Adam Smith argued that the amount of work you put into something determines it’s worth. He explained the “Labor Theory of Value” in Wealth of Nations:
The real price of everything, what everything really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it. What everything is really worth to the man who has acquired it, and who wants to dispose of it or exchange it for something else, is the toil and trouble which it can save to himself, and which it can impose upon other people (Wealth of Nations Book 1, chapter V).
I can attest from personal experience that effort ≠ value. From childhood through my freshman year in college, I spent countless hours in ballet classes. I worked really hard. Yet I always missed a beat in dances and never perfected my split. No matter how hard I tried, I looked more like an awkward giraffe than a swan in dances like the one I performed from Swan Lake.
A much more accurate theory of value is a subjective one. Because 1,000 hours of ballet class ≠ a graceful Swan Lake. The Subjective Theory of Value implies that things do not have inherent value, and their value isn’t tied to the maker’s effort. Instead, how much people desire, need, or enjoy something sets it’s value.
My college drawing professor, Duane Keiser, started his “Painting a Day” project based (likely unknowingly) on subjective value. For two years, Keiser completed a painting every single day and posted it on his blog. He’s gained a huge following, but he’s also received massive criticism, mainly from artists and art aficionados skeptical that an artist can complete a good painting so quickly.
Subjectively of course, I adore his paintings. They’re studies in the mundane things that surround us, the things we rarely take time to examine.
The labor theory versus subjective value argument goes back pretty far in art history. James McNeil Whistler, a significant artist in the Aesthetic Movement (1868-1901) went to court over this very principle when he sued art critic James Ruskin for libel over criticizing his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (Ruskin essentially accused Whistler of throwing a pot of paint in the public’s face).
During the trial, Ruskin’s lawyer asked Whistler “Did it take you much time to knock off Nocturne in Black and Gold?”
When Whistler estimated it took him a couple of days, the lawyer retorted, “The labor of two days, is that what you ask for two hundred guineas?”
Whistler famously responded that the price is for “the knowledge of a lifetime”.
And that’s why paintings like Malevich’s Red Square: Peasant Woman end up in museums. Not for the time it took him to color a square red, but his vision to think past the Renaissance.