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Here are two cool works of art:










Ok. So I kinda lied. One of them isn’t a work of art.

The one on the left is Yves Klein‘s work Blue Monochrome, while the one on the right is just a picture of some blue curtains up close (which I guess you can still argue is “art”…quoting Andy Warhol:” Art is what you can get away with”). I never understood this work. It looks like a board painted blue. I work as a docent at an art museum, and I overhear “my daughter could paint that” a lot in the galleries. What makes Yves Klein’s blue board more special then that canvas covered in blue finger paint your daughter made?

More light is shed upon the subject if you read the accompanying label, from the Museum of Modern Art:

Monochrome abstraction—the use of one color over an entire canvas—has been a strategy adopted by many painters wishing to challenge expectations of what an image can and should represent. Klein likened monochrome painting to an “open window to freedom.” He worked with a chemist to develop his own particular brand of blue. Made from pure color pigment and a binding medium, it is called International Klein Blue. Klein adopted this hue as a means of evoking the immateriality and boundlessness of his own particular utopian vision of the world.

Look at the professional words thrown around:

“challenge expectations”

“open window to freedom”

“evoking the immateriality and boundlessness of his own particular utopian vision of the world”

But, no matter how well the label is written, at the end of the day, it is, still a board with blue paint on it. Why does that get to go in the Museum of Modern Art, while other arguably more worthy works of art get labelled as kitsch?

If I place these paintings out of context, the blue canvas seems not much more special than the blue curtains. This makes, interestingly enough, the star of the show the label, not the art work. And people do already spend more time reading labels than actually looking at the art work, so a convincing, well-written label can make almost anything a masterpiece.

Then why are some complicated, abstract pieces worth more than 5 times more than a small nation? Why is that orgy of black and white paint in museums, while my daughter’s cute painting of our dog?

Supply and demand. Quoting Warhol again: “Being good at business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and good business is the best art.” Thus, why are Pollock and Warhol better artists than your daughter? Because they grasp the powers of supply and demand in the art markets better than her. This enables them to create value behind something that may seemingly be worthless to an alien race. The label also happens to be one of the best ways to drive supply and demand. Think of the label as the sales pitch a gallery owner gives you. It is trying to tell you about a work of art so you could more deeply resonate with it, and thus drive up preference/demand for that particular work of art.

But somewhere deep in the depths of a prestigious art department, someone will frown upon me and say, “no, there is more depth and emotion to art then that.” Well, that is true, but if you really want to get down to how things get in museums, supply and demand seems to answer the question sufficiently. Naturally, a museum would display what society values, so they can share that value with everyone in the community.

Laying at the heart of this supply and demand puzzle, though, is that we push up the value of what we deem “art”, and thus eventually immortalize them in museums when they rise in cultural value. I believe there is some sort of collective rationality that will determine for society what is museum worthy, and what is not.

Of course, somewhere along the line, we are influenced collectively by the opinions of experts. This is why art movements shift our definition of “what is art”, and push the demand function so certain works of art turn from useless pieces of junk into “postmodern art.” Just like capsules of junk, many of the grandmasters we think of today were once not regarded as much. Take Vermeer for instance. Before Berger, an art critic, acclaimed his works, his paintings had low, static prices. But after Berger’s critical acclaim, his paintings skyrocketed in price due to surging demand. The same dramatic changes in price could easily result from supply side changes as well.

I guess the lesson is: with the right plays on supply and demand, maybe your daughter can one day sell her paintings for exorbitant prices as well.