An Object of Value

Tissot “La Mondaine”

I flew across country and back last week for a conference, which afforded me the time to read a novel, something I don’t often get to do in the middle of a semester. I chose Steve Martin’s “An Object of Beauty.”  Early on, the narrator describes the transformation undergone by Lacey, the anti-heroine protagonist of the story.  Newly employed by Sotheby’s, she starts to develop a “calculus of worth:”

When Lacey began these computations, her toe crossed ground from which it is difficult to return: she started converting objects of beauty into objects of value.

Later in the book, the narrator describes the impact of one fictional collector’s purchase:

The paintings, in retrospect, weren’t that good, but when Hinton Alberg bought them out, they suddenly became good.  The theory of relativity certainly applies to art: just as gravity distorts space, an important collector distorts aesthetics.  The difference is that gravity distorts space eternally, and a collector distorts aesthetics for only a few years.

At the center of the novel, at least for this reader, is the moral ambiguity around commodifying things of beauty, of putting a price tag on art.  In Lacey’s world, there is a positive correlation between auction value and aesthetic value.  Not so for the narrator, Daniel Franks, who earns high praise for writing a piece for ArtNews that doesn’t mention money.

There is a lot of good material available about this issue, from scholarly publications like The Journal of Cultural Economics to novels by an erudite movie star/playwright/collector and I’m admittedly not as well-versed on this topic as I would like to be.  But, like the narrator of “An Object of Beauty,” I remain decidedly skeptical about assuming that high-priced art is good or that really good, innovative art will find a place in the market.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is director of Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Programs at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, including its award-winning arts entrepreneurship program, Pave: The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of ASU. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix and "like" the Pave Program in Arts Entrepreneurship at Find Pave's journal, Artivate, at
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