How Value Is Defined in Art

A small orange sticker beside a work of art indicates that is has been purchased
John Rensten / Getty Images

As an element of art, value refers to the visible lightness or darkness of a color. Value is synonymous with luminosity in this context and can be measured in various units designating electromagnetic radiation. Indeed, the science of optics is a fascinating branch of physics, albeit one to which visual artists typically devote little to no thought.

Value is relevant to the lightness or darkness of any color, but its importance is easiest to visualize in a work with no colors other than black, white, and a grayscale. For a great example of value in action, think of a black and white photograph. You can easily visualize how the infinite variations of gray suggest planes and textures.

The Subjective Value of Art

While "value" can be a technical term related to color, it can be a more subjective term related to either the importance of a work or its monetary worth. Value can also refer to the sentimental, cultural, ritualistic, or aesthetic importance of work. Unlike luminosity, this type of value cannot be measured. It is entirely subjective and open to, literally, billions of interpretations. 

For instance, anyone can admire a sand mandala, but its creation and destruction hold specific ceremonial values in Tibetan Buddhism. Leonardo's ​"Last Supper" ​mural was a technical disaster, but its depiction of a defining moment in Christianity has made it a religious treasure worthy of conservation. Egypt, Greece, Peru, and other countries have sought the return of significant cultural works of art taken from their lands and sold abroad in earlier centuries. Many a mother has carefully preserved many pieces of refrigerator art, for their emotional value is incalculable. 

The Monetary Value of Art

Value may additionally refer to the monetary worth attached to any given work of art. In this context, value is pertinent to resale prices or insurance premiums. Fiscal value is primarily objective, assigned by acknowledged art history specialists who eat, breathe and sleep fine art market values. To a smaller extent, this definition of value is subjective in that certain collectors are willing to pay any amount of money to own a particular work of art.

To illustrate this seeming dichotomy, refer to the May 16, 2007, Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Christie's New York City showroom. One of original "Marilyn" silkscreen paintings by Andy Warhol had an estimated (objective) pre-sale value of more than $18,000,000. $18,000,001 would have been accurate, but the actual gavel price plus buyer's premium was a whopping (subjective) $28,040,000. Someone, somewhere obviously felt that hanging in his or her underground lair was worth an additional $10,000,000.

Quotations About Value

"In preparing a study or a picture, it seems to me very important to begin by an indication of the darkest values... and to continue in order to the lightest value. From the darkest to the lightest I would establish twenty shades."
(Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot)
"Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value."
(Albert Einstein)
"It's impossible to make a picture without values. Values are the basis. If they are not, tell me what is the basis."
(William Morris Hunt)
"Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing."
(Oscar Wilde)
"Color is an inborn gift, but appreciation of value is merely training of the eye, which everyone ought to be able to acquire."
(John Singer Sargent)
"There is no value in life except what you choose to place upon it and no happiness in any place except what you bring to it yourself."
(Henry David Thoreau)
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Esaak, Shelley. "How Value Is Defined in Art." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Esaak, Shelley. (2023, April 5). How Value Is Defined in Art. Retrieved from Esaak, Shelley. "How Value Is Defined in Art." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).