When art becomes little more than a commodity, words lose their meaning, or at least their ability to communicate. This is what has happened with the words “real” and “value”, usually, “real value”.
Does the “real value” of a work of art mean the same for an art historian and for an art dealer? No. For the art historian it should mean the uniqueness, importance and significance of an artist’s work. For the art dealer it means the latest (highest) price it has achieved, how much it can sell for.
“Real [Market] Value”
The art market today seems to be characterised by buyers who are investors – the true collector has almost become a thing of the past – for whom “real value” is a price tag. The higher the price the more “value” the artist is then said to have “artistically” and the more a “rarity” value must be attached to it.
Natalia Goncharova’s Espagnole sold at Christies, London, on 2 February 2010 for £6,425,250 and this has earned her the accolade of “the world’s most expensive woman artist”. The implication is that she is therefore “the best woman artist in the world”, a marketing label that helps to inflate the prices of her works generally. In order to protect the new “market value” of this artist’s now-privileged position, war has been made on the authors of two books on Goncharova because they reveal to the world that Goncharova was an extremely prolific artist. Interested parties have been attempting to betray the artist’s enormous creativity by falsifying the “rarity” value and so guarantee the “real [market] value” of the price tag.
Then there is the case of the Japanese collector who for Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” paid just under $40 million in March 1987 – to great press coverage because it was well above auction house expectations. Although he said he really liked the work, the buyer explained with utter candour that the publicity of owning “the world’s most expensive painting by Van Gogh” would make the name of his insurance company world famous and it was a bargain at that. For his advertising budget exceeded by far what he had paid for the Van Gogh. Is this truly the “real value” of a painting? or is it evidence of a tabloid strategy and a fickle market? Sensationalism is what Saachi has relied on to drive the prices of the artists in his collection sky high.
“Real [Artistic] Value”
The purpose of “real [artistic] value” is to understand an artist’s creative methods and their history. This knowledge may then contribute means for assessing works that rightfully belong, or not, to an artist’s body of works. The primary means for achieving these aims is stylistic analysis.
The analysis of style relies on the two coordinates found in every work of art: structure and the principles of ordering coloured objects and planes in that structure. The function of such analysis is to reveal the thought within the work, the artist’s creative procedures and, in a group of works, to reveal both consistency and change – i.e., how a style develops.
Stylistic analysis, then, is a reliable tool for understanding the thought within a work of art and how it is realised, and it is equally reliable as a historical tool.
Stylistic analysis has also been used traditionally to determine the authorship of a work of art, but here it is a less reliable tool for two reasons.
The first reason is that the entire corpus of an artist’s output can never be known to the historian. Artists destroy groups of works, works are given away or get lost due to any number of factors, and thus the creative logic, the trail of artistic ideas and their realisation, is broken. The further one goes back in time the more acute this problem is. Therefore, if a work appears that is not typical of an artist’s known works, the means by which it may be connected to them is missing. Now stylistic analysis as a historical tool does not lend itself to determining the “real [artistic] value” of a work – its rightful place in an artist’s chronology – and it would be an error to force it either in or out of this artist’s work, as art historians are often tempted to do. This can be seen when arguments about trivial details in a work are presented in support of a (usually) tendentious “opinion”. The two basic coordinates of stylistic analysis – structure and the principles of ordering shapes and colour which together reveal the idea – must remain fundamental to every argument either for or against a “real [artistic] value”, and even that may be only a beginning.
The second reason is that styles may be copied. Based on stylistic analysis, many paintings thought to have been by Rembrandt were relegated to “School of Rembrandt” in the 1970s, but opinions have been changing and works are being reattributed to the master himself. This reveals the relative value of stylistic analysis for establishing the “real [artistic] value” of works of art that authentically belong to the hand of a given artist. It is a means, not an end.
And the Question of Provenance
“Provenance” is a detailed and unbroken listing, with supporting documents, of where the work of art has been since leaving the artist’s studio. Can the “real [market/artistic] value” of a work of art be guaranteed by “provenance”, as so many investors have been demanding? Is provenance a guarantee that protects their investment? Does lack of provenance – the lack of the documented trail of a work of art’s whereabouts through time – imply lack of “real [market/artistic] value” in any way at all?
However interesting a work’s provenance may be, it was originally little more than snobbery. To buy a painting previously owned by the Duke of X gave the painting more “value” than one owned by “a Gentleman”. Even if it can contribute to a work’s “real [artistic] value” as an authenticating factor, especially prior to 1900, it is almost nonsense to expect to find “real” provenances for 20th century works of art in light of its history: two World Wars. Displacements of artists and peoples, pillage, bombing, and all the horrors of war have destroyed documents, collections have been dispersed and provenances lost forever. The appearance of “Provenance Research” departments in museums and universities, for example, reveal the reality of the almost hopeless attempt to retrace either the provenances or the whereabouts of thousands of works of art.
In the case of Russia and the Russian Avant-Garde, this is very well explained by the Vice-President of the Russian Guild of Appraisers, Oleg Tairov, in an interview of 12 August 2011 (//news.mail.ru/society/6557816/). There, Tairov was asked to compare Western and Russian methods of authenticating works of art. He stated that,
“In Russia there is a big problem with provenance due to objective historical reasons (wars and revolutions). Sometimes the object disappeared from view for many decades [a reference to the State Depository for Contemporary Art, Moscow]…. Thus, we have to pay the least attention to the provenance and a lot more to art history and technical examination (quality of canvas, surfaces, soil) without regard to where the object went or was seen.”
“Was seen” is an obvious reference to a work’s exhibition history, something often sought by American museum curators in an attempt to satisfy the desire for a “provenance”. In the case of the Russian Avant-Garde, most of the last free exhibitions were prior to 1925, while records of previous exhibitions are sparse if they exist at all – few installation photographs, endless numbers of unidentified “Still Life”, “Landscape” or “Non-Objective Composition”, etc.. Anyone asking for the “exhibition history” of a Russian Avant-Garde work of art simply reveals their own ignorance of Russia’s history throughout the 20th century.
These two points raised by Oleg Tairov emphatically put the burden of proof about a work of art’s “real [artistic] value” onto the work itself. The “provenance” issue for the Russian Avant-Garde is a red herring.
A New Tool – Scientific Analysis
“Real [artistic] value” has recently been given a great boon. Over the last ten years or so digital technologies have been developing ever more sophisticated means for contributing to knowledge about works of art, and they continue to improve by the day, it would seem.
A wide range of techniques combine to establish information about pigments, binders, supports (canvas, paper, wood, etc.), ageing, and many other technical factors about a work of art. These techniques provide reliable tools which the art historian can use in conjunction with stylistic analysis and so discover the very creative elements used by an artist – brushwork and pigments, for example, and their impact on the idea of the painting itself. (See P. Railing, L. Thomas, I. Cassan, “The Interaction of Scientific and Art Historical Investigations into Works of Art” in JOURNAL OF INCORM, Vol. 1, Nos. 2-3, 2010, pp. 28-31.) This historical information, in turn, contributes to the profiling of an artist’s practice and provides documents useful for the establishment of authorship.
Information from scientific analyses is in its early stages, however, since databases rely on a large amount of material, the compilation of which is only just beginning. There is enough information, nonetheless, for certain art historians working on certain artists to assimilate this growing body of material into a reliable foundation for attributing “real [artistic] value” to works of art, thereby filling in gaps in the broken trails of an artist’s historical development.
“Real [Aesthetic] Value”
“Real [market] value” is governed by moments in time and place. This value may go up, it may go down, influenced by greater market forces, economies, social conditions, taste, and attempts to manipulate an artist’s market. The nature of a “real [market] value” is instability and fluctuation, the temporary and fleeting “real” “value” being valid for only a given moment in time.
“Real [artistic] value” is an analytical and historical value and so is never complete. New stylistic and historical facts, information, and technologies continue to contribute to the richness and knowledge of the “real [artistic] value” of a work of art (or to the discovery of a forgery). This value is open and flexible, dynamic, even.
“Real [aesthetic] value” is an absolute value. It is not subject to fluctuating values of any kind, it is not conditioned by time. Its value is stable and enduring because it never loses its true and intrinsic value. A beautiful painting will always be a beautiful painting (which is the reason we value museums).
When art is seen for its “real [aesthetic] value”, first and foremost, the work of art is no longer defined by values that belong not to its world but to the world of commerce. Animating the mind with all the interest and knowledge that “real [artistic] value” can provide, “real [aesthetic] value” is a renewable source for delighting the senses, the soul and the mind. Now “real” and “value” are aligned in word and meaning. This is because the work of art itself is real and the reality itself, it is a value and the value itself.
Patricia Railing, with Caroline Wallis
26 August 2011