Subjective Artistic Value



By Troy

There is a popular legend about Pablo Picasso doing a quick sketch in public for a fan. There are variations on the story – from him drawing on a napkin at a café to him doing a quick one-line drawing portrait of the fan – but the details don’t really matter. What matters is that after a few seconds’ work, Picasso demands several thousand dollars for the sketch, which outrages the fan.

“But you only took a few seconds to sketch it.”

“No,” Picasso replied, “It took me forty years.”

The implication here is that Picasso’s work is valuable not because of the time put into it at the moment of creation, but because of the lifetime of work he put into it. But both claims are complete nonsense.

How many artists have been artists for forty or more years, but cannot command several thousands – let alone millions – of dollars? More, Picasso himself had not been an artist for forty years before he could command such prices for his works. The idea that the amount of work one puts into a work of art – whether it be the literal work for that literal work of art or the lifetime of work that allowed one to do it more quickly, efficiently, proficiently, etc. – is what determines its value stems from the labor theory of value.

Indeed, both the fan and Picasso were using the labor theory of value in determining the value of the work Picasso made. The fan mistakenly thought that a work that took a short period of time to make was worth less than a work that took a long time to make. Picasso mistakenly thought that it was his lifetime of experience leading him to be able to make a work in a few short seconds was what gave the newly created work value. Both were wrong. Picasso could command several thousands of dollars for a quickly drafted work because he was Picasso, and there were plenty of people out there who would pay several thousands of dollars for the new work, even if the fan was not willing to do so.

In other words, there were people whose subjective valuations of Picasso’s works, no matter how long they took, would result in their bidding up those works into the thousands of dollars. In the meantime, there were plenty of other artists around who had been working just as long and hard as Picasso – who may have even been just as talented – but whose works were not valued by the marketplace nearly as much as were Picasso’s. Had Picasso’s fan asked one of them to do a sketch, the price would have probably been within his or her range.

If we want further evidence of how much nonsense the labor theory of value makes in relation to the arts, consider the fact that William Faulkner’s most famous novel, The Sound and the Fury, was his third novel. He wrote twenty. Some of those later novels were, indeed, great novels. But some were not. Is Flags in the Dust worth more than The Sound and the Fury because he had over forty years’ experience between the two novels? How many of you had even known he had written the latter novel?

The amount of time, the amount of work, the amount of materials put into a work do not determine its value. Value is determined by the subjective valuations of consumers of art – or consumers of anything, for that matter. If Picasso had not been Picasso, it would have been ridiculous for the artist to have demanded so much for a work that no other would value so much. But this insight only makes sense when you understand that value is not objective, that value is not determined by labor, but rather than value is always subjectively determined.

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