The value of art: scarcity over merit

An interesting article from the Guardian: Britain’s photographic revolution

It reports that the big art institutions in Britain are finally embracing photography as a legitimate art form. It discusses how America embraced photography so enthusiastically in the mid 20th century with the social and economic reasons why. It also cites examples of private London galleries having held photography exhibitions for several years and that the ‘big guns’, like the Tate, are only now catching up with contemporary art photography.

The article also touches on the value of art photography and how sale prices have risen, citing this as evidence that photography is now being taken seriously. This makes me sad.

My despondency with the art world is that it is, at the end of the day, driven by money and therefore in turn, people base their opinions on art on how much it cost rather than if they actually like it. Much like Sir Humphrey Appleby on Trident: “it costs £15 billion therefore it must be good”.

I think there is also the fundamental, and related, problem that people try to treat photographs in the same manner as “one-off” pieces of artwork, ie value through scarcity. I do understand that one of the basic principles of economics is that rarity brings value, but I think this should have no place in art. This issue is increasingly relevant with digital media, where there is not even a single original piece of film and hand made prints could be viewed as individually unique. The whole concept of having limited edition prints is ridiculous. The practice is in place purely to artificially inflate the price tag. Why can a photograph, or should I say, an image, not have a value based on it’s own artistic merit, rather than it’s scarcity? Sorry, I forget, the art world is concerned with money not art.

Interestingly the article goes on to comment that Britain has caught up with photography just at the moment that the very nature of photography is undergoing a major revolution, driven by digital culture.

I will round off with wise words from Brett Rogers, director of the Photographers’ Gallery: “People engage with photography in every aspect of their lives. Photography has become a very natural, even compulsive thing with the coming of the mobile phone camera and relatively cheap, hi-tech digital compacts. The democratisation of photography and distribution of photos via social networks has changed everything, and we, as curators, cannot simply stand back and ignore that.”

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