Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Price of Everything

We subscribe to HBO ("Home Box Office") which for the uninitiated and for lack of a more sophisticated technical explanation is pay TV.  Recently we watched a documentary about the contemporary art world entitled "The Price of Everything". The title is an allusion to Oscar Wilde's quip in Lady Windemere's Fan where Lord Darlington says to Cecil Graham, a cynic is "a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing". Importantly it was one of Wilde's only two novels - The Picture of Dorian Gray - in which he promoted the theory of "art for art's sake".  Some caution must however be kept alive when responding to Wilde. He was after all the one who said, "Each man kills the thing he loves".  As provocative - and entertaining - as the assertions often are, they're not entirely reliable statements of fact.

Following is a commentary about the film I found on the internet:

With unprecedented access to pivotal artists and the white-hot market surrounding them, THE PRICE OF EVERYTHING dives deep into the contemporary art world, holding a mirror up to our values and our times — where everything can be bought and sold. THE PRICE OF EVERYTHING has set off a veritable tsunami of journalistic interest since its Sundance review last January — generating over 50 reviews, interviews and other commentary.

I too like nice things, some of which - by some standards - are expensive. I won't be so trite as to advance the thesis that cheap things can be nice too. In the vernacular of a Saturday-morning garage sale that may or may not be. Most of the good stuff I own is more on the dear end of calculation. This captures two themes. One, price is relative; what one person considers pricey may not be so for another. Two, I value my stuff; I really don't care what its more general market value may be. This by the way is not because I have some heightened moral quality - or that I suffer from that blind perception that saying "I like it" somehow adds to the commercial debate.  Rather it captures (if anything) my extraordinarily personal and selfish view of the world. This from a student of philosophy who actually questions whether "Cogito, Ergo Sum" effectively eliminates the odds that anyone else really exists. On a less acute level of scrutiny I have perhaps fortuitously always been satisfied with the limits of my own compass. I have thus succeeded to surmount the barriers of envy, comparison and difference - they're technically irrelevant. A very palpable rendition of this wisdom (if I may be permitted to ascribe to it such foresight) is the knowledge that Steve Jobs is dead.  If you miss the point, there is no purpose expanding upon it. I will crystallize my thought by saying that my future depends on me, fate and my capacity to appreciate a well-prepared meal.

Before letting go, I note that diminishing a $4-million price tag for a work of art is really no more astute than trivializing another's purchase for $400. Were it not for the mercantile contortions of the privileged class the value of art would never approach such distinction any more than a rose or a tree does. This is not to stop us from cherishing particular works of art. Whether the museum, art gallery or private collection is the more appropriate venue is another story, one which addresses not the value but the exposure.

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