January 18, 2011

What A Book is Worth

Just returned from San Francisco, where I saw Van Gogh's Starry Night Over the Rhone, part of a show of post-Impressionist masterpieces from the Musee D'Orsay in Paris. I've never seen a painting so alive. Even though you could get fairly close and study the brushwork—particularly how color was applied to show light reflected on the water—when you stepped away the river actually shimmered. Gorgeous.

Of course, the discussion at dinner included a lively debate about what gives art its value. Critics derided the Impressionist movement itself until the work began to sell and then—wonder of wonders—suddenly the artists were welcomed at the Paris Salon with open arms. We were blind but now we see! What mastery! What genius!

Writers face the same issues, I think, especially women.  To cite just one example, in high school I took an elective class on Black Literature. Not a lady in sight. I didn't discover Zora Neale Hurston until years later and was stunned to learn she was a co-founder of the Harlem Renaissance that I supposedly studied as a junior.  Her masterpiece, THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD, is a stunning read, yet it wasn't until Oprah brought that book to her audience that Neale Hurston began to receive the acclaim she richly deserves (although the less said about the messy made-for-TV version, the better).

What do you think? Is commercial success the defining factor that makes any art valuable? Or do you need the blessings of the critical elite?


  1. I think art has intrinsic value. It's not valuable because someone suddenly chooses to pay money for it. It's valuable because it creative effort by created beings. Now, if someone can sell their art, well, that's just a bonus!

  2. Clearly commercial success is the what gives art its monetary value. But art is passion, a marvel of the human heart and soul that strikes an emotional chord in the individual. It doesn't matter what the critics say, how many book copies have sold or how much a painting goes for at auction. If it moves me, it's art.

  3. I think art has a different value for each person who sees it/reads it/hears it. What you may get out of any piece may be completely diffenet than what I get out of it and, for that reason, place a different value on it.That's what makes it so exciting and alive! The artist should only concentrate on the value it has for them and ignore silly things like critics and paychecks. (well maybe not ignore but, you know, not concentrate on)

  4. *Elle: Yes, but whether it's books or paintings, there always seems to be some general consensus as to what has lasting value as opposed to personal taste. It's what constitutes that consensus that intrigues me.

    *VR: Yet it seems, especially with books, that critical notice can elevate a seemingly ordinary book. Think of this year's Newberry winner, an obscure debut. Is it more valuable now that it's won an award?

    *Taryn: Value can be personal, intensely so, but certain books are considered far more worthwhile than others, and that leads me to think there's something beyond individual perception at work here.

  5. Many times I see the opposite view; that if an author is wildly successful, such as Rowling, Dan Brown, or Stephenie Meyer, then their work can't possibly be taken seriously and in fact is savaged by those who consider themselves to have serious literary taste. However, I think that if one's work touches or moves anybody, let alone millions, then it has value.

  6. *Stephanie: So a bodice ripper is valuable if it moves a reader?

    There's room for all kinds of tastes, but it seems that there's also a place for those (snobbish or not) who set a certain standard and rate things accordingly. Still, evaluators can have built-in cultural biases that blind them to artistic merit.

    And that's part of what makes it all so interesting. ;-)

  7. I think commercial success is what gets a visual artist noticed by the critics in a positive way, after that the collectors begin buying. I'm afraid it's the same with books. Once the public discovers you, whether through Oprah or word of mouth on the playground (Harry Potter), everything else falls in place.
    It's sad to know there are many masterpieces stacked in artists homes or published novels that are collecting dust after a one print run with no advertising that will never get the widespread acclaim so richly deserved.


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