The Cost of Value

The true worth of art lies within in its humanity, not its prestige.

Painted by the author

There are two versions of the dreaded phrase, “my kid could paint that!” The first is the battle cry of the cynical, reluctant art goer. Usually when looking at abstract and/or contemporary work, there is a notion that art is “easy,” because a child is prone to splatter, colour, and non-photorealism. To this person, the only difference between Jackson Pollack and a four year-old, is artistic pretentiousness. The second use of the phrase is worse; doting parents who obsess over their children so much that they believe their child can make art that’s worth as much as a Pollack. Thing is, they’re not completely wrong. Anyone can make art. The problem is, be it parents to their kids, sarcastic viewers to a painting, or the art industry’s gatekeepers to its neophytes, art is no longer art when it becomes a currency.

I have been an artist, in some form or another, since I was eleven years old. My parents, frightened by ambitions to be a cartoonist, did what all good immigrants do — they made my passions more professional. I’m grateful for the years of painting apprenticeship that taught me skills, but I had no interest in still-lifes, colour theory, or even touching watercolour and oil paint when I began. I wanted to tell stories with orcs, Zulu warriors, Manta Rays, and, of course, theme park gardeners, like all little boys, right? But that was not art, I was told. My art was childish cartooning, not serious painting. It was imagination versus real, still life.

The fun of art had been sucked out. I felt convinced that real art looked like and only looked like what adults, the elite of my world at the time, preferred. It is no surprise that my already burgeoning love of moving, living cinema — the people’s art! — overtook any aspirations to be a classy “artist.” I called curtains on any ambitions to become a painter and focused on writing stories for the characters in my head. It would be a decade before I began painting seriously again.

On the last day of the Hebrew language after-school class I teach, one of my fifth graders, Aidy, surprised me with a gift. It was a drawing. Vibrant in colour, with patterns and her name written all over it, Aidy handed it to me sheepishly proudly. It wasn’t a masterpiece, but clearly Aidy had poured a little bit of herself into the drawing. “I told my art teacher it was for my dad, but it’s for you,” she said.

“Why would you do that, I asked? Why don’t you give it to him? I’m sure he’d love it,” I replied with slight discomfort.

I noticed the style of the drawing was similar to the small painting I had shared with my class after a whole year of provocation. I felt proud to have inspired a new creative mind, but I also wondered if there was a need for validation behind her imitation. I worried that her appreciation of my style meant I had determined for her what was “good art” by the same default I had fallen trap to at her age — I am an adult. I’m in power.

Of all my students, Aidy felt the most like a surrogate family member. Incredibly small, attention-seeking, prone to procrastinating, and full of energy and sass, Aidy had felt close to me ever since she’d opened up, crying, about having a falling out with a friend at school. I saw she needed a little looking out for, so that’s what I did. My teacher’s compassion must have cemented some kind of fraternal or paternal bond, because from that day forward she behaved as if I’d watched over her throughout her life.

She felt seen and with that felt comfortable enough to be vulnerable. Time and time again she admitted to a fear of failure and her self confidence pinballed each week. She treasured my patience and protection and as her teacher and mentor, I came to care for her too, but not without my discomforts and barriers.

“Your dad would really love this piece, Aidy,” I reprised. “No, he’ll just put it in a folder and never look at it again,” she replied without making eye contact, “That’s what he always does.”

Painted by the author

The difference between creating art and making a product comes down to intention. One is meant as a tangible form of expression while the other is meant to draw a profit. These days it’s hard to tell which is which. Both art and products have consumers, but aside from the industry around art, a work is not born a commodity. It is a manifestation of something within the artist, on display to create a cognitive dialogue above all else. In my experience, it seems the base level desire to externalize ideas and emotions into art has been drowned out by the prospect of making millions like the Damien Hirsts and Jeff Koonses of the world, or gallerists like Larry Gagosian.

Look, I want to make millions of dollars too. I’m not some bohemian fanatic. Still, if aesthetic history has taught us anything, quality over quantity always prices higher. You can be a purist and take the cheques. However, when making a profit is the only goal in a creative endeavour, it is ultimately worthless.

When one approaches art with a consumerist mindset, where taste is a variable in calculating worth, it is unsurprising that quality becomes defined by preexisting examples. One then slots art into boxes that fit an agenda based on commerce, instead of personal connection. It’s no surprise that so many parents either don’t recognize a child’s creative potential as anything more than playtime, or they capitalize on it, but guide it by their own hand — their own idea of what is “good art” — subsequently eliminating the artist, the source.

“He’ll just put it in a folder and never look at it again.” Those words made my heart sink. I’d met Aidy’s parents. They were lovely, but whether deliberate or not, Aidy clearly experienced some sort of dismissal. Thinking about Aidy’s feeling of creative rejection clicked everything together. I felt like Sherlock Holmes solving the mystery of her need for attention and validation, and especially her fear of failure. Aidy attempted to communicate feelings through art. Her father saw only paper with colour, not a glimpse into his daughter’s world. Aidy’s father’s lack of enthusiasm convinced her she was doomed to fail and therefore trying was not worth it. Self-expression was not worth it. Misbehaving and procrastinating subconsciously replaced it.

True art holds a piece of its creator within it always. Sometimes it’s just a touch and other times it’s like staring into the artist’s soul. To reject art is to reject the artist, even if it’s not intentional. Not everyone has to like each other, and therefore not everyone should feel inclined to like every piece of art. As critic Jerry Saltz said in May 2018 in response to an observation of overly abundant positive art reviews, “I believe that being critical is a way of showing art respect.” Regardless of whether we like it or not, we must acknowledge art and believe in its potential.

When we ignore what goes into art and see it solely as an accessory or entertainment, we also objectify the artist and close ourselves off to our own inner exploration. The idea of “good” vs. “bad” art is a complicated one, where answers differ based on taste, reputation, and monetary worth. What is undeniable, however, is to make art without personality, without soul, without a human touch is to make an empty product worth only its price tag. To view art as a product is to suck the life out of it and deem the work and its creator worthless. A viewer that cannot see merit beyond an initial dopamine response is not really viewing. A viewer who doesn’t believe art can have an evocative power will never experience it. Ultimately art is not sensory. It’s emotional.

I tried thrice more to convince Aidy to give the piece to her dad, honestly believing she was assuming poorly of him or didn’t understand that he appreciated her work, and that’s exactly why he was putting it away. My father saved all of my old cartoons and school art projects for years. My father loves my imagination (and is also a nefarious hoarder). Aidy refused, but I did not take the drawing out of pity. I wanted it. I think it’s beautiful in its own way, but more importantly I see something with feeling — with a human story. I accepted that drawing because I believe in it. I value it. And as I said goodbye to Aidy for the summer, I could see that, just as I had as a teacher, I was accepting her in that moment. I believe in her. I value her.


Gregory Uzelac is a writer, artist, and educator based in New York City. Follow his Instagram at @greguzelac or check out his website, www.guzelac.com.