There’s a better way to determine cultural value.

In January of this year, a portrait painted by Sandro Botticelli sold for a record-breaking $92.2 million at Sotheby’s New York to an undisclosed party. A press release from Sotheby’s celebrated it as “One of the Greatest Renaissance Paintings Ever to Come to the Market” and “The Highest Ever Price Achieved for an Old Master at Sotheby’s” having “shattered…Botticelli’s auction record by 9 times.” A sale like this is often framed (as it is in the Sotheby’s press release) as an incredible achievement, solidifying the artist and their work as an important aspect of the fine art canon. But Botticelli has been dead for just over 500 years, and the piece in question was being auctioned from the private collection of real estate tycoon Sheldon Solow. This was not a success for Botticelli—it was a success for Solow and Sotheby’s.

This week’s episode begins with a discussion of the work, life, and legacy of photographer Francesca Woodman. That discussion opens the door to the larger issue of how we view the people who create the media we all consume. It’s easy to forget that no matter the vintage or medium or acclaim, there is always at least one actual human being behind a work of art—a person just like you or I with hopes and dreams and fears and sins and desires. By forgetting this fact, we are able to consume the fruits of artists without considering the realities of being a person who makes art. This is especially problematic in the world of contemporary art and culture, where we can hold up success stories as supporting evidence for the fiction of the American Dream without considering the realities of that individual, or of the millions of individuals we ignore in their stead.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We as a society can fund the arts, provide universal access to basic resources, and guarantee every citizen—artist and otherwise—the right to a decent and respectable life; but to do so, we must first reckon with the ideas and myths our culture celebrates. Only once we do that, once truly reimagine what we value in individuals as a society, will we finally be able to fully wrest control of our histories and culture from the robber barons.

I don’t know about you, but I think that outcome would be preferable to having to eat them.

Thanks for listening,
Mason

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