September 28, 2005

Recognizing the value of “perceived value”

Filed under: Art and About Changing the World — admin @ 3:51 pm

I am always fascinated by the concept of “perceived value” when it comes to the arts. There is a pecking order which categorizes creative output as either highly valued or undervalued.

Sometimes value is based on the amount of money something is worth. A painting by Picasso, for example, is generally regarded as something worth a lot of money.

Sometimes value is merely emotional or sentimental, like tourist art, which costs more to frame than the inherent value of the piece itself. But if you could measure the heart palpitations of the owner of the tourist art, the dollar to heartbeat ratio might easily be equal.

Some financial value determinations seem to have to due with the substratum of the artwork. Newspaper is cheap and easy birdcage liner. Most of the writing informs or amuses the reader for a brief moment and then it is forgotten. Newspapers and their content have very little perceived value.

Film historians are panicking because the celluloid (an expensive medium) on which many early films were captured is disintegrating. Some of those films are classics, and many are not, but film has a high perceived value so a tremendous amount of money is spent to preserve it.

It works for performing arts too. For instance, I know I have moaned when a favorite rock group is demoted from a prestigious venue on its last tour to a second-rate facility on its current tour. My perception is that the group must have fallen from public grace a notch. Their perceived value has declined, even though they are likely playing the same music they always have.

Trying to interpret financial perceived value is merely a curious exercise for me. But the hypocrisy and discrepancy in evaluating sentimental value can get me pretty riled up. There have been a couple of offenses recently in my life.

The first was a personal infraction. I am creating a family art gallery in the bedroom wing of our home. To get in, the artist has to share blood with one of us. It is our family way of honoring the creative heritage of some ancestors who are no longer with us, some who live too far away to see all the time, and some up and coming creative contributors to the family line.

One day when I was collecting data to learn about the history of a quilt, one family member said, “Oh, that was just a kids quilt thrown together.” Now what does that mean? Is this piece being undervalued because it is a children’s quilt? Or because it was “thrown together” without needless hours of toil? As art, there was a discrepancy between our perceived value of this piece.

The second infraction was more general, but just as disturbing. A talented and sophisticated designer with her own show on HGTV framed a piece of children’s art for the room she was decorating. She commented that with the frame, “ordinary kids art can become a museum-quality art piece.”

There are a lot of problems with this statement, but the only one I am going to dissect is the use of the word “ordinary.” She could mean “ordinary” in terms of the piece being “common,” or “run-of-the-mill.” I know a lot of people see kids art this way. A canvas smeared with paint has more perceived value than a piece of construction paper with finger paints on it. For many of us, the finger-paint piece is automatically relegated to the refrigerator and we install spot lighting to showcase the canvas above the mantle. Which one is true art and which one is a mess? Sometimes the difference is negligible, but the “ordinary” construction paper masterpiece is worth no more display effort than lifting a magnate on the refrigerator.

“Ordinary” could also mean that there is such a prodigious output of kids’ art that finding some in a house with children is not an unusual or extraordinary thing to do. People with kids do often find themselves surrounded by original artwork. I was struck by something one father said to my son’s preschool teacher when he picked up his kids and was handed a stack of paintings. “Look at all these paintings. This stuff is so special that we put it in a box in the garage. How can we throw it away?” Examine that statement. Is putting his kids’ art in a box in the garage really any different from throwing it away? That attitude makes the refrigerator look like the Louvre.

I have a soft spot for kids art because it is always so fanciful and colorful, two qualities I admire. I also find it anything but ordinary because for most of us, the prolific art years taper off as we grow and by the time we hit middle school age, we have a hard time filling that box in the garage.

I think the output of visual artwork from children during a finite period in their lives is extraordinary. It will only be ordinary when I can walk into 45-year-old Bob’s house or 77-year-old Mary’s apartment and see their daily artwork up on the refrigerator.