by Jess Howard

My younger brother is 14, and with that is coming all manner of traditional 14 year old behaviours. Sulking, door slamming, wearing a can of Lynx per day, and spending eternity glued to his Xbox. In addition to this, he has also discovered the wonderful world of procrastinating on YouTube, and so we are being treated to a delightful array of narration on a daily basis.

During one particular conversation revolving around a group of people who seem to sit and chat rubbish for hours, with one relevant fact thrown in for good measure, he asked why the Mona Lisa was such a valuable painting. An interested and insightful question, but one we only arrived upon after he asked if Leonardo DiCaprio was around during the Renaissance period.

( Crowd at Mona Lisa section of Louvre © Wikimedia Commons )

The Mona Lisa, created by celebrated artist Leonardo da Vinci at the beginning of the 16th Century, is currently on display at the Louvre, a museum at the heart of Paris. I visited it as a teenager. When I entered the room in which the painting was hung, eager to peek above the throngs of visitors desperately trying to take a quick snap, I have to say I was a little underwhelmed.

Whilst its display may have changed since I visited, when I encountered the painting it had simply been hung on a wall behind a frame of glass – understandably, as any damage that were to come to the painting would cause a financial nightmare. I wasn’t exactly blown away by it, in my opinion there was nothing spectacular about it, and it was surprisingly small.

someone had to consider it to be art in order for it to be valuable

As the aforementioned conversation was batted around the dinner table, it was simply stated that someone had to consider it to be art in order for it to be valuable. As an art history student, it was a question regularly considered during a number of modules: is it technique or skill that determine a painting’s value? Its age? The practitioner? Or even the idea behind the painting itself?

At the time when such historical and famous paintings were being painted, they were often produced as the result of specific commissions. Artists would be paid and charged with producing a certain artwork, be it for decoration, celebration, or any other purpose, and it would subsequently be produced either by a single artist or an artist and his or her staff. Whilst quality, skill, and age may increase the value of a painting, for the most part, it has traditionally been a simple business transaction that incited a piece’s production in the first place.

( Tracey Emin’s My Bed © Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA )

Whilst this is also true for the modern art world, money, and business can now be seen to increase the value of a piece of art after it has been produced. I’ve written an article previously featuring Tracey Emin’s infamous My Bed, a display of the artist’s raw honesty that sees used condoms, alcohol, and cigarette butts placed in the gallery space to showcase her life as a woman living in the late nineties, and one that was nominated for the Turner prize in 1999. After causing a media uproar, the installation was purchased for £150,000 by Charles Saatchi, an art dealer renowned for his desire to alter the general public’s perception of what constitutes art. Since then, the piece has increased in value and was auctioned at Christie’s and sold for £2.4 million. I believe it is fair to suggest that the piece would not have achieved such notoriety had it not been purchased by Saatchi.

And so, as much as my naive art student mind believed when I fist started my degree in 2011, it is not always the painting itself that earns so much value and attention. Whilst it is a deliciously romantic idea that business and the arts can live completely separate lives, the arts has always, and undoubtedly – perhaps unfortunately – will always, owe its value and success to the financial world.

Featured image via The Independent

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