Jean Michel Basquiat’s “Riddle Me This, Batman”, produced in 1987 is a Neo-Expressionist figurative painting (see fig. A.1). It was first shown in Paris’s Galerie Yvon Lambert. Two months after its debut, the piece exchanged hands several times, emerging briefly from private collections only to be snapped up at auction. Most recently, it was sold at a Sotheby’s auction for over six-million USD.
Mark sagoff 119
Million dollar pieces were common in the 1980’s. During this time, the price of neo-expressionist works increased steadily. In the market place of public bidding-wars and private sales it seemed that art no longer had intrinsic value. The ever-increasing prices of these works drove many artists to manufacture pieces in turn making huge profits. However, this rather pessimistic consumerist view of art did not replace the true aesthetic value of Basquiat’s “Riddle Me This, Batman”. Rather it is Basquiat’s ability to produce and express reflections of culture, identity, and of the pains of life, which resist the monetary function of aesthetic value, in favor of an aesthetic standard as a matter of taste.
Aesthetic value is determined by a standard. Typically, this standard is called beauty. While beauty is conceptually simple, easily evoked in the mind’s eye, it becomes far more complex when used as a scale of aesthetic judgment. Treating one piece of art as more beautiful than another implies that beauty can be measured, and in order to do this measuring an objective standard must be used. There are two problems in understanding beauty to be an objective standard. In his essay, The Aesthetic Hypothesis Clive Bell illustrates that aesthetic value is a matter of taste:
All systems of aesthetics must be the personal experiences of a peculiar emotion. […]This emotion is called the aesthetic emotion; and if we can discover some quality common to all the objects that provoke it, we shall have discovered the essential quality in a work of art from all other classes of objects. […] ‘Significant Form’ is the one quality common to all works of visual art.
‘Significant form’ is substituted for beauty for two reasons. First, beauty reduces to a universal, excluding its use as a standard. If beauty can be an objective standard, then it also must be particular, in that it can be known. If beauty is understood as an underlying principle, or essence of art that evokes aesthetic emotion—where essence is defined by “what it is said to be in respect of itself” —then absent of the predications that describe beauty, such as the accuracy of representation, technical skill, or impressive form, all that remains is beauty evidently. Secondly, people are apt to use beauty to predicate a subject absent of the aesthetic emotion that its presence evokes. Therefore, “any system of aesthetics which pretends to be based on some objective truth is palpably ridiculous ”. Using the framework formerly established, in conjunction with analysis from Clive Bell,...