What do we value?

All art is an artist’s attempt to share their consciousness with others...

Is it, though? Or, rather, is that why we consume and value art? This quote is from a brilliant Medium piece I've been thinking about the last few days.

Is the reason we consume art because we value the intention behind it? Put another way, is it about the agency of the creator? Is it about the viewers? Or, once let out into the world, does art take on something separate from either?

Consider how recently European art broke free from dogmatic classicism and realism. And how many such works are still counted among the masterpieces. I think it's a bit problematic to be so definitive about subjective perspective.

From the same piece:

The Mona Lisa has become the Mona Lisa because of the legendary stories that have accumulated around that rather “unremarkable” little portrait. The Mona Lisa cannot be assessed as a painting anymore. It is inextricably linked to value, by the international idolisation of Leonardo Da Vinci to the status of a demigod, by Napoleon’s secretion of the painting into his bedroom, by the infamous thefts which transformed her into an icon of France, by its successful concealment through the resistance from the Nazis during the Second World War, by its transatlantic journey from Paris to New York in an hermetically sealed box...

I don't think I've ever had a conversation about the Mona Lisa that touched on its artistic qualities. Or even the feeling it conjures. Rather, it seems like a binary. An event. A necessary pilgrimage. Have you seen it or not? Rather than whether you love it and why. The painting has taken on so much more than the conscious of its creator. The brushstrokes themselves almost irrelevant.

I'm also reminded of seeing Starry Night a few years ago in MoMA. The room was absolutely packed. People lined up to take selfies with an image they'd seen plastered on bags and postcards. But how many know Vincent van Gogh painted it while in an asylum? That he painted it in between breakdowns, through the bars in the window?

Is it the wonderful exaggerations, the possible product of visions, that we are grasping at? Is it the galaxy or the cypress trees? Or is it all the context that has built up in the intervening years?

Vincent van Gogh seems to be particularly suited to a world where textual analysis rules. The hundreds of surviving letters between the van Gogh brothers and others are a peerless treasure for those wishing to grasp the consciousness of the creator. But how many have read them? I didn't. I haven't.

This all may seem academic, but it would necessarily shape the kind of art being produced even now. Some artists, famously, evolve significantly throughout their careers, picking up new styles and mediums. But if the value of art is something outside the artists then many are likely to be trapped by expectation. Their work only valued if they embrace the context that has surrounded their work.

(My emphasis)