Money, Value, Quality

October 24, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

A year ago, Shamus Khan’s Privilege won the C. Wright Mills award.  The other day, Shamus discovered that Amazon was offering to buy back copies.  The price: 68 cents.

Here we have another case of where quality is unrelated to dollar value.  Privilege is just as good a book as it was a year ago.  But it must be disappointing to be told that your book is worth only a few pennies. Maybe Shamus can find some solace in a Times story that ran the same day about a Manhattan art gallery that had been selling expensive forgeries.  I know that in art, quality and value are two very different things.  Still, I had to stop and wonder when I read about
Domenico and Eleanore De Sole, who in 2004 paid $8.3 million for a painting attributed to Mark Rothko that they now say is a worthless fake.
One day a painting is worth $8.3 million; the next day, the same painting – same quality, same capacity to give aesthetic pleasure or do whatever it is that art does – is “worthless.”*  Art forgery also makes me wonder about the buyer’s motive.  If the buyer wanted only to have and to gaze upon something beautiful, something with artistic merit, then a fake Rothko is no different than a real Rothko.  It seems more likely that what the buyer wants is to own something valuable – i.e., something that costs a lot. Displaying your brokerage account statements is just too crude and obvious.  What the high-end art market offers is a kind of money laundering. Objects that are rare and therefore expensive, like a real Rothko, transform money into something more acceptable – personal qualities like good taste, refinement, and sophistication. 

*  Other factors affect the perceived quality and authenticity of a work.  Artistic fashion plays an important role, but so does social context (see this post from 2007.)

No comments: