Clouds and Shadows: the comparative value of Art

By James Zike

     The history of the objects we want, desire, buy, own, and treasure might be more important to us than the form, function, or aesthetics of the objects themselves. Consider the following four cups:

     This set of cups is a drop in the bucket of all the possible options available to a modern consumer with a computer, and 3 out of four are also available in *gasp* a brick-and-mortar store, Target specifically. Here I'm using Target because, of the many retail chains that exist, Target tends to do more than their competition to make their supply lines as transparent as possible. With a little internet research one could find the names of every company that supplies them with their wares and the factories in which they were made. In essence, one could learn the basic history of all of these objects, and with about equal effort, one might endeavor to meet the person or people responsible for their creation.

     The first three cups, well mugs really, are from Corelle, “Timber Shadow,” “Splendor,” and “Simple Sketch.” The last cup, Cloud Cup, was made by acclaimed ceramicist Sam Chung and was sold by AKAR Gallery. All three mugs are a compatible ceramic material, and more or less similar dimensions; Cloud Cup is 3” x 3” x 2.25”, while all the mugs are roughly 3.25” x 4.5” x 4”. So, if the mugs are 12 ounce cups, Cloud is around a 6 ounce one. Each has an aesthetic value, with varying degrees of minimalistic and referential depictions.

     Arguably, all four were made by masters of their craft. Corning Glass Works introduced Corelle in 1970. Chung has been working in ceramics since the 90s. It is fair to say that the quality of construction, the techniques used to create these cups, are skillful to the point of intentionality. Whatever these cups are in their finished forms, it is safe to say that is how they were intended to be. The fact that the decorations on the Corelle cups is a pattern, a decal applied not only to these items but a range of others, like matching plates, for some might be a reason to claim that Chung's work is superior. But you have to consider that this cloud motif is one of Chung's signatures, and you can find it on a number of not only cups, but pitchers, plates, vases, and saucers. If he would allow it, even his more irregularly shaped organic pieces could be, hypothetically reproduced by Corelle with surprising vitality and veracity to the original piece.

     Of course, a relevant difference is that Chung individually creates and decorates each and every cloud cup. That doesn't change the fact that from his wheel many identical cups, in terms of function, have entered this world. It would be hard to imagine an artist of his skill that would not be able to recreate an exact replica of any of his previous works, if he so chose, or at least as accurate as Corelle would be able. Beyond the basic form or the function of the cup, this moves on to recreating the aesthetics of the work as well. If one of an artist's works is unique, it is because of a choice the artist has made, be it pragmatic or aesthetic. If Chung chose to adopt some of the techniques used by Corelle, he would likely be able to reach their total production of “Timber Shadow” using his own designs.

     The major practical difference between Corelle's “work” and Chung's is that you can pick up any one of the mugs above for about $5, expect Cloud Cup. That one will cost you at least $80. The smart collector would likely see that as an extreme bargain, and wish to buy as many as possible. Historically speaking, at some future point Chung's work will be valued significantly higher. Corelle's mugs, on the other hand, will only gain value when the current supply stops being so readily available; although, replacement pieces for a discontinued dinnerware set can still be found online fairly easily. Like the paradox of contemporary artists in the highest-tier art markets, it appears that Corelle's value hasn't seen it's time yet and the continued production of new objects similar to the greater body of works is actually a detractor from the present economic value.

     We can look at these mugs, and if we don't know they are explicitly not art, we might mistake them for art. After all, the use of a decal instead of china paint does not exclude them from art. About 100 years ago Dadaists showed us that the artist need only transform the object to be art, and Marcel Duchamp taught us that the transformation need not be about the object itself. It can be in how we think about the object. Absent from context, these cups are functionally, materially, and aesthetically similar enough to be considered pragmatically identical, with the major exception that Cloud Cup would burn your hands if you tried to drink your morning coffee out of it. If anything the use-value of the mugs is actually higher than the cup, and the doubled volume means fewer trips to the coffee pot. And yet they are a mere 6% of the value of a Chung cloud cup.

     It is tempting to conclude that the basic Smithian concept of supply and demand is the reason for the seemingly strange valuations of objects that are functionally similar. There may be a number of Chung cloud cups, but this is the only one exactly like this in the entire world. The total body of cloud cups are a colorful sky drifting past our collective consciousness, ever changing, fleeting and yet made permanent in porcelain. To possess even one of those cups is to hold one unique piece of a deeper river of creativity. To own a “Timber Shadow” is to have one of thousands, if not tens of thousands. In 30-years' time you will likely be able to replace it with an exactly identical one (baring the philosopher's insistence of an exacting application of the law of identity), or expand your collection to include a full set of matching tree-motif serving-ware; it is but one branch in an eerily repetitive forest.

     However, that line strikes as being surprisingly similar to one major critic of the concept of “art as investment.” Jim Chanos, founder and president of the hedge fund Kynikos Associates, says that “all things being equal, one of [his] concerns about contemporary art is that the artists are still producing it. … Certainly for some artists, they have a propensity to create a lot of art when their work goes up in price.” Chanos argues that art cannot be an investment because the continual supply of new contemporary art must decrease the value of already existing art, even by the same artist. So, Chung, if he continues to make more cloud cups, will start to resemble Corelle's low value. And in one sense, this is a perfect example of supply and demand, further strengthened by the current art market's focus on well-known art by well-known artists; art from unknowns or new art from well-known artists are not selling like they were a short time ago. On the other hand, most consumers are not in Chanos' habit of keeping up with investment portfolios. The average experience is more familiar with the bright red of the interior of Target, than swanky art galas like Art Basel Miami.

     Maybe Chanos has a point even at the low-tier art market. There are over 260,000 cups (and sets of cups) for sale on Etsy right now. Some of them are clearly mass-produced, more similar to Corelle than Chung, but others are clearly handmade, some by artists, some by crafty hobbyists. In fact, there many cups and mugs that feature cloud motifs that could be used for a closer aesthetic comparison. In that wide set, there are a surprisingly large number of ceramicists attempting to sell what is clearly their art, and almost none of them are able to fetch the type of monetary value that Chung has.

     The demand for cups and mugs in this world can't possibly equal the supply of them. The demand for cups with minimalistic designs can't match the supply. The demand for cloud motif cups can't either. But the demand for Chung's cloud cups seems to always exceed the supply. Perhaps he is a master marketeer, able to fully understand the moods and textures of his target demographics, producing and marketing only the exact amount to keep his price point steady. Or perhaps he employs someone to do that for him. But it isn't likely. No sane marketeer would advise anyone to get into the handmade cup market. Chung should never be able to sell a single one of his cups, because the market supply of ceramic cups so far exceeds the demand that there should be no significant difference in his pricing from Corelle's. Even then, the utility of knowing that long after they stop making their cups, one could continue to buy replacements actually gives Corelle a significant edge.

     Although on many levels I agree that art is not an investment, contra Chanos, art cannot be viewed in supply and demand terms. More art doesn't make art valueless, just as the existence of mass-production doesn't make functional art obsolete. Maybe Chanos is right about the most sought-after, highest echelons of the art world, where a handful of art objects from the ancient masters through today's latest greats passes from one set of hands to another, to another. But that doesn't explain how Chung can sell his cups at all, let alone at 16 times the value of a functionally identical Corelle. To my knowledge, none of his works have auctioned for millions of dollars. Maybe some day. Still, 99.9% of us don't have millions of dollars to spend on “very expensive decorative works.”

     To understand why we are willing to pay significantly more for a functionally identical item, we have to turn away from Smithian economics, and look at the history of the object itself. If we feel like we know the history of the object, and it is of the correct “Art” type, then we allow ourselves to value it more. It is much like the Ikea Effect. If we know the person that made the object, and we desire to own it, we are more likely to feel a deep connection to the object. That is in part because our sense of our personal value, our self-identity, is derived from the meaning we make with our lives.

     In his PBS Idea Channel vlog, “SRSLY What Does IKEA Say About The Human Condition?” Mike Rugnetta points out that collecting things can give some people a sense of accomplishment, and shopping for commercial products can be part of that, even if it is “reductive.” But buying cheaply made mass-produced goods necessarily does so in a slightly different way. Collecting art has “massive cultural significance, but piles of retail goods; that is another thing entirely.” The Ikea Effect allows people to value the things that they personally made because being able to construct the furniture gives the owner a “sense of competence. We need to feel like we have agency in the world, like we can accomplish things and be effective. And as it turns out, the state of things being what it is, knowing what to do with all of the wooden dowels that come with your Billy bookshelf can provide that sense of accomplishment and competence.”

     That is a far cry from buying a mass-produced mug, even if it has just the aesthetics to compliment and complete your breakfast nook. The sense of accomplishment one might have seeing those cups in the perfect setting for the first time might, indeed, be very satisfying (although even that feeling is less than the anticipation of seeing it there at the moment one decides that $4.99 is a good price to pay for it). However, it takes almost no time for the Hedonic treadmill to normalize the successive happiness one gets from seeing them there a second or third time. Soon, they are reduced to mere objects that possess no accomplishment-granting good feels. We get used to them being there, and our happiness returns to our baseline state.

     One way that we can really see what we value is by examining our reaction to the loss of that thing. Our perception of the thing before we buy it is through the lens of desire, of wanting, and we are often struck with buyer's remorse immediately after the poorly considered purchase. The Hedonic treadmill robs us of any increase in happiness that an object might give us; we too quickly adapt to the presence of the object to continue noticing it and receiving any benefit from having it, like a child with a new toy. So, only for a short time between getting the object and having the object, somewhere just shortly after figuring out how to use it, do we actually *see* it. Since we can't really see our belongings clearly while they are in front of us, we might have to flip our perceptions around, and see them through imagining not seeing them.

     When one of the “Timber Shadow” cups inevitably gets chipped in the dishwasher, cracked in a moving box, or absentmindedly swept off the table in a distracted reach for a buzzing smartphone, there is no grief at the loss. Maybe a bit of embarrassment, and self-directed anger, but that is about the extent of it. If a Sam Chung cup, an art object that was an investment in one's own self-value, is laying in delicate shards at your feet… that is something completely different. There was a unique, special, and beautiful thing that has ceased to be in this world.

     Both cups could have existed well beyond our own lifespans. Museums are full of pottery dating back thousand of years, even 20,000-year-old pottery has been found in China. In the context of hypothetical predictive archeology, by the nature of the medium, both Chung's Cloud Cup and Corelle's “Timber Shadow” are equally likely to be discovered fully intact and basically in a mint condition in some future excavation. If just left alone, these cups could outlast not only our collective living memory, but human History as well. The eventual meaning the academics might apply to either piece could speak volumes about our current society, but the present idea that there is something different about Chung's cup from Corelle's… that comes from something else.

     It is not merely that Chung's work is limited to his own ability to make cups, while Corelle's parent company, World Kitchen, has 3,000 employees that operate factories churning out hundreds of thousands of products worldwide. Certainly, replaceability and scarcity both play their own parts in our valuation of cups, but that is not all. Chung has a body of work that is playful, minimalistic, intriguing, simple and yet complex. He is a demonstrated master of balance, form, shape, and color. Cloud Cup is merely one piece in a continuum of his genius. He makes objects with the intent that they be considered Art. Yes, they are functional, and he intends them to be used. His own house is full of both his own work and other artists, famous and obscure. Sharing a meal with him will likely include eating off plates and drinking from cups that would be equally at home in a museum as they are in his kitchen. But it is exactly these kinds of judgments from the art world that, once he has presented a piece as a work of art, the acceptance by others in the art community becomes a kind of performative utterance whereby his mere cup becomes Art! That is why we value it more.

To shatter a Corelle merely creates a demand for more mass-produced cheap mugs.

To break a Chung cup, even accidentally, is a cultural sin unforgivable.

     Cloud Cup's value isn't in the form of it, else similar forms like Corelle's mugs could be equally priced. It isn't in the function of it, or the mugs might fetch a higher price. It is not in the mere aesthetics of the cup, or Chung could produce as many as Corelle does with identical patterns and they would all be as valuable. The value of Cloud Cup is beyond the actual object. But it is more than just a “very expensive decorative” work, it is Art.

     To be art requires that the artist intended to create art. But that is not enough on its own, or the 260,000 cups (many of them handmade) would all be worth something similar to Chung's cup (although, there is a strong argument that we should see them as more valuable than Esty users tend to do). The artist must use a hard-won and highly-developed set of skills and techniques, a set of knowledge about form, function, and aesthetics, to bring out of themselves some object. The object needs to be presented to the art world, and we have to collectively agree that the cup is no simple drinking vessel, but something so much more.

     Perhaps in the acquisition and possession of objects, the only way we can really, fully see the object for itself is to imagine losing the object, not just for ourselves but for all time. None of this has anything to do with the cup itself. It is all about the History of the cup, the current and past histories, but also the future histories once we too have drifted across the sky of living memory and faded from this existence. In this understanding, art can never be an investment; it is so much more.

     It is culture itself, artifacts of the present, once and future bearer and vessel of meaning, an object permanent in a world temporary, a fleeting piece of the artist's life, time, creativity, effort, of another human's soul, a touchstone of humanity, and a lens through which we construct our own identities. It is community. It is us.