What’s it worth?

MARCH 3 — Did you hear about this week’s big-money signing?

A fee of £45 million (RM215 million) was required to secure the services of the star asset, but that lofty sum did not deter the proud new owners, who were happy to dig deep into their financial reserves and then ecstatically proclaim the enormous asking price as a “bargain.”

But, on this occasion, the star signing in question was not a hotshot international footballer. It was a painting.

Yes, the English and Scottish National Galleries have just joined forces to purchase Titian’s Diana and Callisto masterpiece. The painting will be displayed on a rotating basis between London and Edinburgh, alongside sister piece Diana and Actaeon which was subject of a joint £50 million purchase by the two galleries in 2009.

Over here in the UK, the whole thing is being treated is as a matter of upholding national honour, with the BBC’s website breathlessly enthusing that the painting has been “saved for the nation”... which is all rather strange when you consider that Titian was Italian and under the patronage of Philip II, King of Spain.

I admit that I’m not an art aficionado and, rather than being overwhelmed with national pride, my first reaction to the news was similar to the response invariably given by non-sports fans upon discovering the vast sums earned by leading footballers: “£95 million for two paintings?! You have got to be kidding! How on earth can they possibly be worth that much money?”

That impression was augmented by the fact that the British government was one of the main contributors. In these financially challenging times, it seems to be an abuse of public funds: just think of the hospital wings that could have been refurbished... the schools that could have been built... the social infrastructure programmes that could have been undertaken. And instead the money has been used to buy two paintings? It just can’t be right.

However, on further reflection, I came to realise that such a point of view would be somewhat hypocritical because the concepts of money, value and exchange are anything but simple.

The most fundamental point about money is that it is entirely arbitrary, changeable and subjective. Exactly the same sum of money means very different things to different people: in a highly developed nation, one US dollar is neither here nor there; in other parts of the world, it’s a highly respectable daily wage.

While we tend to think of money as pretty much universal and fixed in value, in reality it is entirely fluid, and that characteristic must be taken into account when deciding whether any commodity is “worth” a certain sum. It’s also important to consider the two, often very different, interpretations of the word “value”: economic value and moral value.

From a dispassionate, financial perspective, anything is worth exactly the price that somebody is prepared to pay for it. If a gallery owner is prepared to pay £45 million for a painting, it is “worth” precisely that amount. The pure economic viewpoint is to let the market decide: if the market decides that a painting should be valued at £45 million, then so be it.

The moral value, however, may be an entirely different matter. Just because a gallery is prepared to pay £45 million for a painting; or a football club is prepared to pay a footballer £10 million a year to run around a field; or a movie studio is prepared to pay an A-list actor £20 million to appear in their movie; or a successful entrepreneur is prepared to splash out £25 million on his own private jet... that doesn’t make it morally right.

But if you reject any of those examples out of a moral principle, you have to reject them all.

It’s very easy to be unknowingly hypocritical when it comes to money — many people will rage against the bonuses paid to bankers whilst simultaneously being perfectly happy to cheer on Cristiano Ronaldo as he flies down the wing for Real Madrid; or object to the salaries of leading footballers and instead indulge in Adam Sandler’s latest love story; or take the high-minded approach and reject the whole kaleidoscope of vulgar popular culture, but then feed cultural cravings by visiting a gallery to view a £50 million painting.

Ultimately, all these examples and many more are plainly wrong, in a moral sense. Of course, Yaya Toure isn’t morally “worth” £250,000 a week when the same sum could be used to employ 20 nurses or teachers for an entire year. Of course, a painting isn’t worth £50 million when the same sum could be used to subsidise university fees for thousands of students.

But we live in a system dominated by economic value, where the market is king and moral considerations are negligible. The value of commodities is decided by the subjective market, not by objective morality. That won’t change until the entire basis of the global capitalist economy disappears... which won’t be anytime soon.

And if we do want to take the moral standpoint by condemning extravagant displays of wealth, perhaps we should reflect that such objections might be more meaningful if they were more consistently applied.

Does that mean I have to cancel my satellite TV subscription?

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.


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