Written by Lonnie Richards

It was Fall 2015 when I took a contemporary art class at a private university in New York City. Based on the exorbitant price of attendance, you’d think the class would be great, but my classmates just stared at the clock, waiting for each session to end. We had all lost interest by the midpoint, loathing the fact that we were mainly shown bad art. The class enticed me at the beginning of the semester, but I soon lost hope in seeing ‘good art.’ Although I hated the class and its instructor, two questions stayed with me, forging my curiosity in art as a craft: What is art? How do we determine its value?


We viewed and researched all the classics, visiting various contemporary art galleries throughout the city. Still, I felt the class never truly answered these pressing, central questions. I searched for an objective definition of art, but found only subjective answers. According to the instructor and Believing is Seeing: Creating the Culture of Art, (the book he taught from,) the viewer determines the value of art according to the emotions it evokes. However, in reality, I found that the value often depended on the clout behind the name of the artist, or the asking price for the particular piece.


The art featured in the galleries we visited was often created by the rich and privileged. We surveyed famous names like Dan Flavin, Claude Monet, and Andy Warhol. The course rarely addressed art created by people of color, and excluded works created by famous artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jacob Lawrence, and Kara Walker.


After watching The Price of Everything, a documentary about how we value art, I learned that Basquiat found it hard to show his art while he lived. In a state of despair, he overdosed on heroin at the age of 27. In death, his work sells for millions of dollars. For Basquiat, it wasn’t about money. According to his girlfriend, Jennifer Vonholstein, he would have despised the fact that his work sells for millions of dollars today.


In the brief moments we examined art by people of color, our instructor used a stricter standard. We were asked to consider composition, consistency, and if the work was proportionate. Yet, when we visited contemporary art exhibits, and saw work created by white artists, we were simply asked to explain what we felt upon looking at the piece. To me, it seemed like art is subjective when it’s created by the rich and privileged, but objective when created by people of color. When we visited the Studio Museum in Harlem, our instructor said, “this isn’t $10,000 art.” When I asked him why, he couldn’t answer my question.


So how do we determine the value of art? In other words, how do we estimate the worth or usefulness of art? I made my own rubric. In my opinion, art should first be judged by how original it is. Second, I think that art should be judged by how hard it is to duplicate. Lastly, I think art should have a message or communicate a sentiment of the era of its creation.

Once pop art became a common mode of expression, it ceased to be original.


Warhol’s 32 Soup Cans – Photo Via the MoMA


What do I mean by original? When Andy Warhol created his 32 Campbell Soup Cans, it wasn’t just a nostalgic piece, reminding him of what his mother use to feed him. It was also original. No one had done it before. Once pop art became a common mode of expression, it ceased to be original. In other words, when the gimmick becomes a fad, it loses its originality and becomes the status quo. While it is still art if the artist sets out to create art, it ceases to be original if someone did it before them.


The Charterhouse of Bruges – Photo Via The Frick Collection


I think of a piece titled The Charterhouse of Bruges, commissioned by the Carthusian monk Jan Vos, when it comes to a particularly fine example of good art.  Not only does it pass the test of my own rubric, it fits many of the traditional standards of art; great composition, consistency, and the characters are proportionate to the background of the piece. The royal subject’s facial expressions are so lifelike, you can almost imagine being a member of the court. This is a magnificent piece of art, and a great example of a work that’s hard to duplicate.


As for art requiring meaning, I think of a moment in class where we were shown a piece by an unknown artist. It was a 50-foot basketball rim placed anonymously in an inner city neighborhood. My instructor, puzzled, desperately struggled to determine its meaning. As an African-American man, I understood right away. In the Black community, basketball is one of the few ways to escape the ghetto. Few ever realize this dream, destined to be caged by the neighborhood. The piece represents the dauntingly minute probability of making it to the NBA. There are countless great athletes in the inner city (just take a trip to Rucker’s Park to see.) Yet, few get the chance to take their skills to the professional level.  This work of art requires you to know a little about African-American culture. I think that good art offers an education to its viewers. I don’t know if this work of art was created by a person of color, but it was made with African-American culture in mind.


I don’t think that my rubric is necessarily a narrow classification of art. It doesn’t determine what is art and what isn’t. It simply gives us a way to classify what is good art and what is average.


I don’t think that my rubric is necessarily a narrow classification of art. It doesn’t determine what is art and what isn’t. It simply gives us a way to classify what is good art and what is average. If we use it, we would still be left with much of the art we see in museums today. Additionally, we would include art by people of color, street art, and graffiti. Our instructor ignored the street art and graffiti that we saw walking between galleries, dismissive of street culture. However, I regard this as art, more-so than the contemporary art we were being force-fed.


Some people equate graffiti with vandalism, and the government regards it as illegal. I don’t find this surprising, considering street art and graffiti were first created predominately by people of color. What would NYC be without its graffiti? I wish I lived in New York during the 80s so I could see the graffiti that covered its landscape then.

Lucky Rabbit painting in Bushwick – Photo: T.K. Mills

Madvaillan Mural in Bushwick – Photo by T.K. Mills

Excluded from traditional exhibits, street art and graffiti often shed light on topics important to the average person. It’s more than just tagging your name on a wall. It’s the continuation of a culture started by the people, for the people. And it’s free. People have been writing on walls since cavemen drew what they saw in the wild. Like conventional art, not all street artists are equal.  Some tag just to tag and others set out to create works of art.


Street art and graffiti should also follow my rubric’s guidelines. It should be original, and difficult for the average person to duplicate, while conveying some kind of message. I think of names like Banksy, Madvaillan, Jappy Lemon, and Lucky Rabbit, to name a few. Banksy, an English street artist and political activist, uses a distinctive stenciling technique to make street art that focuses on important issues around the world. His work shows that street art, when it has a positive message, can transcend the stage of vandalism to become something appreciated by all. If it speaks for the people, it’s cherished. His gallery art sells for millions of dollars today.


What about money? Simon De Pury, a Swiss art auctioneer and collector, says, “art and money has always gone hand-in-hand…it is very important for good art to be expensive.” He goes on to say that we protect things we consider valuable and discard things we think are not. Though it’s not a part of my rubric, It’s hard to disagree with this statement. I have a weathered, heart shaped music box from my late mother that plays Beethoven’s Fur Elise. For anyone else it has no value, but to me it is priceless, and the first thing I pack when I move.


“Drown” by Njideka Akunyili Crosby


Price is subjective, and not based on the quality of the art. Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s Drown sold at auction for $900,000 and, what I feel is a lesser work, Lady and the Landscape sold for $2,250,000. The latter, abstract in style, caused the director of the documentary to ask, “where does the landscape begin and the lady end?” Paying large sums of money for art is a socioeconomic flex meant to show class, rather than an appreciation of good art.


Paying large sums of money for art is a socioeconomic flex meant to show class, rather than an appreciation of good art.


After watching The Price of Everything, I began to think the art market was like the folktale, The Emperor’s New Clothes. In this story, a vain emperor hires two weavers to create him a new suit to wear in a parade organized by the royal court. Unbeknownst to the emperor, the weavers are con-men claiming to use an invisible fabric. In fact, there is no suit and the weavers are fooling the emperor. Fearing that he is unfit for the office, or of a minor class, the emperor convinces himself that he sees the garment.  In fact, every adult in the kingdom does the same. It takes the innocence of a child to point out the fact that the emperor is actually naked. De Pury says, “people sometimes buy with their ears, and not their eyes,” though my favorite quote from the documentary was from Stefan T. Edlis, a holocaust survivor and art collector who offered Oscar Wilde’s witty remark: “People know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”


For my final project, I created a miniature replica of our classroom that paid homage to the art that I saw outside of the class and galleries we visited. I recreated the tables, chalkboard, doors, and even the clock on the wall. On the inner walls of the replica, I placed the contemporary work that I believed was just average art, and on the outside the work that I considered to be good art. I did this to symbolize the notion that true art was something we saw outside of the lecture. This was not just work by people of color, but art that I thought to be original, hard to duplicate, and meaningful. Some were works of art that would be considered art by all, while others, like street art and graffiti, were pieces that would never be seen in a traditional gallery. In the end, I got an A.


I believe the subtitle of the book used in class, Creating the Culture of Art, leaves us with a certain responsibility. If we are accountable for creating the culture of art, we must be objective. If it is only subjective and dependent on the emotions experienced, we are essentially spitting in the faces of the classical artists. If we judge everything as potentially “good” art, we are disrespecting those that put their blood, sweat and tears into making art. I think we should look with our eyes, judge with our minds, and dare to be objective gazers.  This is our responsibility to art.