What price beauty?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and value is in the pocket of the payer – this is my text for today. We are brought up on the concept of fixed values: things in shops (at least in the developed North) have set prices, and our choice is simply whether or not to buy them. But of course it is all a charade as the same thing may be sold in another shop at a quite different price, where it thus becomes an alternative and conflicting ‘fact’ about the item’s value. ‘Never knowingly undersold’ means (it’s certainly not obvious): ‘we will not put the price down unless we know for a fact that someone nearby is selling it more cheaply’!

There seems to be something rather distasteful about putting a price on art though, doesn’t there? Its value should somehow be transcendent. But this does not make sense: things find their own value as we devote money to what we want – and the rarer it is, the more we have to invest in order to beat off other contenders.

Artists have to earn an honest crust, or a dishonest one. It is hard not to admire the shrewd marketing skills of that well known woman who made a fortune by selling her filthy bed. Despite its lack of instrinsic merit, she majored on the fact that it was unique to her, and persuaded everyone that she was interesting enough for this to matter. Beauty – or rather cupidity – was in the eye of the beholder; value (a considerable one) was in the pocket of the buyer.

The nemesis of talented artists, by contrast, is the scourge of mass-production, which devalues their well-designed, desirable work to the class of ‘two-a-penny’. If they themselves mass-produce it, they themselves accumulate those pennies; but if they sell it, once, to a manufacturer they sell the goose that lays golden eggs.

Then there is the question of intrinsic merit in relation to mass-produced items. Beauty may very well be in evidence, but other valued qualities such as rarity or craftsmanship (part of the perceived intrinsic merit of an antique) are lacking.

What about the 44-piece complete Staffordshire (Booth’s) early 20th-century ‘Mosaic panel’ tea service that I recently purchased (illustrated)? Transfer-printed at the time to reduce cost for those respectable middle classes who could not afford Spode or similar, it nevertheless features lovely hand-painted colour detail on the pheasants and hand-applied gold edging to the panels. Each piece must be worth a few pounds surely, on pure artistic and aesthetic appeal, and one might think the whole tea service would have a value greater than the sum of its parts. Not so, apparently, since the charming tradition of formal afternoon tea has more or less died a death – except, perhaps at the Ritz – ousted by the informal coffee-shop culture. Who wants a 44-piece tea service when a few pretty items for a china cabinet would do? In this case, the parts are worth more individually than combined, if one could find time to market them this way – but who would have the heart to separate them, these old friends that have been together a lifetime?

Personally I love the tradition of afternoon tea and am an advocate of bringing it back, at least on special occasions. Like vinyl records played on a vintage record player or radiogram, maybe the formal tea service will come back into its own. Maybe I will hang on to mine for a while. I have a birthday coming up and feel a tea party coming on.

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