The Price of [Art]

The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language and for what purpose.

Ways of Seeing, John Berger, page 33
Jeff Koons’ “Gazing Ball (Manet Luncheon on the Grass)”

In Ways of Seeing, Berger talks about how the invention of the camera led to the mystification of works of art. I think The Price of Everything documentary showcases Berger’s theory in a thought-provoking way. While I thought I might get bored watching a documentary about the contemporary art market, the lavish lifestyles of the characters kept my interest the entire time. I was particularly drawn to a specific painter – Jeff Koons. One of his art styles is the practice of copying a famous painting and adding a reflective half-sphere in the center, looking back at you as you gaze at the painting. The documentary showed that Koons acts as the director, never physically touching paintbrush to canvas, yet still remains the credited artist. Of all the odd paintings and sculptures referenced in the documentary, this style seems the most likely to be influenced by mystification.

Perhaps I am just not well-versed enough in contemporary art, but it seems to me as though Koons’ “gazing ball” works are nothing but a cash grab. He mystifies the painting so that the onlooker thinks it is a bold statement about life. Because of the onlooker’s learned assumptions, they expect the art in a gallery to be meaningful and fall for his mystifying words. But is the art meaningful because it hangs in a gallery, or is it meaningful because the onlooker finds it to be so, regardless of where it hangs? Is contemporary art beautiful because it means something, or do we think that because we have prior knowledge of its monetary value? Even if the onlooker truly does find the work to be exceptionally moving, perhaps it is its presence within a fancy gallery that makes them want to spend so much money. As Berger says, “The relation of what we see and what we know is never settled” (Page 7). I do not think it is ethical of Koons to take an existing work and profit greatly from it by adding one simple element. Not to mention all the artists who did the physical painting who did not (to my knowledge) receive credits for the works.

Overall, I think both the film and the documentary made interesting points. I agree with the documentary on the fact that art has value simply because people say it is so. A painting that sold for millions of dollars could have easily been created by a street painter in New York City and sold for ten dollars, or vice versa. That is not to say that some works are not better than others; surely there exists great art in the world that is worth spending money on. I’m simply stating the documentary left me marveling at the unpredictability and inequalities of the market.

To my classmates: which artworks in the documentary most surprised you as being famous (or valuable) contemporary works?

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