A Reflection on Measures of Value

Rupert Bustamante IV

How much is the oil, the canvas, the frame? Is there a measure for valuing the worth of an insect? Is there one for art?

Consider this: Lot 53, Violets are Blue 6 by Geraldine Javier, was conservatively estimated to have a selling price of about PHP 150,000–240,000.[1] Under various theoretical frameworks, such as certain forms of hedonic pricing,[3] one can field a set of variables that will give a general idea of how the market might view a certain art object. Size, medium, subject matter, artist popularity, prices of other works from the same artist — these and many other factors are all used to develop a predictive model for the worth of any work of art. Throughout my discussions with different publics (from artists and other practitioners, to academics like theorists and critics, to even those outside the realms of art production and evaluation, such as ordinary museum visitors), there always seems to be this impression that pricing art is either impossible or frivolous. Either there is no practical way of determining the quantitative value of an art object or experience, or participating in the discourse of how and why a work is quantitatively measured is outside the scope of art and the discussions surrounding it.

Geraldine Javier, Violets are Blue 6, 2009. (Image from invaluable.com)

But consider this: Lot 53, Violets are Blue 6, was reported to have been sold for PHP 300,000.[2] Finale Auctions put up this mixed-media piece for sale on May 18, 2019 and found someone out there who is willing to pay at least PHP 300,000 to acquire this still life for whatever purpose. Someone out there is willing to own an item that is being sold. When there is a meeting of both supply and demand, in most cases, a market for that good or service is said to exist. While the actual price sold was a bit outside the forecast, their model still provided a fair assessment of the possible reception of Javier’s artwork. It also serves as a precedent not only for future sales but for the general reception of her future works, shows, collaborations, and the like.

Still, many will understandably take exception to further discussing this method of evaluation because of its limited scope for what art can be. The auction price of a piece implies that the art object is being commodified and further privatized; it is now an object to be owned and experienced by a small segment of society, i.e. the owner and their social sphere. Only a certain — and, I presume, small — section of the industry of art is engaged in the buying and selling of pieces. An assessment of art in these terms is largely limited only to that particular public that it caters to. The politics surrounding this view of art, whether it is the intention of the artist or not, is complicated and necessitates a level of academic dialogue, even debate, but the point still stands. There are other ways that people, especially the general populace, interact with art. I would even dare assume that an average person’s encounter with art is not artwork as object, but artwork as service, as an experience — non-consumptive and, in cases where it is displayed to the public for free, non-excludable. Many different individuals can go visit a museum by simply paying an entrance fee for example, or better yet, these peoples can freely attend an exhibition or show and just voluntarily contribute or donate some amount of money to the event; these show that art can be a pseudo-public good, or at least, carry some of the characteristics that make a public good or service. There are many other situations that arise when we begin to consider the economics of art, but in the case just mentioned, visiting a museum collection or exhibition, is there any way to appraise the value of art as service, to assess and aggregate the private valuations of each and every individual who deems themselves as part of the art-viewing public (as opposed to just the few individuals concerned when it comes to buying and selling paintings, sculptures, etc.)?

Consider this: I am a fan of Geraldine Javier’s works, and I have been since I first visited her Curiosities exhibition in the Jorge B. Vargas Museum back in 2013.[4] The dark and haunted tenderness of her art spoke to me, at the time a student of both economics and art studies, overly concerned with the materialistic conditions and conversations that surrounded “high art.” Since then, I have sought out her work, going to exhibitions that featured her art, such as in the Pinto Art Museum, attending open-house viewings of her work in various auction houses around Metro Manila, and even simply looking at and reading about her current exhibitions through museum briefs and pamphlets, online blogs, etc.

In one of these blogs, I chanced upon one of her older exhibitions, Butterfly’s Tongue.[5] Reading through the snippet and looking at artworks I hadn’t yet seen was an exciting, delightful experience, but one quaint piece, Violets are Blue 7, struck me as strange and mysterious. An insect was preserved, suspended against a flower or an object resembling a flower, and framed before, again, being suspended against an oil painting and framed. It was evocative, a corpse on display in a decorated casket. I wanted to experience the actual artwork — its size, its placement, its lighting, everything about it in the way it was made and curated. I was desperate to see not only (what I assume is) the seventh but the rest of the series as well. Searching online, I found that the sixth had already been sold at an auction. Unless it is sold again or lent out, there is a very real possibility that I may never get to see this specimen on embroidery on oil on canvas. It has been further privatized, inaccessible to the general public, of which I am a part. I am now restricted, forced to observe and interact with just a low- to medium-resolution image of an artwork that has gripped me, that asks me to behold it in its entirety.

Following that, I can ask myself, “Am I willing to pay some amount to have access to this single work, to see it with my very own eyes? If so, what is my willingness to pay (WTP), how much am I willing to give? And am I still willing to pay some amount just to know that it will be preserved, will continue to exist?” This thought experiment can, with some refinement, be extended to a full survey. Simply, this field experiment attempts to estimate a demand where none seems to exist by attempting to look into its nonuse value.[6] Ordinarily, any interactions with art can be assessed by the way it was used by an individual; this use can be consumptive or non-consumptive, and range from acting as asset and store of value to providing an inexplicable resonance, some psychic benefit to said individual. Whether the utility described is gained directly or indirectly, the use value is the standard concept that most evaluation techniques seek to appraise. But the value of a good or service is more than just how useful it is to any individual. Even in economic theory, value is nebulous and inexact because people still derive some benefit from the mere existence of an object or experience. This is called nonuse value; it is this idea that even the intangible has worth. It is under this framework that I am able to say that preserving the existence of Violets are Blue 6, though I may never get to see and experience it, is worth something to me.

By applying this framework of use and non-use value to a WTP methodology,[7] we can gather data through the aforementioned field experiment, calculate an average WTP across the chosen public (e.g., visitors across a set of museums and galleries), and then aggregate it for that specific population. This approach can provide an estimate of the value of the artwork as a service and has been used in appraising other non-market goods and services, such as ecosystems and wild animals.[8] The statistics generated can be useful in planning and budgeting, cost–benefit analysis, institutional policymaking, and many other decision points that the artist or cultural worker is constantly faced with.

Finally, consider this: The tools covered here are only two ways with which to engage in discussions on the valuation, and further, a section of the economics of art. It is of the utmost importance to note that this single reduced value is not the only value that exists or the only measure of worth or importance; there shouldn’t be any one single quantitative or qualitative approach to evaluating any form of art. Far be it for me to impose what many would consider a hegemonic view of the world onto the various studies of art, this monetary value elicited from the general public can and should coexist with auction price values, with collections from fundraising events, with license purchases and commissions — even with values beyond economics such as those derived from their influences from and effects on aesthetic movements or socioeconomic realities as determined by the art historian or critic, or even simply with the ineffable sentiments of an individual who has just seen the artwork and is now obsessed with attempting to unravel its meaning. In the proper forum, one can provide a multifaceted assessment of Lot 53, Violets are Blue 6 by Geraldine Javier, about how and possibly why a work of art can be owned and forced to disappear from the public eye. There are existing frameworks that allow for a wide array of views for assessing an artwork, its production, consumption, and all of the interactions among them. If they are found to be lacking, then develop current and new ones. By propagating these kinds of discussions, by allowing for such a multiplicity in our methods of assessment, and consequently, a multiplicity in the values that exist within our discourse, greater dialogue is created between those that create and study art, its history, meanings, impacts, and those that study the material and social processes behind its production and consumption.

[1], [3]: Invaluable. [2019]. “Lot 54: Geraldine Javier, Violets are Blue 6, 2009.” Still Life. Invaluable. Accessed on 24 May 2020. <https://www.invaluable.com/auction-lot/geraldine-javier-violets-are-blue-6–2009–53-c-cbd4426bf6#>.

[2]: Kraeussl, R., and Lee, J. [2009]. “Art as an Investment: The Top 500 Artists.” European Financial Management Association 2011 Symposium, Alternative Investments: pp. 2–4, 8–9, 22–23.

[4] Jorge B. Vargas Museum. [2013]. “Curiosities | Geraldine Javier.” Jorge B. Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center <https://vargasmuseum.wordpress.com/2013/01/30/curiosities-geraldine-javier/>.

[5] manilaartblogger. [2009]. “Geraldine Javier Gets Bugged.” Snippets from The Manila Art Scene. manilaartblogger.com. <http://www.manilaartblogger.com/2009/09/16/get-bugged-by-
geraldine-javier/>.

[6], [8] (TEEB). [2011]. Figure 4.3: Application of a Total Economic Value framework to ecosystem services. Chapter 4: Integrating ecosystem and biodiversity values into policy assessment. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB). p. 8.

[7] Dupas, P., and Miguel, E. [2017]. “5.1.1 Methods to estimate the demand curve.” Handbook of Economic Field Experiments. Vol. 2.

Rupert Bustamante IV is an economist specializing in natural resource management, and a writer fixated on poetry, dark media, and cultural studies. He keeps a personal blog at www.tinyletter.com/megaattack.

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