What is it exactly that lends value, in strictly monetary terms, to a work of art? Is it the originality, the genius of an artistic vision, or is it merely the perceived worth of an artist’s signature that makes us reach for our pockets? I am not concerned here with the great paintings that have a protective historical aura around them. A Manet or a Modigliani would fetch exorbitant sums seen simply as antique objects—by dint of having survived for so long, they promise you a healthy return on your investment. It is far more interesting, though, to look at how contemporary art (by lesser-known or even unknown artists) fares in the marketplace. This is where attributing value to an artwork becomes more or less an arbitrary exercise—of spinning numbers and setting expectations. And the confusing nature of it all comes to the fore when artists themselves take up the responsibility of selling their work. 

The other day I came across a flea market for artists hosted on a Berlin street. (The street is technically a bridge, called the Oberbaumbrücke, covering a short stretch of the river Spree, and offering views that suggest seamless linkages between water, sky and concrete.) The event is hosted twice every year, and marks something of a special occasion for the local community of struggling artists, as well as for cash-strapped collectors. On sale are hundreds of paintings, illustrations, photographs and sculptures: strategically laid out, like fresh produce, to attract buyers. In some of the stalls, paintings are indeed being produced on canvases—the creative spirit unfolding in real time. Which makes you realise that most salespeople here are actually artists peddling their own wares.

I stopped at one of the stalls and pointed out a painting that had taken my fancy to its creator, a woman named Edith. All those colours, the rounded forms, the pinks and browns and golden shades in a neat vertical flow had reminded me of something. “Gustav Klimt,” I told Edith, and she was pleased by the comparison. When I asked her its price, she told me it was a thousand euros, and then, almost apologetically, asked me if I thought the painting worth the price: “Do you understand the price?” she asked a bit cryptically at first. And then: “Is the money too much for it? I mean, I had to work on it for over a month…” I told her that I could easily imagine people willing to pay much more for the painting, but if the artist herself has determined some price, it’s always hard to argue against that.

Yet there has never been any dearth of such arguments and conflicts. The discrepancy between an artist’s own estimate of their work and the amount collectors or gallerists are willing to shell out for it has added spark to many a flashpoint in our cultural history. Even someone like Rembrandt, who lived most of his life submerged in debt, had to contend with this sort of dishonour. In our time, it’s common knowledge how galleries tend to exploit the gift of underpaid and overworked young artists. That’s one side of the story. The other side is represented by vulgar sellouts like Jeff Koons, who’d do anything for money—like printing a kitschy, rip-off Mona Lisa on a Louis Vuitton bag and then selling it under their name (Koons actually did this).

For the disillusioned, then, it becomes imperative to banish all thoughts of money—this being the only correct cultural response to our age of consumerism, which makes paintings and handbags part of the same sales pitch. Edith told me about her down-and-out artist friends in east Berlin who have never bothered to approach galleries or court prospective buyers. “Because they are from the east, they are not good in doing business. They can’t advertise. They can’t lie. And so they don’t sell,” she said.

The discrepancy between an artist’s own estimate of their work and the amount collectors or gallerists are willing to shell out for it has added spark to many a flashpoint in our cultural history. Even someone like Rembrandt, who lived most of his life submerged in debt, had to contend with this sort of dishonour.

There are those who don’t sell. Then there are those to whom money problems present themselves as subjects worthy of long-term creative engagement. The Berlin-based artist Thorsten Goldberg is among the latter. In the 1980s, as an art student in Stuttgart, Goldberg began collecting grocery receipts and restaurant bills incurred by him. He got these framed and offered them as works of art that could be bought for exactly the price displayed on the strip of paper. One Berlin gallery currently has on view a food receipt Goldberg had obtained back in 1992. It enumerates the items the artist had bought at a supermarket: one bottle of Coca-Cola; one roll of bread; one roll of bread; one tote bag; fruits; one roll of bread—rang by the cashier in that order. The total sum came to be 9.01 Deutschmarks (DM). We also know, courtesy of the receipt, that the artist had paid 20.01DM at the counter (this extra 0.01DM indicates that he was averse to accepting too much loose change); and that he was given 11.00DM in return by the cashier.

Mere numbers on a little strip of paper recreating a whole series of lived moments. Why shouldn’t this be viewed as a legitimate work of art? And why shouldn’t it be priced the exact amount—9.01DM—that went into it, from the stages of conception to production? There’s another rationale for this price. As the curator’s note next to the 9DM slip says, “This is a value that has not been fictitiously negotiated, but is based on what the artist needs for his daily bread.”

Goldberg’s framed receipt is part of a larger exhibition on the “value of artistic labour”, being hosted at Berlin’s Haus am Lütwoplatz. There are around a dozen other exhibits here, all powerful critiques of the idea of art as capital. The entry by Joshua Schwebel, a Canadian artist, simply includes a legal document, an entitlement deed of sorts, pinned to the wall. It says that the artist (“hereinafter called the ‘Artist’”), commissioned to display here, has rented out his allotted space to someone else (“hereinafter called the ‘Exhibitor’”) for an agreed sum of money and for the entire duration of the show. All conceptual art is satire, and Schwebel’s pretend contract serves the same purpose. But it paints a grim picture. The future of the creative soul, it seems to be saying, will be determined by the laws of the market. If artists can’t survive playing the role of salespeople here—as I saw at that art bazaar in Berlin—they must find alternatives. And Schwebel’s is an alternative scenario that is sure to hit pay dirt: the artist as realtor.

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