Art is coming face to face with yourself. – Jackson Pollock
Question: how do you measure your worth as a writer and is ‘worth’ the same as ‘value’ or ‘price’ or ‘cost’?
I’m feeling particularly worthless today. It happens. It’s been a while and it will pass. By the time I post this it will be well and truly past. By the time you read this probably two months will have elapsed. Will this post have appreciated with age like a good wine or is it starting to go off a bit like a lump of cheese. Is the whiff of self-indulgence getting a bit ripe? I can’t answer that. I’m sitting here two months in your past feeling a bit sorry for myself.
So what’s the difference between ‘worth’, ‘value’, ‘price’ and ‘cost’?
The easiest one for me is ‘worth’ – something is worth what someone is willing to pay. When I was collecting comics I remember coughing up £2 for a copy of Spider-Woman #2 because I needed it to complete my set. £2 was really too much to pay back then for a comic that retailed in the States for 35¢ but my need determined its worth to me. Of course if Marvel were selling the comic for 35¢ then it had to cost less than that to manufacture and distribute it. The price of 35¢ was simply what the market would bear. I think in the UK the retail price was 35p at the time. (Have you never noticed that before? The same item sold in the USA for 99¢ costs 99p here irrespective of where it was manufactured?)
What then about ‘value’? According to the political economist Henry George:
The value of a thing in any given time and place is the largest amount of exertion that anyone will render in exchange for it. But as men always seek to gratify their desires with the least exertion this is the lowest amount for which a similar thing can otherwise be obtained. – The Science of Political Economy, Chapter 8
So an item which cost £50 may be valued at £75 and priced at £100 but if all you can get is £60 then that’s what it’s worth. I know that’s a bit basic but I'm no economist and the simple fact is that there is a lot of overlap in the English language.
Ascertaining these amounts is easy when it comes to concrete things. You can look up the price of raw materials or components bought individually or in bulk, factor in shipping and labour costs and come up with prices that even leave you with a bit of ‘profit’ but what about a work of art? The current record price was paid for a work called No. 5, 1948 by Jackson Pollock which sold at $140,000,000 in 2006, ( approx. $150,600,000 in CPI-adjusted 2010 US dollars). I wonder how much the raw materials cost. The painting was done on an 8' x 4' sheet of fibreboard. You can buy a sheet of MDF that size for about £27. How much paint do you think you might need to cover it? Say a litre? Oil paint costs about £5 for 200ml so what are we saying, £25 and maybe a couple of hour’s labour? Seriously how long does it take to dribble paint? So what you do think it’s worth? More than the sum of its parts? Yeah, sure, but not $140,000,000. That’s just silly money.
That’s the thing about art. There is only one No. 5, 1948. The image on this site is not it. It’s a teeny-tiny copy.
Teri Horton bought [a] paint-splattered canvas at a California junk shop for a joke. But the joke may be on the art world instead. The retired lorry driver paid $5 for the drip painting in 1991, bartering the price down from $7. Now a fingerprint on the painting has raised the possibility that it is in fact a masterpiece by Jackson Pollock, the world’s priciest artist.
If it is accepted as authentic, the picture would be worth $40 million to $50 million (up to £26.2 million). – The Sunday Times, November 8, 2006
It’s all about supply and demand. Pollock has supplied one painting and a lot of people want it. Fortunately for his estate some of those people are super rich.
But what about a poem? What’s a poem worth? Specifically what are my poems worth?
What’s the difference between ‘worthless’ and ‘priceless’? They sound as if they should mean the same thing rather than opposites. Here’s a poem from my poetry collection This Is Not About What You Think. You can buy the collection if you live in the UK for £5.99. There are 132 pages in the book which means that pro rata the poem will cost you about 4½p to own a copy of or you can read it here for free:
The Power of Love
Love is a straight line –
it gets right to the heart of things.
Love squared is expansive –
it covers a multitude of sins.
Love to the power of three is deep –
it takes time to explore.
Give me your hand
and don't be afraid.
Because I’m letting you read it here for free, doesn’t that mean it’s worthless? I wonder how the woman I wrote the poem for feels about it. It was the first time anyone had ever written a poem for her. I’d like to think she still thinks it’s priceless.
I’m as bad as the next man when it comes to looking for a bargain. The Scots have a reputation for being frugal at best and downright miserly at worst. There’s a reason Scrooge McDuck is a Scot. (Actually he’s a Glaswegian.) The fact is that most Glaswegians I’ve met are generous to a fault, me included. That said I’m also a practical man. I don’t have a huge income and we do count the pennies. When Carrie and I were both working we lived according to our means and very comfortable it was then. If we saw something we liked we bought it. But even then I would still shop around. You don’t throw money away even when you have it. At least I don’t. And now I don’t have it to throw away. Strangely enough I don’t miss it that much because I often bought things I didn’t really need. Now that’s the first question I ask and the answer usually is: Not as much as you think you do, son. Many people factor in employment – or at least employability – when it comes to self-esteem which is another word for an “evaluation or appraisal of one’s own worth.” The value of one’s worth. See what I mean about English confusing the issue.
Needless to say there are a number of differing definitions of ‘self-esteem’ – Wikipedia lists three – but it’s something that psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden says that caught my interest:
…self-esteem [is] an automatic and inevitable consequence of the sum of individuals' choices in using their consciousness.
In other words we have a say in what we think we’re worth but just because we believe something doesn’t make it true. Pollock famously was crippled by self-doubt. I wonder if knowing one day that a single painting on an old board would fetch $140,000,000 would have made any difference. But then that would be his ‘worth’ not his ‘self-worth’. Maybe he’d have been looking for $150,000,000 for it.
Putting a price on something is only a start. My wife says I sell my books too cheaply. She says that people might look suspiciously at them and assume because I’m not charging the same as others then somehow the product isn’t worth as much. I’m not sure that’s right. You can buy a page of Tolstoy for the same price as a page of Jackie Collins. In fact you might even need to pay a bit more for the Collins. I used to work in a Dry Cleaners many moons ago. We also sold photographic supplies. Our own brand was actually made by Fujifilm but sold for half the price. Of course we didn’t tell the punters that but I can tell you what film I bought. (Actually that’s not true – I bought Ilford XP2.)
In an article on the Uncommon Knowledge site Mark Tyrrell lists nine things that are needed to form a solid foundation on which to build self-esteem:
- The need to give and receive attention
- Taking care of the mind-body connection
- The need for meaning, purpose and goals
- The need for a connection to something greater than ourselves
- The need for creativity and stimulation
- The need for intimacy and connection
- The need for a sense of control
- The need for status
- The need for a sense of safety and security
Granted, he says, “it is likely that at any one time, one or more of these may be slightly lacking in your life, without dire consequences. However, in the long-term, they must all be catered for one way or another.”
There are a few there that caught my interest because they really depend on external factors. #1 – receiving attention from others, #8 – status in the eyes of others, #4 – a connection with something outside ourselves. I could argue that more of them depend to some extent on external factors but you get the idea.
How do I know that my estimation of my own worth is right? Let’s say I want to sell my flat. I know what I paid for it and what flats in the area are selling for so why can’t I just do my sums and advertise the property for a fair price? Well I suppose in some places you can do just that but here we need to get independent valuers in to set a fair price. That doesn’t mean I’ll get that – I might get more or less – but that’s what the property will be deemed to be worth to the general public. Someone might want to live here desperately – not sure why but let’s run with that – and so be willing to pay two or three grand over the asking price. I actually think Carrie and I paid four grand over the asking price when we bought the place. But that was then.
Jeanette Winterson once created a kerfuffle when she was asked in 1992 to name the best novel of the year because she chose her own, Written on the Body. In a recent interview in The Guardian she admitted: "I was in those days all about the 'fuck you'. Fuck you for not recognising how great I am. I'll do it myself." She admits looking back that she went a bit OTT but up to a point I can see where she’d coming from. In fact I think every writer out there should have themselves on their own Top 10 Writers lists.
I am. (A little louder please.) I AM!
I write poetry the way I think it should be done, I write the poetry I want to read. I wish I could find another me out there so I could have different stuff to read that was like mine. Unfortunately Larkin’s dead and Brautigan and Pinter and Bukowski. I don’t actually think I have a Top Ten. I could probably stretch to seven including me.
Do I have the right to hold my writing in such esteem or am I being delusional? Hardly anyone knows me. I’ve won no major awards, no minor awards. I don’t have letters after my name and freely admit to not being well read. I’ve not even been published by a well-known publisher. Maybe what I need to do is wait, like Vincent van Gogh, until I’m dead. Death definitely helps sales. I’m surprised more artists don’t do it.
We started off this article with me feeling worthless and now I'm comparing myself to Van Gogh. A bit of a turnaround there, eh? No, I still feel worthless. I’m just trying to convince myself that I’m not. But I feel better after just writing 2000 words. What this is not is a plea for reassurance. My ego does not need stroking. If it was I’d have posted this two months ago. I just like to let people know that I’m like everyone else. I have moments of agonising self-loathing. There are times I hate every word I write. I wrote a poem this morning. I think it’s crap. I added about a dozen words to my novel yesterday and it’s just as well the thing was on a screen otherwise I might’ve ripped the page out and torn it up just for the sheer pleasure of tearing it up. I could’ve printed out a copy to tear up but the frugal Scot in me wouldn’t waste the paper and ink.
We’ll just have to see what tomorrow, and the next couple of months, bring.
P.S. A few hours after I wrote this I learned that Colin Will, a well-respected member of the Scottish poetry establishment, had posted a review of my new poetry book of which he had this to say:
This is a fine collection by a thoughtful, subtle and perceptive writer, and it deserves to be widely read.
What can I say? You can read the whole review here.
P.P.S. What with one thing and another it's been nearly four months since I wrote this post.