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Should beauty have a price tag (and if so, how much)?

August 28, 2010

There’s a short article in the New York Times today that discusses the monetary value of original artworks. The authors are responding to the rather recent, and seemingly scandalous, trend of paying millions of dollars for original pieces of art (for instance, a Picasso painting went for $106.5 million recently). One of them asks, “Why is paying $100 million for an ugly downtown office building acceptable, while the same sum paid for an object of enduring beauty is a scandal? I rather find reassurance in the idea that in at least some of its forms, beauty can be a traded — and sublimely expensive — commodity.” He also makes the distinction between original pieces of visual art such as paintings and other more easily reproduces pieces of art such as novels, music, and dance, that can be enjoyed in cheaper forms (such as cheap paperbacks and recorded versions). But reproducing an image of a painting is trickier. The details often get lost, the size forgotten, and the overall mood interrupted. For this reason, owning pieces of visual art is important if the viewer is going to appreciate their true beauty. And, as art-buying trends suggest, that often comes with a hefty price tag.

So my question is this: As Christians, can we justify spending that much money on a single piece of art? Can we really think of beauty as a high dollar commodity? If so, is there any upward limit? And can this expense be tied to any spiritual significance?

Two illustrations come to mind when I think about these things:

  1. During the medieval and Renaissance periods, high dollar pigments were used in paintings to denote someone or something special or religiously significant. In particular, lapis lazuli/ultramarine blue was often used for the Virgin Mary, while cheaper blue pigments were substituted elsewhere. The use of the expensive and beautiful pigment for the Virgin was a way for the artist and patrons to show their reverence for the holy figure, and so the artist’s use of the pigment was a religious as well as an artistic endeavor. Here, money is tied to beauty, and furthermore, tied to a denotation of the holy. [1]
  2. Gothic church building is another example of an extravagant use of materials and monetary assets to reveal beauty and religious significance. Abbot Suger writes in regard to Gothic architecture that expensive things such as elaborate candlesticks or altars can actually help you think about spiritual things that are beyond expense. Furthermore, these things that “house” the divine should be costly because that is the only way we can connote the presence of the divine. [2]

Obviously beauty and expense can be very much tied up in one another, and often the expense is tied to the spiritual significance of the piece of art. But I don’t think they have to be. The beauty of an object doesn’t necessarily change if the price goes down or if cheaper materials are used. Often those things that have the least monetary value are more beautiful than those things that are extremely costly (and often absurd as a result). But on the other hand, the monetary value attached to a work of art can help us remember the important role art plays in our society, spiritual or otherwise. That being said, as long as art doesn’t become only a pass time for the rich, it seems like it might be well worth the expense.


[1] A good discussion of this can be found in Spike Bucklow’s, The Alchemy of Paint: Art, Science and Secrets from the Middle Ages.

[2] See Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church at St. Denis and its Art Treasures.

Photo credits:

[1] wikipedia.com

[2] http://www.detroitmona.com/mona_pop-up_museum.htm

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink*
    August 29, 2010 8:16 am

    Thanks for this post Jenn. I like the quote from the article because it makes me reflect on why I value the things that I do. But I wonder to what extant beauty really is the commodity that is traded when a work by Picasso is sold at an auction. I imagine that there are a lot of other factors that drive the price of a Picasso painting up, such as its being made by Picasso.

    Still, you raise a good point about how much we are willing to pay for beauty. I don’t know many people who pay a lot of money for beautiful things. But I suppose the question one would ask if they were considering purchasing something beautiful is, “why?” Why should we purchase beautiful objects for our homes, churches, work places, etc? It occurs to me that the two examples you mention have very clear reasons why they use costly beautiful materials. But I am not confident that those reasons would go over very well in many places today. What do you think? Why should people buy beautiful things?

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