The Declining Value of Art

What gives art value? That is, inherent value, not mere monetary value. Perhaps it is actually quite similar for artist and spectator. The artist may impart value on her work based upon how much joy and fulfillment the process of its creation gave her, how satisfied she is with the final product if it matched or came close to her vision, how much pleasure others experience when viewing (or listening to) it, or how much attention, respect, and fame (and wealth) is directed her way because of it. Likewise, the spectator may see value in the work because he knows, perceives, or assumes the joy and satisfaction it might give the artist, he’s interested in and enjoys experiencing it, or because he respects a successful, famous individual.

There are various forces that impart value, but a significant one must be effort required. This is, after all, what is meant by the ever-present “My kid could do that” muttered before canvases splattered with paint or adorned with a single monochrome square in art museums across the world — pieces sometimes worth huge sums. People see less value in a work of art that takes (on average between human beings) less effort, less skill. Likewise, most artists would likely be less crushed were a fire to consume a piece they’d spent a day to complete versus one they’d spent a year to complete. To most people, effort imparts value.

I’d be remiss, and haunted, if I didn’t mention here that this demonstrates how most people think in Marxian ways about value. (If you thought, dear reader, that in an article on art you’d find respite from socialist theory, you were wrong.) Marx wrote that “the value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of labour” needed to create it (Value, Price, and Profit). Again, not mere monetary value. This doesn’t mean “the lazier a man, or the clumsier a man, the more valuable his commodity, because the greater the time of labour required for finishing the commodity.” Rather, Marx was speaking about the average labor needed to create something: “social average conditions of production, with a given social average intensity, and average skill of the labour employed.” Labor, effort, imparts value on all human creations, whether it’s art, whether it’s for sale, and so forth. Doesn’t it follow, then, that what takes less effort has less inherent value?

This train of thought — how the effort put into paintings, drawings, writings, photographs, sculptures, music, etc. affects their value — arose during an interesting conversation on how much respect should be awarded to each of these forms. Respect was based on effort-value. In other words, does a “good” photograph deserve the same respect as a “good” painting? Does a “great” piece of writing, like a book, deserve the same admiration — does it have the same value — as a “great” sculpture? One may feel at first that they shouldn’t be compared. But all forms have value because they require effort, and thus if we can determine how much effort, on average between human beings, is required for two compared art forms and then decide one takes more effort we will have also found a difference in value. (One need not worry about “great” being subjective, because we are only talking about how each individual personally views the value of different art forms; perceived effort will also be subjective, which is the whole point, as it determines one’s view on value.)

If it helps make this clearer, we might start with a comparison within a single form. Which takes more effort on average: to record a single or an album? Cartooning or hyperrealist drawing? Most people would say the latter finished products have more value because of the greater effort typically required (work may be a breeze for some hyperrealist artists, as easy as cartooning for cartoonists, but remember we are speaking of averages).

Now what about the average effort to create a “good” photograph versus, say, a “good” (let’s say realist) painting? It seems like it would certainly take more effort to make a good painting! The technology of photography always advances, making tasks easier and more accessible, and thus grows more widespread. After film yielded to digitalization and computerization, it became much easier to take a nice photograph — it’s easier to do and easier to do well. Exposure, shutter speed, aperture, ISO sensitivity, focus, white balance, metering, flash, and so on can now be manipulated faster and with greater ease, or automatically, requiring no effort at all. Recently it’s become possible to edit photographs after the fact, fixing and improving them. You just need a program and know how to use it. Because the form has never existed without technology, the average effort to create a great photograph has probably never rivaled the average effort to create a great painting, but the gap was smaller in the past. Today anyone with the right technology can produce a great photo; true, it requires know-how, but surely the journey from knowing nothing to mastery is shorter and easier than the same journey for realist painting. (Film — now digital video — production is a similar story.) Because the effort needed for the same result — a good photo — has declined over time, the value of the form overall has also decreased. (This does not mean some photographers aren’t more creative, skilled, or knowledgeable than others, nor that there doesn’t remain more value in the work of hardline traditionalists who refuse to use this or that new technology.) But painting — the technology of painting — hasn’t really changed much through the ages; it still requires about the same effort to produce the same quality work, therefore its value holds steady. If “painters” start having robots paint incredible works for them, or aid them, there would obviously be a reduction of value. No one is as impressed by robot paintings or machine-assisted paintings.

Music is facing a smaller-scale attack on the value of the form with digitally created instrumentals, autotune, and so forth. Perhaps the value of writing declined slightly as we shifted from penmanship to typewriting to computer-based writing (with backspace and spell-check!). It will decline again as voice transcription programs are perfected and grow in popularity.

Sculpting, painting, and drawing — the forms least infected by technology — still essentially require the same effort to do, and same effort to do well, as they have throughout human history. The tools and equipment have changed some, yes, but not nearly as much as those of other forms. Their value will remain the same as long as this state of affairs persists. If music, writing, film, and photography continually grow easier to do well, their value, by this metric, will decrease, slowed only by those who valiantly resist the technological changes. This does not mean a splatter painting automatically has more value than a beautiful photo — remember we’re each personally comparing the value of what we subjectively see as “good” paintings versus “good” photographs; you may not see a splatter painting as good. Rather, it may simply mean that what you see as a good painting takes more effort on average to create, and thus has more value, than what you see as a good photo. Perhaps also more than a good book, song, or video, depending on the size and scope of the projects being compared (it may surpass a good video but not a good film, or a good short book but not a good tome; up to you).

It could be that effort required is somewhat rule-based, too, rather than just technology-based. Music, writing, film, and photography rely on more rules. That’s probably why technology is encroaching quicker on such forms. In music, keys, pitches, quarter-notes, half-notes and so forth are rules. Build a program that knows and follows them and you don’t need human players or singers anymore at all. Writing has spelling, grammar, and punctuation rules. So spell-check and A.I. can help you or do it all for you. Film has frames per second, photography f-stops, and together a thousand other rules. Devices can handle them. Artists break the rules all the time, but that doesn’t mean their form doesn’t rely more heavily on them than other forms.

Sculpting marble or clay into something recognizable, adorning a canvas with life, or sketching a convincing face perhaps are not activities that rely as much on rules. This does not mean there are none; for instance there are drawing guidelines to make a face proportional and grids to help you transfer reality to the paper. Again, the rules may or may not be followed. And this does not mean an A.I. couldn’t do such activities, because it could. It’s just hard to define what rule you’d use to draw something so perfectly it looks like a photograph; but you know you have to hit certain notes to sing something perfectly. You have to be talented to do either — but maybe one has more foundational rules to get you there.

I’ve sometimes wondered if closing the “effort gap” or “talent gap” between novices and incredible artists is easier in some art forms than others. Meaning, is the gulf between an inexperienced writer and an incredible writer smaller than the gulf between an inexperienced painter and an incredible painter? What about the gap between a new photographer and masterful one compared to the gap between a new sculptor and a highly advanced one? On average, that is. I would suppose the art forms that in any given era take more effort would have the largest chasm to cross. So it would be harder to become a master painter than a master photographer. Perhaps harder, also, than becoming a master cinematographer, writer, singer, or even musician. (I think this view explains why I personally respect and admire the best works of sculpting, painting, and drawing more than the best works of other forms, though music is high up there too. And that’s coming from a writer.)

If so, perhaps rules have something to do with it. We know that practice makes perfect. Some are born with unique gifts, no question, but others go from zero to hero through practice. Might more rules make it easier? Do human beings learn better, faster, with those defined rules? If you stripped away the aforementioned technology of singing, music, and writing (it’s impossible to do this with photography and film), would the rules of the forms alone make these things easier to master than art forms with fewer rules? It’s interesting to consider.