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How to Value Culture to measure the Value of Art – by Kieran Shep

To begin understanding how to measure or pinpoint the value of a work of art we must define what it is we are measuring. Although this task is almost impossible to complete adequately we can give it an honest try. There are two things we can agree upon. First off, if any object in our society is given a monetary value it makes the task of measuring so much easier because the greater the monetary number, the more expensive, and the more valuable. Note that this can be debated but the majority of value scales would agree on this result, therefore to measure the comparative value of anything, we’ll try our best to give it a number value.

Second of all, to be able to measure something we have to understand what it is, what are the components that make up the cost. However, understanding what is art or culture is not something we’re going to figure out today or ever. The mystery will always be there, but we can try and dissect what these mean as best as possible.

Let’s take the example of the Sistine Chapel which harbor’s Michelangelo’s fresco painting on the Sistine chapel ceiling. How do you measure and value this cultural landmark? Since the Sistine chapel is a building after all it must have some core real estate value, meaning the land it sits on has a price as according to real estate prices in Vatican City. Although, I’m pretty sure buying real estate in Vatican city is pretty rare, I don’t really know anybody who has sought out a villa in that part of the world. The point is there’s a core value to this building, just like your apartment or house has a real estate value. However, it doesn’t end here since the value of a Van Gogh really doesn’t depend on the cost of his time and materials like regular labor. So what else is involved?
Cultural value can be said is above or much more than the basic economic value of the Sistine Chapel. There is the art historical value where it represents a certain time period of history, where the architecture represents Medieval and Renaissance characteristics and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is a product of the Renaissance. This is valuing a memory, a cultural innovation and evidence of a progression of artistic ideas.

We want to keep this building alive today because we value its memory. Do we value the memory of our apartment? Probably- but maybe if it had a bigger meaning to more people than just ourselves, it would have greater value. This is why apartments get built, torn down, remodeled, without much concern for its time period unless of course its part of a historic district, then things get complicated. People value memory of an original idea. We could recreate Michelangelo’s ceiling, but that original hand at work is more valuable to preserve. Hence the importance attached to an original work compared to a carefully executed copy- we want those original emotional concerns, ecstasy, discovery, and problem solving the artist truly felt at the moment of production and not a faithful newer representation. It makes those ideas and emotions more real- we value reality.

This brings me to my next point of the importance of society establishing a common value due to cultural identity. Our current world is becoming more and more intermeshed with cultures crossing due to globalization and it becomes harder and harder to assign a clear identity to an art work- is it American, Italian, British…who knows. However, the Sistine Chapel has a great cultural identity with Italians as it was a clear Italian artistic creation in its time. It has a national cultural identity which people value. Culture gives people identity, and therefore this must be valued in turn. Then again to whom is it more valuable, to the Italians or to the whole world? It’s fair to say that today this would be considered a worldwide cultural identity because people care to a certain extent that it is available for everyone to see. It’s part of the world’s cultural history, not just Italians.

Then you might ask is how useful is it? It’s known that art can in fact be useless and not have a utility attached to it other than visual pleasure, the pleasure of creation, escape, or education. I’d argue that these are in fact useful attributes of art and maybe they can be measured. In the case of the Sistine Chapel, its use can vary from spiritual, to entertainment for travelers, and the housing and work space of the Pope and clergy (similar to your home.) So there is some useful value as well to consider.

Finally, we’ll talk about aesthetic value. Although this is hard to pinpoint, people can recognize the presence of aesthetic value in the judgment of emotion, senses, beauty (but not always), taste, and how it affects them. The Sistine Chapel has aesthetic value and Michelangelo’s fresco definitely has aesthetic value, but what about my apartment building? Someone created and built it so it does have some aesthetics to it, but I guess the difference between my apartment building and the Sistine chapel is some aesthetics are more meaningful and affect more people, it’s something that can be commonly felt and agreed upon.

These components can all be said to be part of the valuation of cultural items, which can help us see the different value characteristics of artworks. How to put a monetary term on each of these components will prove to be the difficult task, but at least we can start to dissect what we’re trying to look for.

About the Author
I’m Kieran Shep an art consultant based in Darien, CT. I write on art markets, art and cultural valuation, and art auctions. To view my blog please visit

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