up there with the distribution of illicit substances as being one of the world’s most unregulated trades. Our debt to Art, one of the ancient instigators of language, of culture, of consciousness, is oft times sadly misplaced – even tarnished. Throughout our shared history art has been looted, destroyed, interfered with and imitated over and over again for trifling and far less valuable things: money and status. In a plea for better awareness of the damage that art crime incurs and the importance of protecting our heritage from those whose greed overrides integrity, let’s focus on further comprehending this thing that drives us all – this thing we must henceforth dub the art of value.


Figure 1: Travelling companions

[1] Ashley-Smith J (2016), ‘Losing the Edge: the Risk of a Decline in Practical Conservation Skills’ in Journal of the Institute of Conservation, Vol. 39, No. 2, pp. 119-132.

[2] Johnson J P (unknown) What is Value? Sourced 09-05-19 from <https://department.monm.edu/history/faculty_forum/johnson_what_is_value.htm&gt;

[3] Santayana G (1906), The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, p. 223.

[4] Amore A (2019), How much is a Rembrandt Worth? And Why It Matters in the Presidential Campaign, Authentication in Art, 15-05-19, AiA News-Service.