A Miami based contemporary art newsletter / blog

Objects of Value at Miami Art Museum

Mike Bidlo Not Robert Rauschenberg: Erased de Kooning Drawing, 2005. Traces of graphite on paper, mat and label in gold leaf frame. 22-3/8 x 20-7/8 inches. Courtesy of Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, New York.

By David Rohn

The show ‘Objects of Value’ opened at Miami Art Museum (MAM) just before the Art Basel Miami Beach 2008, right about the same time that the US government announced that it’s economy had been in recession since December ‘07, and also right about the time that gas prices, after doubling over a year or so, had gone down again by as much over a three month period. Houses too, whose value after doubling over a three year period had depreciated so much that people were literally walking away from what was once the basic measure of personal wealth in the US. Objects of Value is by comparison ‘only an art exhibit’, but one that is as much about the fundamental concepts of value in economic terms as well as those related specifically to art. One of the few things that people nowadays can be counted on to know about Contemporary Art, is that it is expensive; though maybe not as expensive as it was.

Felix Gonzalez –Torres Untitled (Portrait of Dad), 1991. White candies individually wrapped in cellophane, endless supply. Dimensions variable (Ideal weight 175 lbs). Collection of Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz, Courtesy of the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York

Curated by MAM’s Associate Curator Rene Morales, the show is timely and thoughtful if not as momentous as its subject matter today when virtually all forms of ‘assets’ seem to be worth substantially less than they were just a year ago. It covers a current moment in art that is about objects that are valuable because of the materials they are made of– ones that are valuable because of a perceived cultural significance, and even things that have only personal value that might, at least originally, only be of value to the person who created them. In a general way the exhibition covers a lot of territory related to ‘value’ in the area of commodities, human labor and objects that have defined value such as silver spoons, diamonds, candy, platinum and theories about what defines our comprehension of value. On the one hand you have ‘classical’ views, which are exemplified by the ideas of Karl Marx and Adam Smith: that an objects value could be considered as the equivalent of the labor and production materials; on the other you have the ‘neo-classical’ conception of value, which is simply based up on whatever a free and open market attaches to any object.

These two theories are followed by an interesting mention of a turn-of –the-century German sociologist who felt that value was largely affected by the desire for symbolic measures of value that may or may not be perceived as having intrinsic worth beyond the social values attached to them. This definition may explain the excitement of paying around $20,000 for Hermes handbags or $17 million for an Andy Warhol.

Josiah McElheny Church Service for Poor People, 1998.Silver blown glass, text, display, wood. 44 x 71 x 18 inches. Collection of Mr. & Mrs. Walter Frank, Courtesy of Donald Young Gallery, Chicago and Michael E. Thomas, Inc., Dallas.

Touching a lot of bases the show’s playful and paradoxical objects seem to reinforce a general ingredient of old fashioned human irrationality. The newly made but old looking poor people’s church accessories imitations in glass by Josiah McElheny are a case in point– never made to be what they appeared to be (ie: glass pretending to be silver) they are now copies of antique originals which tempt us to value them for being old (which they’re not) and for looking old (still not(?)) and finally for being art that references poverty, fragility and survival, and folklore (does any of this work for you?).

Alfredo Jaar, Gold in the morning,1986-2004. Lightbox with chromogenic transparency. 72 x 48 x 3 inches. Ed. 1/3. Collection: Miami Art Museum, promised gift of Charles Cowles.

Simon Starling, One Ton II, 2005 (detail). 5 platinum/palladium prints. 33-1/2 x 25 inches. Rennie Collection Vancouver, Courtesy of the Modern Institute / Toby Webster LTD., Glasgow.

Photo’s of scantily-clad, fetchingly muscular, but distressingly un-cared –for miners in Alfredo Jaar’s ‘Gold in the morning’ questions the value of human labor, the land, raw materials, and colonization. In the vein of raw material and earth-exploitation Simon Starling’s platinum/palladium photo prints of platinum mines dramatically demonstrate the amount of platinum that is yielded from gigantic, hideous holes in the ground. A paradoxical coda to this example of environmental carelessness being that the primary use of platinum is catalytic converters, a device which boasts the reduction toxic emissions from automobiles by 90%. The question ‘Is it worth it?’ becomes all the more complex!

Wilfredo Prieto One, 2008. Crystal diamonds, one real diamond. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Galería Nogueras Blanchard, Barcelona.

The piece called ‘One’ by Wilfredo Prieto is a clean presentation of the idea of an authentic object buried somewhere in a pile of its imitations so that the chore of trying to distinguish where the ‘real’ value is seems like a futile exercise. The show also includes a Mark Bidlo copy of one of Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Erased Willem De Koonig Drawings’ from the late ‘60’s (pictured top). Bidlo is famous for using assistants to make copies of famously expensive art to test the idea of the unique and priceless object (in this case Rauschenberg-erased drawings by expensive contemporaries like de Koonig) to confound art investors. The investors won and Rauschenberg’s erased drawings became icons worthy of being copied and sold by Mark Bidlo. Is it worth wondering what a Mark Bidlo like this is worth? (In the context of comparable works by other artists of course, but not DeKoonig or Rauschenberg obviously.)

Taking ‘art about value’ as its point of departure the show begs the question “what is the real value of art?” Is art now simply an investment instrument recognized purely for its monetary value or is it in fact something so meaningful that it transcends money? The answer as ever remains elusive. Currently it would be hard to persuade anyone who has witnessed art prices rising over the last few years that the art market is any more sustainable than real estate or commodities markets (both of which have incidentally suffered dramatically in the last year). The opportunity to appreciate art objects within in the context of value (at this exhibition and others) is not interesting just because in time it is what they have become, but because (at least traditionally) it was not what they were intended to be.

In a recent essay titled ‘Art Values or Money Values’, Donald Kuspit said: “Art has never been independent of money, but now it has become a dependency of money. Consciousness of money is all-pervasive. It informs art — virtually everything in capitalist society — the way Absolute Spirit once did, as Hegel thought. Money has always invested in art, as though admiring, even worshiping, what it respected as its superior — the true treasure of civilization — but today money’s hyper-investment in art, implicitly an attempt to overwhelm it, to force it to surrender its supposedly higher values, strongly suggests that money regards itself as superior to art.”

A pertinent example of this stance would have to be Damien Hirst’s ‘Skull’- the greatest piece of ‘bling’ ever made and, by the artists own account, “the most expensive piece of contemporary art.”(1)

Of  the predominant economic theories on value mentioned by Curator Rene Morales, the only one that can explain the changes in value we’ve recently experienced, and which responds to the contemporary perceptions of value based on promotion, status, or anticipation of a further increase in value, would have to be that of late 19th century Sociologist Georg Simmel, who held  that money had become “a symbol and an instrument” for “the increasingly abstract nature of human relations” whereby “we lose ourselves” (in the objects we value). The “abstract nature of human relations” (and perceptions), suggests a general (but maybe sufficient) explanation of why we can ‘lose ourselves’ in the things we value. This idea explains the famous Dutch Tulip Bulb Market Bubble of the early 1600′s (2), and presumably other value bubbles that have been blown up and burst since.

Art may have always served propaganda purposes, but it has also always been used as an instrument of investment. Value in times past was confined to older art that had acquired a consensual value because of the effect it had become famous for having upon people, or for some pivotal importance to the subsequent directions in art history that the passage of time had confirmed. In this deflationary moment, however, the theory that defines value as ‘whatever someone is willing to pay for it’ appears to be a kind of definition of temporary value. Does that mean then that the other definition related to labor and materials is more related to a concept of ‘fundamental value’?

In the end it would seem that popularity contests of High School don’t end as adulthood begins. There is another powerful appreciation for value based on acquiring objects of value—whether clothes, cars, or ornaments like art—that add to one’s popularity in whatever group one happens to belong to (or wish to belong to), which could easily translate into owning work by Romero Britto, Damien Hirst, or a convicted serial killer. Whatever defines value at any given moment—be it oil futures contracts, real estate or contemporary art prices—does appear to be in a period of transition and reevaluation. That fact above all else makes a glimpse at value systems as provided by Objects of Value at MAM worthwhile, even if only for a fleeting moment [.]


1. The facts around Hirst’s market are so ‘discussed’ that its not clear whether this piece was sold, bought by the artist himself from himself (in part or as a whole), or whether nobody wants the thing. Hirst’s work made headlines again when he sponsored his own auction for a kind of ‘Initial Public Offering’ (IPO) type sale of many of his newest works. The buzz around the sale was about the money and how much behind the scenes manipulation was involved in the [ultra successful] sale. One critic had described the diamond skull by saying that “the price tag is the art”. So nobody was surprised when the only critical discussion around Hirst’s work was about its marketing- as such this piece sort of becomes the art world equivalent of Paris Hilton, who has been described as being famous for being famous. One is left to assume that the artist and his collectors are as comfortable with this as Paris Hilton and her public are with the system of value involved there.

2. One of the most famous market bubbles of all time, which occurred in Holland during the early 1600s when speculation drove the value of tulip bulbs to extremes. At the height of the market, the rarest tulip bulbs traded for as much as six times the average person’s annual salary. The tulip was brought to Europe in the middle of the sixteenth century from the Ottoman Empire. Holland’s upper classes soon competed for the rarest bulbs as tulips became a status symbol. By 1636, tulip bulbs were traded on the stock exchanges of numerous Dutch towns and cities, encouraging all members of society to speculate in the markets. Many people traded or sold possessions to participate in the tulip market mania. Like any bubble, it all came to an end in 1637, when prices dropped and panic selling began. Bulbs were soon trading at a fraction of what they once had, leaving many people in financial ruin. From Investopedia;


1 Comment

  • Richard Haden

    In addition to your interesting and articulate article…I add other thoughts of value.

    The value of substance or the value of the material, in sculpture…traditionally has had its quality and value measured by the material the thing is made from. For instance silver trophies are less valuable than gold ones…value of the material is assigned by the archival quality of its material. For instance bronze last longer than wood for use in an outdoor producing a public monument–(representing a historical figure, for instance, is preferred to seem timeless like the robber baren legends that the monument defends).(You may remember Thomas Hirschhorn does the opposite with his instant street monuments to great philosophers such as Spinoza) The monetary value of the archival material has historically been a result of market forces that scarcity dictates…on top of market value is the perceived value. For instance bronzes patina has a essence or a feel different than wood. There are other issues going on with certain materials that are best seen as an unconscious attraction. Such a perception might be understood from the meaning of an old theory quoted below:

    Phlogiston theory: that posited the existence of, in addition to the classical four elements of the Greeks, an additional fire-like element called “phlogiston” that was contained within combustible bodies, and released during combustion. The theory was an attempt to explain oxidation processes such as combustion and the rusting of metals.

    This outdated way of thinking can still be seen in the appreciation of the way metal rust or patinas change. Anyway. all this means is that our abilities to perceive essence quality is another way to hierarchically arrange substance value. And of course with the invention of so many high tech materials, the archival necessity can be rendered in more than just tradition…As resins and other urethane related products last just as long indoors. Another reference is “Essentialism” by way of the entity…

    Of course there other substance issues that effect quality as when you alluded to Marx’s bit about labor value…the value of wood for instance is less than marble because wood has traditionally been used as something you make the macquet or model out of…the value of wood is thought to be temporary, therefor cheeper than marble.

    A humorous thing about Hirst’s diamond scull or Mark Quinns Golden “Kate Moss” sculpture is that if the market value burst the over inflated hype bubble their will still be a enormous value for the Gold or diamonds. So not really the worst investment in these turbulent times, huh. Gold is always going to have commercial value for the electronics industry and….well? Diamonds are a girls best friend…yesterday.

    2. Another way to look at value is Saussure’s Value…or from a semiotic perspective. Value is the sign as it is qualified by the other signs of a semiotic system., for example, the content of a sign is measured not by its internal content but by what swims around it…these signs or art objects have their assigned values because they exist in contrast to one another. If any number of the things disappeared, then the remaining sign/art object would take on their roles, become less defined, less articulated, and lose that extra uniqueness because it would have nothing to compare itself to…hence what the commercialization of art in North America is showing us. Art that is made to compete in an art market based on luxury appeal and price value over all else contributes to the dissolution of its own base…the art becomes the solvent of critical value.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Objects of Value at Miami Art Museum