Comment: It's art, but is it worth it?

Money shapes people's attitudes to art, and it reminds us what to look at, whom to respect

A NEW exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, called "The Value of Art", has received much criticism from those who feel that it should rather be called "The Price of Art".

It's a clever wheeze of an exhibition: you stand there faced with two related art objects, such as a Degas oil and a Degas pastel, or a modern forgery of a quattrocentro Madonna and a real one, or a Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph produced by the artist and a commercial mass-produced print, and then you can pull up a little sliding panel underneath to see which has an auction estimate of pounds 20m, and which has no auction value at all.

Apparently the curator has been receiving hate mail from people who believe that art shouldn't sully itself with such base considerations as prices. When I heard that I was amazed and delighted.

Who are these people who believe that art is above and beyond money? How have they managed to preserve their glorious idealism? How have they lived through the late 20th century and remained unaware that there is nothing about visual art, not a single successful artist or artwork or movement, that hasn't been turned into a commodity on roughly the same level as a limited edition Prada bag?

Money shapes people's attitudes to art, reminds us what to look at and what not to look at, whom to respect and whom not to respect. Indeed, by making that value system explicit, the Courtauld exhibition lets its visitors off the usual difficulties of people visiting a collection of disparate works, some valuable and some less so.

You can see those people in, say, Kenwood House on a rainy Saturday afternoon. They walk around the rooms anxiously, worried that they might mistake the Rembrandt for any other dullish portrait of an old man, or waste their time gazing at some anonymous 17th century interior when they have heard there is a real Vermeer in the house. Even before they look at the paintings, they look at their labels, and when they see the names they know they heave a sigh of relief, and stand there, their eyes resting for the requisite half a minute on the recognised old master.

Many of us have so lost touch with our ability to enjoy art that we must be reassured that what we are about to look at has a vast monetary value, the ability to command millions at auction, before we can spend time admiring it. And that is why gallery visitors, rather than tramping around mixed exhibitions where they have to make decisions about what to look at, much prefer the huge blockbusters concentrating on a single artist, the Monet or Cezanne or Vermeer retrospectives, where they know that everything has already been vetted - everything is very, very expensive indeed.

In the Courtauld exhibition that anxiety is made open, so that people can immediately be comforted. Confronted by a "real" Toulouse-Lautrec next to a "fake" one, or a cheap Renaissance goddess next to a valuable one, visitors can quickly shunt the little panels underneath to see what, if anything, they should be admiring.

Some might think that the Courtauld exhibition misses a trick by confining its scope to art produced only until the end of the nineteenth century. The much-hyped financial clout of art may warp our attitudes to art of the past, but that is nothing to what it does to our perception of the art that is produced today.

Although actual figures rarely intrude into the moment of viewing, as they do at the Courtauld, art's financial value is the one thing that seems to command undiluted respect from audiences now. Most people may not think that arranging two fried eggs with a kebab or painting a series of coloured spots is particularly impressive or exciting any more, but what does look impressive and exciting is the amount of money some people can still extract from governments and galleries and individuals for playing those well-known games.

Do you remember that old question: "What is art?" The answer to that changed long ago from being anything that artists think is art, to being anything from which artists can make money.

It's extraordinary to think that this century began with artists in rebellion against bourgeois values. For a long time artists wanted to carve out a space which presented an alternative to the commercialisation of the rest of society. They wanted to dissent.

Some chose to do that simply by living in a world in which the relationship of the artist to the work seemed more important than the relationship of the artwork to the buyer, turning away from the loop of careers and security and success. So Cezanne wondered: "Is art, then, a priesthood, demanding pure beings who belong to it completely?"

Others chose to make more directly rebellious gestures, aimed at questioning the idea that an artwork could have commercial value. So there was a time when to place your signature on a ready-made object - as Duchamp did - was to do it in the hope that the whole system by which art was turned into commodities would come crashing down. But as the clamour of commercial demands has got louder, what artist doesn't place him or herself firmly in the marketplace?

The attitudes of Cezanne or Duchamp, once the quintessence of modernity, now look charmingly old-fashioned. Artists today see that, in the words of critic Peter Schjeldahl, their predecessors' anti-commercialism had "roughly the impact on capitalism as a beanbag hurled against cement".

They may repeat the rebellions of the past, but in the sure and certain knowledge that the impact of the gesture will be nil. After all, it's only the first time that a ready-made is put in a gallery that it has any revolutionary value. Once the next pile of bricks is sold, and the next toilet put in a gallery, and the next tin bucket is given a grandiose title and sent to the Tate, then the revolution has turned into a money- making game.

And what artist wants to stop the game now? If the marketplace they affect to despise will pay them good money for affecting to despise it, they can have their lemon polenta cake and eat it too.

Artists today - who are, no doubt, only the artists we deserve - preserve the gestures of the old avant-garde rebellion. They have seen how it helps their marketing strategies if they act rather like the bad boys and girls of art in the past, because that is how people have come to understand art, as a series of mini rebellions that can be quickly co-opted into publicity and promotion.

So they do their little imitations of the Dadaists. They might, as Sarah Lucas did recently, put a toilet in an exhibition - oh, my dear, how too too shocking! They might, as Tracey Emin did, get drunk in public and swear on television - oh do look, how daring, it must be a real artist! They can, as Damien Hirst does, say nasty things about the media, to suggest that he is on a rather different plane.

And having made those gestures of fake rebellion, they are free to spend the rest of their time advancing their careers, having dinner with PR executives, designing restaurants where television presenters can drop pounds 100 on a meal, or giving interviews to Vogue about shopping for a silver lambskin coat.

The Courtauld is right to call its exhibition of pricing strategies "The Value of Art". The great inspiration for artists now is not lonely Cezanne or rebellious Duchamp, but Andy Warhol, who said: "Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn