One of the worlds largest international art fairs took place this week in Switzerland. Art Basel, as it is called, brings together artists, galleries, collectors and dealers for one show that highlights contemporary art from around the world. More specific information can be read here.
An article in the Huffington Post stated that sales for this year have been very good. It stated that these profits could be an indication that the art world is in an economic boom. A link to the full article can be read here.
As I was reading these articles I reflected on something that crosses my mind periodically. Why is art traded at such high prices? With the dollar amounts discussed in these articles, the art could be treated as an investment opportunity, rather than as a means of cultural expression.
When I taught art appreciation and art history, I used to tell my students that the monetary value of art was arrived at based on the one-of-a-kind uniqueness of each piece. I also explained that the name of an artist added a brand to the work, and often added to the price. While I think these statements are true, I believe they only answer part of the question.
That said, I'm not entirely certain what should be added to the answer. Part of me thinks that art is traded at high prices because people are willing to pay high prices. I do not like this line of thought however, because it would seem to add to the elitist attitudes so often associated with the art world.
Art is a form of communication meant to be expressed and interpreted by all. I have written about the barriers of the official "art world" before, and the thought that some art is worth obscene amounts of money adds to these divisions. These divisions distract viewers from the message communicated by the artist and reinforce works produced simply for the sake of making a profit.