What’s it Really Worth? A Behavioral Economist on Values in Art

Andy Warhol, Flash -November 22, 1963, 1968

Ben Ho may not be an expert in the art world, but he does know a thing or two about applying Economics to the world, and in this case to art, to probe at its silent interplay with pricing mechanisms. Ho’s talk at The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center on October 3rd, 2014 titled “The Price of Beauty: A Behavioral Economist on Value in Art”, was simply put by Ho himself, “just how an economist sort of kind of looks at art.

As a Behavioral economist, Ho’s talk offered a truly potent and traditionally unheard-of perspective in contemporary art dialogues. Ho joined me afterwards for an exclusive interview to elaborate his thoughts on how economics plays a role in reconciling with the prices observed across art markets today.

For the talk, Ho highlighted two works in particular, the one featured in this article by Andy Warhol and another by Richard Prince.


On the economics of art

Ben Ho: So as an economist, I like seeing the world – economics – everywhere. There was this one piece in there that was sort of a more Neoclassical style that was just a painting of modern life back in the 1700’s. You know, there I might have talked about what this is – tell us about the economy of the 1700’s. From there you could look at images of what’s in the painting, and where the product’s from, and you can think about globalization and trade, and how people earned a living. So that’s one way to sort of bring economics into art. But I sort of like this more modern art, which asks questions like what is the meaning of art? What is the definition of art? Those are the questions that appeal to me, anyways.

On art value and how it affects our viewing

BH: This Warhol piece, you know, first of all, if you really dig into it, it’s not worth anything at all because it was a gift to the school and we’re not allowed to sell it. Does knowing that change our opinion? I think so, yeah. That’s how I got down this line; I wanted to talk about art I found really interesting. There was a nice Murakami exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum a couple of years ago, and one of the pieces in the museum was a Louis Vuitton store. Just the idea now that not only can you display art but also you can display a store and the store itself becomes art. You know, this ultimate expression of just saying yeah this is all about money and to some extent, yeah, money is what makes the world go ‘round and as an economist I think that’s great to study, but as an economist I also think there’s deeper meanings that we can study using economic tools. And what I think is really neat is that you can actually use these economic tools to think about deeper meanings, like what do we mean by things that have no value? Karl Marx talked a lot about commodification and how it’s something we should resist, this idea of trying to put a value on everything. I think that’s something that as a Behavioral Economist is important to me.

On how he views the art commodity market today

BH: It doesn’t mean much to me, actually. I think for some people it’s like, oh, I want to see that million-dollar piece or I want to see that two million-dollar piece. For me, personally, I don’t really think about the money very much, I’m more interested in the associations of what the artist means, mostly ‘cause I know I’m never going to buy this stuff myself, right? I started thinking about all of this when I was working with MoMA. They have these series of dialogues with people in the community and experts about the future of art, and part of the future is, in this age of reproduction and things being online, not even clear, you know, what it means to own something, why we should own something, etc. I don’t really have any deep desire to own anything if you can see it online and interact with it that way. So the value itself means very little to me, even though I think a lot of commentators think it’s really important. For me personally, ownership doesn’t seem important at all.

On art valuation privileging some over others

BH: So I guess what you worry about is that maybe for some reason, with like Picasso for instance, is that his work became a status symbol and it’s not because it had some inherent value. I think the causality runs the other way. I think, for the most part, there is some other intrinsic value that’s unrelated to the money, and the collector’s are sort of following that instead of vice versa. I definitely acknowledge the possibility that if some Russian oligarchs like a particular artist and they just start buying it up that they could change people’s opinion…but I’d like to think that critics and art historians are more objective than that.


Ben Ho is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Vassar College. When he isn’t teaching, he uses economic tools in order to explore social systems such as apologies, identity signaling, and climate change concerns.

Link to his website: http://irving.vassar.edu/faculty/bh/bh.htm

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