Why Is Art So Expensive?

In the following, I don’t intend on providing concrete answers to the question of, “Why is art so expensive?” Instead, I’m using this as a personal interrogation to better understand my own viewing towards art and its perceived value as a way to create discussion and collectively address the question. At the end, I’m going to ask you that same question, and I want to hear from you why you think art is so expensive.

This question comes up all of the time, and rightfully so. We see a painting, sculpture, drawing, or whatever it may be, then we see the price tag attached to it, and we’re most often baffled by what we see. How could this thing cost so much?

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably thought the same thing. Why is art so expensive?

I used to ask this question all of the time, especially when I was much younger, in my middle school and high school days. Now, I never find myself asking this question. Instead, I find myself inquiring why the price of most art isn’t higher.

My first response to this generalized question is, it’s not. Most art is not expensive. If you’re looking at cars, and you only looked at Ferraris or Lamborghinis, then you’d assume that all cars are expensive, but we know that’s not the case. If we were to only look at the price of buying different mansions, we’d assume all houses are expensive. If we were to only look at the prices of Hans J. Wegner’s Oculus Chair, the Eames Lounge, and chair alike, we’d assume all chair are expensive.

That is how we look at art. We look at only the high end work and appropriate their price tags across the entire market when that’s not actually the case. The question of “Why is art so expensive” is inherently generalized and not entirely appropriate.

Language is important, and by understanding the way we use it we can ask better questions which yield better, more interesting, and deeper answers. Instead of asking “Why is art so expensive,” perhaps we could be asking questions like: What enables art to be valued so highly? Is top-tiered art over-valued? Is it under-valued? What role does art play in relation the overall consumer market? How might art or society differ if the perceived or acceptable value of art were higher or lower?

At a later date, I intend on tackling that last question, but as you can see, all of these questions are much more interesting than “why is art so expensive.” For the sake of argument, we’ll continue to discuss this biased and generalized question that we started with.

Besides the fact that we tend to focus purely on the higher market art that is expensive and forget about the plethora of low-cost and severely undervalued artwork that exists, I’d suggest we focus on the intangible qualities of art to help us gain a better understanding of its price tag.

Perhaps art costs so much because it’s the closest thing to the manifestation of mystery or magic which we can hang on our walls or put in our houses. There’s an inherent caution to the unknown just as there is a fascination to it. This is what I believe creates polarization in regard to art. Most people don’t understand it and avoid it entirely, some don’t fully understand it but enjoy it, and a smaller amount embrace their fear and fascination head on as they live and breathe it. Polarized perception of anything most often leads to a polarization within the market place as well. When people or interests are pushed to the edges, prices have no where to go but up.

“They don’t want your art, they want why you create that art.” —Noah Elias

Art contains an infinite amount of story and interpretation. It possesses the ability to become incredibly personal, just as it has the ability to become the inverse—someone else’s story. Why do we read books? Why do we watch movies? Why do we remember events? Why do we tell jokes? Why do we tell stories? Why do we love listening to stories? I’m not going to answer these questions for you. I want you to seriously ponder them for yourself.

Art is all about story, and I would argue that art in a visual sense is one of the most dynamic stories that exists. Are and your experience with art is a series of choices, and as the viewer you are in a way defining the experience and the story yourself. In the beginning, artists can hold your hand and walk you through the story. As you become more and more comfortable with art, you can add to that story. When there’s no one there to share their story with you, you’re forced to tell the story yourself. Art inherently forces us to be imaginative and innovative with our thinking. Art inherently forces us to be reflective.

Art is a status symbol. Art is an icon of power. Art is story. Art is therapy. Art is comfort. Art transcends any definition of itself. This is why art is so expensive. I want to hear from you, why do you think art is so expensive?