Years ago, in another lifetime and for another publication, I wrote a story about a young man who suffered from cerebral palsy and was disabled. Like most teens, he desperately wanted to be included in the normal school activities his classmates enjoyed—specifically, to be a member of the football team.
Unable to participate on the field, he was named the team’s “manager” and worked on the sidelines. He craved being able to operate the camcorder that recorded each game’s action but his spasticity prevented him from holding the camera steady. Fortunately technology was advancing, and a camera was available—at what was then an exorbitant price—that would compensate for his disability.
I wrote the story and, a week later, donations made it possible for the school to buy the camera. A school board member grumbled that if the camera had been put in the budget it would have created a furor and probably would have been cut. “Why will people give money for a camera for one student and not support a budget for all the students?” he asked.
It’s a good question but not a great mystery. We can clearly relate to the plight of the individual but the needs of the many are harder to embrace. We see it in all kinds of situations. We will happily sacrifice millions of animals at the slaughter house but let an individual cow become mired in the mud, and men, machines and news media will be dispatched in a desperate attempt to save it. A deer struggling in freezing water after falling through the ice will be eagerly aided—often at some risk to the rescuers—by the very same people who would kill it in the woods. The valence changes when an individual is in peril.
All this has led to me contemplate what has real value. If the precious individual life becomes expendable as part of a larger mass, what, then, has any indisputable significance?
I once was in charge of writing about antiques for the paper that then employed me. A quarter of a century ago, individual pieces of furniture made by 18th century master craftsmen in Rhode Island, Boston and Philadelphia could easily be worth $1 million or more. But there was a caveat: As anyone who watches Antiques Road Show knows, you should never touch the finish.
In one instance, a table I wrote about had lost half its value because the old varnish was removed. Some $400,000 in value had been scraped away with the cracked and darkened varnish. Why, I asked, was a surface application put on 250 years before worth as much as the artistry of the piece’s design, the craftsmanship that had perfected it, the quality of the wood that made it up. I argued that the craftsman had not meant the beauty of the piece to be dulled by a cracked and faded finish but was assured that “cat pee and dirt in the corners” was what buyers were looking for as a sign of authenticity.
As if to validate my observation that this encrustation has nothing to do with intrinsic value, the same standard is not applied in England. There, antiques dealers embrace the idea that life happens and that pieces will be altered over the centuries.
Today, the situation is even more dire. Antiques dealers will tell you “brown is down” as younger consumers seek out sleek Scandinavian designs in lighter colors. English pieces from the Regency period and the 18th century were worth 30 percent less in 2016 than a decade before while French 18th-century furniture lost half its value over the same period. Victorian and Edwardian furniture—which takes some effort to like under the best of circumstances—had lost more than two-thirds of its value since 2003.
Art is no more stable. I once wrote a story about an effort to verify a piece of artwork as a genuine Jackson Pollock. Teri Horton, who had never heard of Pollock, bought it for $5 in a San Bernardino thrift shop in the early 1990s. Told it could be a Pollock, she started on a mission to authenticate it. Scientific analysis seemed to suggest it is real but the art establishment closed the door on it. Twenty-six years later, it is still an open question.
Now, setting aside the question of whether an artist who dripped paint on a canvas was really creating art, what is the value of him actually doing the splashing? If someone else created a work so close to Pollock’s that its authenticity cannot be established, is it not still a valuable painting? Not in the experts’ eyes—but why?
So, what has a real value that can be assigned to it? Precious metals go up and down with the market. Gems? Economics professor Mark Perry says diamonds are “one of the biggest marketing scams in the history of the world,” a ploy thought up in the mid-20th century by De Beers to sell the gemstones by touting their supposed scarcity; a scarcity created by diamond merchants who withhold stones from the market. The stone’s only real value is in the eye of the beholder—and, no, I am not ready to cast aside my engagement ring because my husband probably paid too much for it.
If the meaning of a life is situational, if precious objects have no set value, if craftsmanship and materials are not as valuable as cracked varnish and the significance of art is dictated by the supposed cognoscente, what guidelines to we have for real worth in this world?
In a way this is freeing. We can decide our own esthetics, our own value systems rather than being led by the current fashion. I, for instance, like to paint in a realistic style, a style once universal before the age of photography. I have often been encouraged to adopt a more “painterly” style—looser, more impressionistic—but when I asked my teacher why that style is “better” than mine, she had no answer. So, I paint in my own archaic style and am happy in my work. That, to me, has real value.