What Is Beauty Worth?

A photo I took years ago of the main altar in Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica was recently included in an auction of various visual art creations (paintings, sculptures, photos, etc.) in a fundraiser for the Austin Museum of Art.

Donating my artwork for sale got me to thinking about creativity and, more broadly, our human and natural expressions of beauty. A couple of movie scenes leapt to mind as insightful commentary on the subject.

In the Academy award-winning film “American Beauty,” there is a mesmerizing scene with two of its teenage characters when they watch a video of a plastic bag drifting in the wind that the young man filmed and describes as “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” The message is that beauty is all around us, we just have to take a moment to look for and recognize it.

Contrast that scene with one from another Academy award-winning film, “Wall Street.” In a key scene towards the climactic end of the movie, the two main characters – a Wall Street mogul and his protégé, played by Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen, respectively – are discussing the nature of wealth.

Douglas’s character points to a painting on his office wall and remarks “this painting here…I bought it ten years ago for sixty thousand dollars – I could sell it today for six hundred. The illusion has become real…and the more real it becomes, the more desperate they want it.” It’s a classic moment of film – all in a single take, I might add. You can download the clip to watch it, since there isn’t a readily available trailer playing it.

These contrasting perspectives on beauty were perfectly juxtaposed recently when a Picasso painting set the new world record for a work of art selling at auction for more than $106 million. I thought the New York Times critic’s description of the dynamics driving the price were fascinating.

In summary, if I may, he said the buyer of the Picasso topped all others in competing for a prized trophy, not a work of creative brilliance or unique, historic painting of great beauty. Or, in the critic’s words:

These days, there’s so much money in so many hands, and so many of those hands are after trophy art, that record-breaking has become routine, de rigueur.

Two, three, four million extra? More? Worth it. After all, if you’re the evening’s big spender, you not only suddenly own some fantastically valuable object, but your extravagance gets a mention in the news. Lay out the same bucks for a hospital wing, and who cares?

Indeed, the global art world is a fabulously diverse study cultural anthropology. I had a vague sense of this unique diversity, as a semi-literate layperson and visual arts admirer.

But, the full color of this magnificent sub-culture was brought home in totally engrossing way when I picked up a copy of Seven Days in the Art World. It is a fantastic read.

Likewise, I had a chance to spend a couple hours last afternoon at the Alamo Drafthouse to be completely entertained watching “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” the new movie by the graffiti “entre-tainer” Banksy.

If you are like me and are a fan of a good story, regardless of the topic, then my hope is you will be enchanted with both of these, like I was. But, in addition to being a total riot (in the case of the movie) or page-turner (for the book), they both offer some lessons from the world of visual arts for the world of entrepreneurship.

Specifically, that truly original creations frequently involve years of preparation, significant doubt and mental anguish, financial struggle and self-sacrifice, enormous passion and an unrelenting drive that often borders on the edge of what most others would observe as physically or psychologically reasonable.

Sound familiar? If so, I toast you, my fellow artists, patrons, and participants in the creative art of conceiving and building new products, services, and the companies that result. And, hopefully, I’ve just reminded you that the left-brain business types and right-brain creative types are often much more alike than they are different.