‘Art is useless.’
You can’t really argue with this statement. The truth is that in the majority of cases art has no practical function at all, unlike a knife and fork. Art is intended to appeal to our senses, our emotions, thoughts and ideas. We could live our lives without art, but who would design our clothes, cars, buildings, shoes, toys, wallpaper and furniture etc. Imagine being in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican looking up and seeing a bland white ceiling, rather than being awe-struck by Michelangelo’s sublime masterpiece. Imagine a world without Edvard Munch’s The Scream, any painting by Claude Monet, Rembrandt, Titian, Picasso, JMW Turner and Kandinsky to mention but a few. Art reflects and explores human emotions, feelings, actions our creativity and imagination and in many ways determines our visual culture. It would certainly be a dreary old world if art, in it’s many forms, did not exist.
‘It’s not worth it’
Cézanne’s painting of The Card Players was bought by the Royal Family of Qatar in 2011 for $250m and Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi sold for $450m in 2017. But let’s look at another painting to perhaps explain why art works can command such ludicrous amounts of money. In 1990 Vincent van Gogh’s painting Portrait of Dr Gachet was sold for £44,378,696 ($75m), enough to build a small hospital or five or six schools. Some argued at the time that it was an obscene amount of money to pay for the work of a man mad enough to cut off his ear. If it sold today it would probably fetch three or four times that amount. Why? Firstly, the painting has no intrinsic value at all, other than the value of the canvas and paint, which is worth very little. It is only worth what someone will pay for it and someone thought it was worth millions.
So why did this person value the painting so highly? Simply because they were buying a unique piece of history. Van Gogh had created the work, touched it, felt it and expelled a great deal of emotion during its creation. From Van Gogh’s letters we know how he was feeling when he painted the picture, we know his innermost thoughts, his desperate plight and his continuous despair at his poverty and mental illness. Yet here was a man who could express his emotions through colour and paint like few others in the history of painting. When we stand in front of a Van Gogh painting we see Van Gogh himself, laid bare like a gossamer spider’s web, teetering on the edge of destruction, vulnerable to the slightest breeze. Like all great painters he can, through the medium of paint, show us the soul of humanity, it’s vulnerabilities, flaws and its assets.