Priceless: The Value of Nothing

Oscar Wilde escaped the indictment of resting on cliché by the happy trick of inventing most of the best of them. Even then, only barely.

One of his most enduring is the definition of a cynic: "A man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing." It's the sort of quip delivered with a wry smile, impersonating a powerful truism. We think we recognize and appreciate a nicely placed jab at the data-driven among us. After all, as idealists we get a little exasperated with tedious attention to prices over people, numbers over names, logic over love. It's nice to see Wilde put the cynics neatly in their place.

But is it true? Analyzing a cliché is even more treacherous than using one, but Wilde scored a nice coup with his, and in the interests of a vigorous debate I'd like to join the yielding party for a moment.

For argument's sake, let's turn the phrase around. If a cynic knows the price of everything but the value of nothing, then a romantic must be a man who knows the value of everything but the price of nothing.

Could it be that this romantic outlook is inherently selfish? Certainly, the man who knows the value of everything is entitled to his opinion. The value of a Rembrandt may be, in his mind, "incalculable." The value of a sunset "inestimable," the value of open space "immeasurable." But where do such value judgments leave the rest of us? His opinion would trump mine if he were somehow given the power of coercion, and the romantic would then gain the right to control access to this "incalculably valuable" resource. And is it really so far fetched to believe he could gain this power? Call me cynical if you will, but my memory brims with many a tale of individuals using the power of the state to deem something "worthy" of either public use or public exclusion.

The beauty of price, in contrast, is that it represents a consensus, a vote as it were, of the collective judgment of something's relative value. A Rembrandt's worth is not "incalculable" but is actually $33 million at Christie's. A Waikiki sunset will cost about $1000, whereas the Arizona version can be enjoyed for about 10 labor-minutes. Keeping our ranch as open space cost about $100,000.

I may happen to think that a Rembrandt is an overblown compilation in dark, and would be happy with a lighter Cassatt. You may think it's worth something to have me step out from in front of your sunset. The Nature Conservancy might be willing to lease my open space for ten thousand a year; Defenders of Wildlife might be willing to pay eleven. Who knows? But this "cynical" pricing approach at least gives everyone a chance to state his or her opinion in the grand market of relative tastes. How very democratic.

The clever romantics (and we all are) will point out that pricing a resource is every bit as exclusionary as coercion. The man with millions in the bank can keep the rest of us from seeing his Rembrandt at least as effectively as the romantic with a court decree and a pistol. What's interesting, though, is how seldom that sort of private exclusion actually occurs. The world's most famous and valuable paintings, for instance, are almost all available for public viewing. The United States National Gallery of Art affords even the poorest of citizens a chance to enjoy one of the world's finest collections of exquisite art. The gallery (both the original collection and the building itself) was provided through the personal contributions of Andrew Mellon, who, if we are to believe the romantics, should have instead excluded the rest of us.

We can see Rembrandt at the Prado, da Vinci at the Louvre, and Manet at the Getty for very few more labor-minutes than the cost of a sunset. Each of these artists endured the unromantic process of seeking patronage, pricing their works, and selling their goods on the open market. The cumulative votes of millions of individuals throughout time have afforded their works lasting value, but they are hardly "inestimable." That they are now on display as a public good to be enjoyed by all is due entirely to the exertions of cynics who knew their price.

The other beautiful thing about prices is that they allow for adjustments in opinion. "Immeasurable" doesn't allow for much wiggle room, whereas a price is always, always, subject to haggling. Jackson Pollock's No. 5, 1948 is the most expensive painting ever sold. Since it resembles the dropcloth in a particularly messy kitchen remodel, I can only hope that my chances of acquiring a Cassatt are on the rise... (By the way, is there anything, as Wilde required of all art, "unconscious, ideal, and remote" about No. 5?)

I wonder then if the counterpoint to Wilde's cynic, this romantic who "knows the value of everything but the price of nothing," isn't really a rather dangerous sort. It is purely egocentric, self-serving in the extreme, to declare that prices are irrelevant, and that aesthetic judgment is supreme. The moment this judgment escapes the sovereign limits of the self (and it very often does), is the moment that this "critic" becomes a tyrant. And as is so often the case, the moment this tyrant grabs the reins of power is the moment that his values become yours. And mine. And everyone else's.

Prices, understood as the democratic collection of individual judgments, are the elegant signals that allow this system to run fairly. While not ignoring Wilde's larger point that we should not limit our personal tastes to the judgment of the masses (appreciating only 'pricey' things), we should probably pay some heed to the signals prices present to us. If we have a particularly strong aesthetic opinion, we'd better be prepared to work to find the means to purchase our claim and affix a price to it. This, I realize, may sound rather hard-bitten and unromantic but at least it's just.

Many find this position impossibly hard to bear. Since the general public cannot be trusted to know the 'proper' value of things (such as open space), it is much more convenient to harness the power of the state to take instead of pay for the desired end.

Sales, auctions, and markets may seem scruffy and inelegant to our refined temperaments, but is the alternative so very much more sophisticated? The Nazis (who apparently knew the value of the Hermitage collection) took the old-fashioned approach to art collecting: looting. For the life of me, I can't imagine an alternative to prices and markets that isn't founded upon theft.

If we are to believe Wilde, cynics wallow in the grubby world of prices while romantics glide through the rarified world of "value." So perhaps the best way to counter his thrust is with a truism of my own (a cliché soon, with any luck): We are all romantics before the sale, cynics afterward...