Relative Values, Or, What's Art Worth?
``How can we justify the commitment and passion lavished on objects which look unsubstantial and seem to be of no practical use?'' This is just one of the questions addressed in this excellent primer on the shifting meaning--and hence value--of what we label ``art.'' Written as a companion to a BBC series, this accessible, intelligent book avoids the sophistry and fatuousness of Morley Safer's controversial 60 Minutes report on contemporary art, although it really should have been updated for U.S. release (much space is devoted to Mass MOCA, a project on semipermanent hold). Each of the five chapters is devoted to an important part of the valuation equation, including the development of the relatively recent myth of the artist as suffering genius rather than mere craftsman. Another chapter examines the art market and how ``it does not merely sell art commodities but actively helps to define what counts as art.'' The motives of collectors and patrons come under scrutiny, and the final chapter focuses on museums, ``which separate and enshrine the aesthetic properties of all artworks . . . by ensuring that their value is not debased by contact with objects lacking this exclusive glamour.'' The authors strengthen their contentions by including both contemporary and historical anecdotes, which serve the separate purpose of making this a very engaging read. (July)