Art as a Commodity: Does Time Equal Value in Art?

Art as a Commodity: Does Time Equal Value in Art?

February 06, 2016

It’s opening night at a recent gallery show and the scene is familiar. Visitors mill about with drinks in hand under bright lights. Artwork hangs on walls and occasionally diverts one’s attention away from conversation. A band plays in the background. I’m standing close to one of my drawings, happy to greet those that pause in front of my work.

There are introductions and pleasantries exchanged and then, predictably, I’m asked one question more than any other:

“How long did that take you?” I admit, the question has annoyed me for years. It’s a mild irritation, like when an older relative retells the same story again and again. I nod patiently and my answer is almost always the same, “Sorry, I have no idea.”

This may sound casually dismissive, but it’s not feigned ignorance: I’ve never kept track of my hours as I work.

I haven’t really stopped to ask why that is and similarly, I’ve never taken the time to consider why this question is asked so frequently.

In musing over this, here is what I’ve come up with: Some simply ask out of admiration, genuinely appreciating the skill and detail. Others ask because they’re not used to being in the company of artists and don’t want to appear uninformed.

But most ask as a means of determining value. This is especially true in a setting where the price of the work is stated. There is a glance at the art, then at the price, and I can see the gears turning as the question is asked…how much does he make per hour?

However, I’m not sure it’s a question of time. It seems to be a question of need. If someone perceives that he or she "needs" something, it doesn’t appear to matter how long it took to produce. Most people do not ask how long a car or a smartphone took to make when considering a purchase. That person is willing to pay a high price to meet that need.

But in the absence of a felt need, we turn to time to make sense of art as a commodity. Why should I spend this much on something that I don't value or even understand? So we make sense then by way of “craftsmanship.” If a great number of hours were invested in the creation of a piece of art, then one can justify the purchase.

It took a long time to make, so it must be worth it.

As I examine this dynamic through my own lens as an artist of faith, I am reminded afresh of some simple truths. Unfortunately, I live in and am a product of a society that is apt to tally up the worth of something using this equation: Does my effort = perceived payback? If so, then it is worth the endeavor. And I wonder how much of my life is funneled through this formula.

For instance, if I perceive that God is silent for long periods of time in my life, how long will I be faithful in my time spent devotionally before deciding the task has no value?

Understanding this tendency in myself, in our society, and in the art world is what led me to produce art that is impossible to commodify. It’s here one day and gone the next. It’s impossible to sell.

While living in Germany, I created a piece by adding color to murky puddles along a rural path. This is my way of rebelling against the rubric: my work / effort = an amount of money.

This past summer, my wife and a friend came back from a hike in the Rocky Mountains. The trail map told them they were embarking on a beginning / intermediate hike. It ended up being a two hour trek up a steep and difficult incline. Along the way, they asked hikers coming down the hill how much further to the falls. The passerby kept encouraging them, “Don’t worry, it’s worth it.”

When they finally arrived, hungry, hot, and exhausted, the lake (no falls) was a small, nearly dry, unremarkable water body filled with leeches. My wife and friend clearly didn’t think the hike was worth the effort. But it seems to me, judging from the laughter in their faces as they told the story and the odd sense of accomplishment derived from having not given up, it was a valuable endeavor.

Leading a life not dictated by the confines of the “Equation” takes a herculean effort. Pondering the why of the question, “How long did that take you?” didn’t bring some new revelation. Instead, it is a simple reminder to continue the great fight against the stream of conditioning in relationship to my family, my faith, and my art.

When I stand before the Eternal, His worth should be so imminent that it wouldn’t even occur to me to commodify that time spent. And maybe, in it’s best instances, art can be a similar experience. As I stand before a work of art, the immediate enjoyment of it should, I think, transcend any question of value outside of the thing itself.

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