The value of art

I just picked up on a blog post that Digital Photography Review published recently. It got me thinking about the value of art.

Value of Art
Castle Rock, Arizona

It’s a very thoughtful piece by Mikael Cho, the founder and CEO of Unsplash, “a community where photographers can share their high-resolution photos for anyone to use for free — no credit or payment required.”   It seems to have touched a nerve among some pursuing photography careers.

“…every contributor we’ve spoken to has enjoyed the impact their photography has made toward moving creativity forward,” says Mikael Cho, founder of Unsplash.

I won’t go into the specifics of the piece, because I’d really like you to read the article and the comments from folks (mostly photography-oriented) who visit DPREVIEW.

I think both Mr. Cho’s philosophy and business model are fascinating. I’m also, for the most part, good with this approach to artistic democracy. It’s a kind idea. However, I certainly hear the fear in the voices of the professional photographers who believe that this sort of enterprise is yet another way (among many) to devalue their work. What is the value of art, they seem to be asking?

You think just anybody can do this?

Which gets me to the talking point I take away from this article, that I’m sure has very little to do with what the author was saying…or even implying.

The only way an artist can have their work devalued is if people don’t want it.  And that’s assuming there was a value to begin with, beyond the maker’s wholly subjective imaginings. It has value if someone wants it, unless the artist is content with being the end audience. Which is OK. Really. What the artist does is determine for themselves what value they need. Recognition? Community? Cash? None of the above?

Art doesn’t serve only one purpose.

But, the ideas that are brought up in Mr. Cho’s article, and the responses to it, seem to have to do with money…or lack thereof. So let’s look at that.

Art and money

Do I believe that if I give my work away it will drive buyers to me for other work? Nice idea, but nah. Do I believe that giving work I choose to give away draws people away from work I want to sell? Absolutely not. Do I believe that easier access to the art community, its practitioners and its products helps move creativity forward? You bet.

Value of Art
Bean Boys, Chicago, Illinois

 First of all, if you have pieces that you believe might sell, it would be silly to upload them to Unsplash. However, if you’re anything like me, you have a handful of images that are really, really good. You also have a bushel basket full of them that are “quite good,” but not really very marketable. And finally, if you’re like me, you have terabytes of stuff you’ve stashed away to “get back to later” and have promptly forgotten about in the mish-mash of always moving forward.

So I think to myself, “Hmmm…store on my overcrowded hard drive or make them available so someone else can be wildly creative?”

I say share.

Value of Art
Summer field, Iowa

I sometimes think that we, as artists, separate ourselves from the “real” world. In our hearts, I think we cherish that separation in a way. We believe what an artist can do is special and comes from an intrinsic talent that others don’t have. Which is, of course, true. And what’s even more true is that every human being on the face of this earth is equally as talented and special in some aspect of their lives. It may not be in art…but it’s just as valid.

The value of art now

Where the problem comes in I think is when the two groups begin to overlap…to encroach on each other’s territory. For example: A very talented and unique bioengineer is asked to photograph her friend’s wedding. She agrees and charges her iPhone in advance of the big day.

Shit, more competition. An iPhone? And she said she’ll do it for free!

Now three things can happen in this scenario:

  1. They get the wedding photos and the happy couple is devastated by the quality of the work, or
  2. They absolutely love every shot and can’t believe how the photographer really captured the essence of their love, or
  3. They immediately post the photos online to share their joy, quickly receive a bunch of likes…and then archive them to join the terabytes of photos they mean to get back to (see my earlier paragraph).

Do any one of these outcomes devalue my work? I don’t think so. There was a reason that a professional photographer wasn’t hired to do the wedding. All kinds of reasons actually: Too expensive, the couple didn’t know any, it wasn’t a priority, or they simply don’t see a value difference between pro and amateur.

On top of that, the iPhone-wielding photographer/bioengineer may have brought a perspective to the event that I would never have caught in a million years. Maybe her shots were fabulous. Maybe they were horribly artistically inept. Either way…maybe they were exactly what the couple wanted. Regardless, the value of art — the kind professional photographers make — still stands.

When expectations clash

Clearly, consumers have remarkably different expectations than the photographer. We, as providers, obsess over details that often mean absolutely nothing to our client. We know a good image from a bad image — or believe we do — and are eager to pass on that set of values to people who don’t understand what we’re talking about or, more likely, could care less.

Value of Art
Skyline, Chicago, Illinois

What I have to get through my thick skull is that everyone’s sense of beauty is just as valid as mine. The value of art is completely subjective.

All too often we set ourselves up as arbiters of art and hold on very tightly to this perceived position. If we aren’t part of a potential client’s equation we may pass it off as “they just don’t get it.”

On the other hand, maybe “I just don’t get it.”

A client’s point of view is just that. WYSIWYS. What You See Is What You See. My work has no intrinsic value to anyone. But if a person does happen to have a creative taste for what I’ve thrown out there…great! If a number of people share that connection, then I must be doing something right.

But, if no one is jumping onboard, I should maybe check my dinghy for leaks before conjuring a scenario where someone else is pirating them away. Nice movie, bad business practice.

There’s no such thing as a new idea

I want to believe that I’m unique. So there you have it, I’m unique.

However, my work is not. At best, it’s a composite based on thousands of ideas from hundreds of different sources that have floated through my life for over 60 years. I re-process them, blend them together into a wad of something I call art and then spew them back into the world as my own.

By the way, I think my particular take is fabulous and important, but possibly no more or less fabulous and important than someone else’s take. And I’m happy to let the consumer out there decide what “take” is most fabulous and important to them. That doesn’t devalue my work in the least.

The only possible way to devalue my work (beyond the possibility that nobody likes it) is by my own hand…not another artist’s. I think we’re kidding ourselves if we believe that any other artist’s work or way of working threatens our creativity or our client pool.

On the contrary, I believe that it often challenges us to inject new power into our processes and outcomes. I also believe that every piece of art that gets put out in front of people has the potential of hatching a new idea or triggering a new conversation. It might even bring an unexpected new viewer into the room to join the spree.

More and better access to art will breed creativity the likes of which I can’t even imagine.

There simply can’t be too much. The more art there is out there — “good” and “bad” — the more we’re driven to think, to consider and to open ourselves to innovation. Revelation can be a sneaky bastard.


Value of Art
Tempe Town Lake, Arizona

If any of my work that I’ve freely given away (or that I’ve made money from, for that matter) has the power to “make an impact toward moving creativity forward” then it seems my duty as an artist to send it merrily on it’s way into someone else’s inspired vision.

“It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.”

                                                                                        — Jean-Luc Godard


Read my musings on the value of digitally-created art here. And of course I’d love for you to see my work at

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