Why is art so expensive?

Introduction Read more from
Chapter Art Principles and History

This is essentially a question about the value of art as well as taste, which are not fixed. Artists and styles of art fall in and out of favor regularly, affecting a work’s price and status. Paintings by Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli were not always held in particularly high regard. From his death in the early sixteenth century until the mid-nineteenth century, Botticelli’s art was for the most part ignored by collectors and forgotten. As the nineteenth century art-buying elite rediscovered his work, its value went up dramatically. Botticelli’s paintings are now amongst the most prized examples of Italian Renaissance art. In another example, Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh only achieved critical success after his death at age thirty-seven. Van Gogh’s highly sought-after work now sells for millions of dollars.

But why pay millions of dollars for something that arguably serves no purpose? How can a slab of stone or a stretched canvas slathered in paint cost so much? First, art is not only cultural object but also a commodity and is therefore affected by economic factors, such as supply and demand. (This might account for the fact that the price of art often rises once the artist has passed away.) Second, art is very much a luxury item and therefore a status symbol. The owner of Damien Hirst’s $12 million preserved shark (officially titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living) publicly demonstrates a great deal of wealth. It is perhaps the very fact that art serves no practical purpose that drives up the price.


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