How does art arrive at value? … a Southern Pastures context

The mysteries of art are not confined to aesthetics and energies, neither are they in the myriad of messages they exude, but the darkest and not so often discussed enigma of art lies right at the tangent where art meets its super-imposed value.

Who and what gives value to art is subjective to a myriad of contexts, driven in the main by a human sentiment that springs forth both from the artist and his or her audience. 

Putting Barbra Bohlke’s Southern Pastures into context, she derives value in the ability of her work to communicate and the energy she burns through the effort of will to bring about her product.

Southern Pastures hangs in the National Art Gallery of Namibia and here, Bohlke who doubles as an art tutor, experiments with Otjize, and a natural pigment found in the southern parts of Namibia.

The power of her media contextualises location and spiritually connects to the artist who longs to find solace in the embrace of home.

“For me, it’s not really about money,’ she tells me. Art has a lot to do with money too, and four years ago, a version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream fetched $120 million at an auction while in 2013 Francis Bacon’s portrait reached $143 million.  

How then does one get to price art? 

And if art, where to be priced, could it, therefore, be automatically legitimate to assume that such creativity, regardless of the depth and magnitude it attains, becomes limited within the confines of imposed price-tags thus rendering the work, “not priceless?”

Bohlke’s peace dazzles with vibrancy, from the depth of the abstract, she conjures positivity in discovering the beauty of desolation.

Critics that have attempted to reason the pricing of art have identified these factors as determinants of value: authenticity, trends, historicity, positive romantic baggage, phase, wall-power, subject, condition et al.

Southern pastures take the soul into the wilderness of Africa and have an introspective power that allows us to look upon the vagaries of our conditions in a different light.

Otjize has the essence of culture and timelessness, itself synonymous with the presence of the Ovahimba, one of the most ancient surviving clans tittering on the verge of modern society but still holding firm. 

Such beauty comes with a price tag, and reasonably so understanding that the shepherd has to eat from the flock, yet how far off the ground does that monetary placing remove the work from the reach of the commoner?

Critiquing aesthetics from the perspective of value and tying monetary elements to such is no easy task, especially so when one realises that the growth of the industry could never be made possible without Incentivising those that push the works from the dirt of its gutter.

“An artwork’s aesthetics, the feelings it conveys, and anything else that derives from its physical appearance may influence its price, but they cannot explain its extraordinary value,” explains Alex Mayyasi in his discussion, Why is Art Expensive. 

On the other end, the barricade jeering at many an artist in Namibia is how to create a brand within which their works can draw the power of value.

“Brands are king in fine art,” submits Mayyasi.

As such, very few of them have managed to break the barrier, albeit not entirely, so it seems, as they continue “to push the works out there.”

Sadly some get caught offside, replicating different styles to harvest acknowledgement only to further plummet into the abyss of stagnation.

Bohlke sets a price to her works as each peace, once done will never be done again, she says.

“But amidst the uncertainty of subjective taste, how does an artist establish herself as a million-dollar brand? How can a Manhattan socialite buy a $100,000 abstract painting by an emerging artist without fearing that it will be a tacky, $250 wall decoration in a few years? In other words, how does paint on canvas become expensive?” Mayyasi probes. 

The above writer is not far off the mark in his assessment that the market for fine art is instead “heavily curated.”

Mayyasi accurately captures the reality of that which plays out in the art world, expostulating that the market, “is controlled by galleries and dealers who commit with the astonishing discipline to keeping artwork prices predictable and pegged to signals of quality like the prestigiousness of the gallery selling the artist’s work.”

And strangely enough for those obsessed with works of the emotional magnitude such as is arrived at by Bohlke’s work, the higher the pricing, the more significant the appetite to buy.

It’s strangely exciting as it is equally mind-boggling, baffling so to speak, on the part of the artists themselves.

They capitalise on this hunger and “bag coin”.

Persistence in the art in a hostile environment such as Namibia where artists have to moonlight to get an extra buck becomes the garb one ought to do, a banner the individual artist has to rally behind till out of the pressure and tempest of it, growth and brand emerge.

At N$16 875, Bohlke’s work still hangs, and this writer will make a follow up to see whether it has been bought and make an attempt to track the buyer.