Defining the value of art

Does art need to be in a frame in order for us to value it?

In 2007 an internationally acclaimed violinist set up in an unassuming corner of the Washington DC subway station and played some of the most sophisticated pieces ever written on his Stradivari violin, worth $3.5 million. Of the estimated 1,100 people that came through the subway during his playing, only 6 of them stopped to listen for any length of time. The artist who regularly gets paid $1000/minute earned a total of $32 for his 45 min set. Mostly, he was ignored. This experiment begs the question: what determines the value of an art piece and to what extent does context and presentation play a role? And, do we need to be first convinced of a thing’s value in order to value it ourselves?

I think about this now when I visit museums and art galleries. To be honest I wasn’t particularly impressed with many of the exhibits I saw at my latest visit to the SF MOMA, despite their presentation and protection by security guards. I just wasn’t “moved”. When art museums were a new experience for me, I remember feeling a pressure to connect with the pieces simply because whole environment shouted “this is special”. If I wasn’t feeling a piece, I would sometimes wonder if I was missing something, and then judge by inability to connect with it. Perhaps, because of the fancy presentation and price of my ticket, my expectations were too high. Perhaps, if I saw the piece simply hanging in a doctor’s office, I would feel differently.

This is why I like independent art shows – presentation is simplified and it’s a more casual, accessible environment where expectations may not be high, allowing the pieces to better speak for themselves. Here are some pieces I enjoyed while at an independent art show this past weekend.

But I think the pieces I like best are those that are unexpected as we pass by. Those that weren’t necessarily created with the intention of being “art” and are not out to claim attention. Without being influenced by elaborate presentation, we can react to such pieces from a more neutral state of being and see it for what it is. But also, the unexpected nature can add a special touch, like receiving a surprise gift. This scene below, painted randomly on a sidewalk, made me smile as I headed off to work one morning. I probably wouldn’t have been as amused had I saw it printed and framed in the SF MOMA. Its natural form on the sidewalk is what gives it its value.

I’d like to think that if I was walking through that subway during the 45 min violin concert, I would at least acknowledge the violinist with a smile (as I usually do with street musicians), and if I was not late in catching my train, stop and appreciate the music for a bit. But in order to recognize something, we need to be present. Our eyes and ears must be open to receive. It’s quite possible that many of those commuters that morning were so focused on their days ahead that they didn’t even hear the music. And if you don’t hear the music, how can you stop and appreciate it?

Maybe that is exactly the point of the $100 tickets, dress-code and fancy performance hall – to make sure we are paying attention.

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