What makes art valuable

19 AUGUST 2006

In 2003 I wrote a list of eleven factors I think influence people when they’re buying art. In order of decreasing importance, the list begins with Artist. The work Medium is half-way through. It ends with the least-important factor: “Is it a good picture?”

  1. Artist: Who did it? (A small cheap pencil-drawing found at a second-hand shop by Van Gogh when he w
    as 10 will be perceived very valuable only because of the artist)
  2. Exclusivity: How many exist? Is it a one-off? 10s, 100s, 1000s or more?
  3. Direct contact: Did the artist have direct contact with the paper (e.g., did they apply paint to it) or
    in the printing process (hand-made wood block from which a unique print was made)
  4. Size: How big is it? (Bigger is usually better)
  5. Medium: Oil, pastel, watercolour, acrylic, pencil, digital
  6. Effort: How long did it take to make? Five seconds, five years?
  7. Skill: How skilled the artist is in the chosen medium
  8. Venue: Where it’s being sold – an art gallery or an outdoor fair
  9. Price: How much is it? Higher the price, higher the perceived value
  10. Rarity: Is the artist still alive and producing works or is this one of a limited set of works?
  11. Artistic merit: Is it a good picture?

It’s a very cynical list but I still think it’s pretty accurate. I wrote it after my experiences of trying to get work into major and minor exhibitions.

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

We’ve been going to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy in London for a few years. It is a yearly exhibition which includes works submitted by the public. Each year there are about 8,000 entries competing for about 800 spaces.

The quality is surprising for the grand venue: there’s some good stuff but an astonishing amount of very bad stuff; even works by some Royal Academicians look like they’ve been painted by a three-year old and I’m not exaggerating.

So I figured it can’t be that hard to get something accepted. I’ll have a go.

I’d been making desktop wallpapers for my own use for a few years. I had amassed a collection of about 700 images and I thought that some of them were pretty good pictures. I decided to pick the best and make high-quality prints.

To figure out what were the best images, I selected 150 and printed them out onto postcard-sized paper. I then asked about 20 friends to put the cards into three piles from “horrid”, “hmmm” to “yum” – as well as pick their favourite image. I later created an online rating form.

The top two rated images were Pythagorean comma and Flight of fancy.

You can only submit up to three works to the Summer Exhibition and so I picked three and then spent much time researching printing, mounting (matting) and several hundred pounds getting the pictures framed. I took the three framed prints into London, somewhat hopeful.

That year – 2003 – and every year since then, none of my prints has been accepted and yet – sour grapes, maybe – the standard of the accepted entries seem to get worse and worse. It was so awful this year that I wondered whether I’d have been more upset if my work had been accepted.

Next year, we’ll be submitting mixed media and oils. I’m thinking of a canvas painted in oil with a single colour. Near the bottom are the letters A R T. In the bottom-left corner, you can barely see a fallen down F. I’m more confident that this would get accepted by the RA.

My seemingly futile continued attempts to get my work into the exhibition is like a gambler on a losing streak, frantically trying to win back their loses. It’s also a matter of principle, which is childish, I know, but echoed by others in this year’s behind-the-scenes programme by the BBC on the exhibition.

The programme also makes it clear that the selection committee doesn’t discriminate against digital art (they accept photos); they’re just clueless. For pete’s sake, they even accepted a bare plinth after the laughing head sculpture fell off, saying that the plinth had more merit. [Full story @ BBC]

Local art society

At about the same time as I started sending stuff to the RA, we moved to a lovely village with its own art society. Twice a year they have an exhibition in the local village hall where members can display and sell their work.

When we visited one time, I got chatting with the society rep and nipped home to get some of my digital prints. They liked them and encouraged me to join the society.

When it was time for the next society art fair, I got my entry form in the post. It included a sentence about reproductions and I (foolishly) contacted the organisers to make sure that I could enter my digital prints. They said no, that the members would have to discuss it at the next AGM.

When I had calmed down a bit, I prepared a portfolio of works and wrote about my process. I sent these to the society organiser so that members could look at them at the AGM.

At the AGM, my local art society decided that my digital prints were not art because a) I could correct mistakes and b) I could make multiple prints. Therefore they would not accept my prints at their exhibitions.

I was – am – furious that they think they can decide what is and isn’t art. Artists can correct mistakes in oil paintings. And all print-making would be excluded by the notion that multiples are a Bad Thing.

So I thought I’d submit a canvas painted in a solid colour. It would be an oil painting and they would think it art, better than my colourful digital prints. And then I got the FART idea.

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