Values Vis-À-Vis Prices: Multiplicity Versus Dichotomy

| Terry Smith

Values Vis-À-Vis Prices: Multiplicity Versus Dichotomy

Values Vis-À-Vis Prices: Multiplicity Versus Dichotomy | Terry Smith

‘The best art is the most expensive because the market is so smart’. So said Tobias Myer, a celebrity auctioneer for Sotheby’s, in 2006. His hubris reflects the boom in art sales, mostly of contemporary art, that had been steadily accumulating for two decades.1 Since then, the ‘bubble’ at the top end of the market seems constantly ready to burst but somehow manages to reinflate, whatever happens elsewhere in economies and in other parts of the real world. Record-breaking high prices suck the air out of everything else in the space. They seem to be all you need to know when it comes to assessing the quality of any given work of art. Quantitative value at the point of sale absorbs all other qualities the art may have, rendering incidental any other values it might pursue, embody, or activate. Price, it seems, has swamped value in art today.

Spectacular prices are regularly obtained for both rare and not so rare—indeed, editioned—works by brand name artists, among whom Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Takashi Murakami have been only the most blatant. So many millions flow through the ‘top end’ of the art market that it has sustained itself through financial crises such as the 2008 GFC. Money laundering as systemic disruption; expert, elegant risk-taking. For many people outside artworlds, this is Art—especially Contemporary Art—today: a parade of enormous, concentrated, free-wheeling, actual or potential wealth swapping.2 Banksy’s partial shredding of his ‘iconic’ Girl with a Balloon as it was being sold for just over a million pounds at a Sotheby’s auction in 2018 was at once parodic and complicit: in 2021, the half-shredded work sold for 18 million pounds. Every system needs a reliable outlier.

Does this spectacle condemn us to view all art through the (silken) screen of the dollar sign? Is all artistic creativity driven, above all, by the desire to be exchanged? Do economic values prevail throughout the expansive, multifarious, widely dispersed situations within which art is made and shared all over the world today? Do they saturate contemporary artistic practice, curating, art criticism, arts administration, and the appreciation and collecting of art in your locality and everywhere else? For most of us, most of the time, the on-the-ground answer to these questions is ‘No!’. Once we shake free of spectacle, begin to take a wider view, many other kinds of value soon make their powerful presence felt.

Multiplicity of values

Every work of visual art wants, first of all, to be seen. This is its insistence and its offering, the primary kind of exchange that it demands or invites. It exhibits itself to viewers whom its maker or makers might know or imagine, as well as to unknown, unimaginable viewers to come. This is true even for artworks that insist on their opacity, that invoke, for example, the powers of secret-sacred content while showing them in a sacred-secular way (as is common in Indigenous art). It is also true of art that questions practices of seeing as such (a major concern of modernist art). Although such works can be sold, neither of these values is reducible to the economic. 

Artistic value itself has many dimensions, several of them powerful enough in themselves to motivate and validate particular works of art and, in some situations, entire classes of works. Value also animates art’s affects. Cultural economists Michael Hutter and Richard Shusterman list ten types of artistic value: ‘moral or religious vision’, ‘expressiveness’, ‘communicative power’, ‘social and political’, ‘cognitive’, ‘experiential’, ‘aesthetic’ or formal, ‘art-technical’ or skill, ‘art-historical’, and ‘cult’ or iconic value.3  Other scholars emphasise these differently or add still more: for example, in 1903 Alois Riegl highlighted historical value and newness value as having taken distinctly modern forms.4  His insights into the ways values emerge in specific circumstances, compete against each other, and vary in intensity over time and in place, remain relevant. Today, for example, identity is a preeminent value: finding, recovering and sustaining personal and collective identities is a major factor in much contemporary art. Some values are quite specific to purpose: for curators, artworks have various kind and degrees of exhibition value—quite literally, they are read in terms of their potential place within an envisioned exhibition.5

Art market discourse and practice tends to reduce this long, radically incomplete list to one or two values: ‘aesthetic’, mostly formal, value, with some reference to skill, ‘art historical’ importance and ‘expressive’ qualities. The several other value formations that have shaped the work on sale and every other work of art are downplayed. Artistic value thus shrinks to match economic price, as if both were roughly equal parts of a dichotomy that is the only game in town. 

The dealers’ dichotomy

The ‘double lives’ lived by the dealers interviewed by Olav Velthuis for his illuminating 2005 book, Talking Prices, are shaped by this desire to preserve the ideal of Art’s autonomy while at the same time, and in the back room, fixing a viable price for what is shown in the front room. Rituals such as divided gallery spaces, and economically irrational practices like consistently pricing by size across an artist’s output or never devaluing the price of an artist’s work, led Velthuis to infer, correctly, that ‘the price mechanism is not just an allocative but also a symbolic system: impersonal and businesslike as prices may seem, they are the numbers artists, collectors, and dealers live by’.6 Price as a mechanism sets the artist’s position in the market at the time. Its wider symbolic force is that it is also taken as indicating their standing within the reputational structure of refined taste supposedly shared by the significant players within the artworld at large.

Yet this consensus, in fact, a fragile fiction. It pales beside the multiplicity of artistic values have been active for centuries, perhaps millennia.7  This multiplicity has resisted, evaded, and outlasted a variety of efforts to constrain it to lesser purposes. It will do the same, I believe, to contemporary neoliberal perspectives that strive to reduce value to price, however symbolic the latter may also be when it operates inside specific artworlds.

Listing their ten types of artistic value, Hutter and Shusterman remark, ‘It is hard to imagine that all these types of value could be organised into a calculus for ranking the value of all works of art, not least because the relative weighting of each of these different types would be much contested’.8   Even harder, when one truly lists the multiplicity of values that works of art encapsulate within themselves and motivate as they move through the world. To look for a ‘calculus’ to measure and rank ‘all works of art’, including presumably any given work of art, is to try to encompass multiplicity and change by reducing both to instances that are subject to a formula. Again, the inherent productivity of artworks as they are created and circulated is downgraded. Artworks become single objects equivalent to a price. The entire value-generating array we call ‘Art’ is reduced to an equivalence to what we call ‘The Art Market’. Dichotomous mismatching, again.

In contemporary circumstances, the conditions in which we are asking these questions is changing. The concept of ‘the artworld’ as the system that makes, sustains, or breaks reputations, is showing signs of age.9

Values in the exhibitionary complex

Values are not only a matter for individuals and things such as artworks, but also matter for groups, organisations and institutions. In modern times, several kinds of value have evolved within what (elaborating on the insights of sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Tony Bennett) we might call the ‘visual arts exhibitionary complex’ (VAEC).10  Think of the variety of places where works of art are exhibited in any given city. In the ex-imperial centres, they are anchored by museums such as the Met, the Louvre, or, in London, the National Gallery and the British Museum, ‘treasure boxes’ of art and artefacts, usually those captured by colonial extraction or more recent looting. The state galleries in Australia evolved from this model. Around these, an array of institution-based spaces may be found, along with commercial galleries, plus many kinds of not-for-profit contemporary art spaces and artist-run initiatives. In many societies, there is also a long history of public art produced by and for non-professionals interested in art. In recent decades, biennials have become so ubiquitous that they are as much part of the complex as bricks and mortar venues. Within the contemporary VAEC, all of these also have virtual presence, as does every artist’s personal website and social media feed.

The numbers and variety of these sites varies from city to city, reflecting national and regional histories and the relative situation of each place in today’s world. The fabled success of the historical art centers suggests for others elsewhere ways that they might build a local ‘critical mass’ of arts infrastructure—sufficient, it is hoped, to generate art of similar interest or, better, art that establishes its own terms of valuation. Everywhere there is a deep desire to display art that will make a difference to art itself, to its social situation, or to the world writ large. These, too, are values to be added to the list. Each exhibitionary space was established for a purpose or set of purposes important to its founders, each invests time and resources to pursue these goals. Some have centuries-long histories, others last for a few weeks. But each embodies values understood by those involved as, at once, powerfully generative in their own right and as important to share. Each insists on its unique, individual value, sharing much but also importantly distinct from its near and distant neighbours, while also claiming a more general validity. In this, each site parallels the character and the desires of the artworks that it exhibits, the exhibitions that it stages, and the program that it presents.

The trafficking of individuals and artworks, practices, and ideas between the venues or sites of the VAEC reveals a dense network driven by both by competition and supportive cooperation. VAECS are not the creatures of economic globalisation: they come from a longer history; they develop according to their own internecine logics; and, like art making itself, they will adapt to outlast the current increasingly fragile phase of capitalism.11 In places ravaged by colonisation, wars and climate crisis, they persist as fragments that enable art to be possible, with the hope that they will reconstitute themselves, however transformed, when circumstances permit.

If we step out to a broader view of how these exhibitionary sites go about their business, five clusters appear within the networks that bind and agitate the complex. 

We might ask: What kinds of exhibitionary value are generated within these clusters? What is distinctive within each? What do they export to elsewhere in the complex? Which kinds of value exchange occurs between them? 


The several sites clustered under the general heading of ‘museums’—most of them funded by states, governmental entities, or institutions such as universities—take long-term perspectives towards the preservation and renewal of shared social benefits (‘public goods’). Those who work in them are dedicated to the conservation of works of art in perpetuity; to the maintenance of items deemed important to cultural identity and heritage (of a region, nation, community, a people, a civilisation, or humankind); and to the constant work of teaching the living and those to come about the historical evolution of the art that has shaped their visual culture and that of other peoples. In recent decades, hybrid formats have become commonplace: for example, private collection museums are hybrids between public museums and personal collections; and art fairs are hybrids between commercial dealerships and biennials. The complex thrives by each part appropriating fresh ideas, effective people, and sustainable values from other parts.

Biennials are recurrent temporary exhibitions that occupy both museum and museum-like sites while also activating new and unusual ones throughout the cities in which they are staged. Their ubiquity since the 1990s has made them a core component of contemporary VAECs—at times, and in some places, its leading edge, at others (for example, documenta fifteen) exposing its most fragile fissures. They challenge, animate, and activate local VAECs by importing elements from VAECs elsewhere in the world. Along with travelling exhibitions originating in museums, art magazines, and mobile artists, curators, writers, dealers, and collectors, they are the primary medium of contemporary art’s internationalism. Since the 1990s, this circuitry has sought to break free from the hierarchies of metropolitan/provincial exchange, to become more globally and evenly dispersed than during the modern era. Biennials such as Venice and many in Asia remain closely tied to dealer support of particular artists, but biennials in general have been an important vehicle for artists from previous peripheral places to show work that addresses issues of both local and global concern. In these senses, biennials exhibit the world’s transnational transitionality, its incessant intermix of differentiation and connection, as expressed by those most sensitive to these conditions: contemporary artists, curators, and theorists.12 The challenge now is to pursue this goal in the depth it deserves, while skirting the easy attractions of populist identitarianism.

Since at least the 1960s, much of the most innovative art, curating, and thinking about art has occurred in the several kinds of independent art spaces that operate at the edges of local VAECs. To me, this vector remains the engine room for the constant self-transformation on which the entire system feeds. It is where artists, curators, critics, theorists, plus young arts administrators, band together to begin to find their ways forward. It values deinstitutionaliaation against institution formation, the art to come more than that already existent. These are places of origination and anticipation, of experimentation and growth. Of course, their values, and their personnel, are constantly incorporated into other nodes within the system, rejuvenating it. Yet fresh faces, and new values, quickly replace them.

What does this brief sketch of values vis-à-vis prices suggest? Prices might increase, stay steady, or simply not attract a sale. They usefully regulate one, essential but adjacent, kind of value: economic. As indicators of any other value, they are a rough guide indeed. A bigger picture shows that values of many other kinds mostly motivate artmaking, curating, and art writing of all kinds, even genuine collecting, while also inspiring those who administer art’s support structures. Values are vital to art’s generative multiplicity. 


Extracted from the paper introducing the panel ‘Art and value; The value of art’, a component of the 7th Annual Conference of The International Art Market Studies Association, devoted to Multiple art markets in an expanding world: Artists, agents, networks, exchange, to be held at The University of Melbourne, Australia, 10th –13th July, 2024. Other panelists will be Olav Velthuis, Professor at the Department of Sociology of the University of Amsterdam, and president of The International Art Market Studies Association; Michael Hutter, Professor Emeritus, WZB Berlin Social Science Center; Jeni Fulton, Art Basel, Zurich University of the Arts and Head of Editorial, and series editor for the Art Market Report and Survey of Global Collecting, co-published by Art Basel and UBS; Laura Johanna Noll, University of Zurich (HSG), Switzerland; Clarissa Ricci, Adjunct Professor, University of Bologna, editor of OBOE journal and Venezia Arti, Ca' Foscari University; and Ashley Lee Wong, Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. David Throsby, Distinguished Professor of Economics at Macquarie University, Sydney, will respond.

1. Tobias Meyer, quoted by Sarah Thornton in ‘Love and Money’, Artforum, ‘Seen & Heard’, May 11, 2006. At

2. Quick resale, especially of contemporary artworks, is well documented; the Art Basel and UBS Survey of Global Collecting in 2023 reports that 39% of ‘high net worth individuals’ turned their purchases around in three years and 83% regularly did so within five. Clare McAndrew, Art Basel and UBS Survey of Global Collecting in 2023 (Basel and Zurich: Art Basel and UBS, 2024), 16. 

3. Michael Hutter and Richard Shusterman, ‘Value and Valuation of Art in Economic and Aesthetic Theory’, in Handbook of the Aesthetics of Art and Culture, vol. 1, ed. Victor A. Ginsburg and David Throsby (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2006), 197-200.

4. Alois Reigl, ‘The Modern Cult of the Monument: Its Character and Its Origin’, [1903] trans. Kurt W. Forster and Diane Ghirardo, in Oppositions, no. 25 (Fall, 1982), 21-51. See also the essays in Michael Hutter and David Throsby eds., Beyond Price: Value in Culture, Economics, and the Arts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

5. Here, Walter Benjamin’s famous distinction between use and exhibition value is reversed. See my reflections in Thinking Contemporary Curating (New York: Independent Curators International,  2012), 21-22; chapter 2, especially 35-36.

6. Olav Velthuis, Talking Prices: Symbolic Meaning of Prices on the Market for Contemporary Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 4.

7. So, too, have been entanglements of art and money. See exhibitions such as Medieval Money, Merchants, and Morality, Morgan Library & Museum, New York, November 2023 to March 2024.

8. Hutter and Richard Shusterman, ‘Value and Valuation of Art in Economic and Aesthetic Theory’, 197.

9. The classic definitions, both based on New York in the 1960s, are Arthur Danto, ‘The Artworld’, Journal of Philosophy, vol. LXI (1964): 571-584, and Howard S. Becker, Artworlds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).

10. Pierre Bourdieu and Alan Darbel, The Love of Art: European Museums and Their Public [1969] (London: Polity Press, 1991); Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987); and Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum (London: Routledge, 1995).

11. A more detailed exposition of VAECs may be found in Terry Smith, Curating the Complex and The Open Strike (Berlin: Sternberg; and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021). I outline the Sydney VAEC in “The Australian Visual Arts Exhibitionary Complex,” in Australian Art Fields: Practices, Policies, Markets, ed Tony Bennett, Deborah Stevenson, Fred Myers, and Tamara Winikoff (London: Informa UK, 2020).

12. On the major currents in contemporary art and the distinct values generated within them, see Terry Smith, Art to come: Histories of Contemporary Art (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019).  On biennials, see, among many others, Charles Green and Anthony Gardner, Biennials, Triennials, and Documentas: The Exhibitions that created Contemporary Art (London: Wiley, 2016); Caroline A. Jones, The Global Work of Art: World’s Fairs, Biennials and the Aesthetics of Experience (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016); Panos Kompatsiaris, The Politics of Contemporary Art Biennials: Spectacle of Critique, Theory and Art (London: Routledge, 2017); and Rafal Niemojewski, Biennials: The Exhibitions we Love to Hate (London: Lind Humphries, 2021).


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