What makes Art Valuable ? / by Jeannine Cook

How do we value art? Each of us has a different scale of values and different definitions of art. But there are enough instances when everyone agrees on art being of great value and part of our cultural heritage. I was reminded of this when I heard a discussion on the BBC programme, Outlook, this week, during which there was an interview with Cori Wegener, Associate Curator of Decorative Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. She was talking of the efforts to save artworks made almost immediately after the earthquake struck Haiti in January. Heroic efforts were made to rescue and protect the rich and diverse cultural heritage there and they have continued ever since to try and ensure there will be artwork for future generations of Haiti.

What impels people to risk their own lives and well being to go in and rescue artworks? It is almost visceral, I suspect, for those who have a respect and love for things of beauty, which are testimony to man's - and woman's - skill, passion, culture, need to create... The list of heroic actions to save artworks of all descriptions is long. When there was the huge fire at Windsor Castle in 1992, the works of art - Master drawings, paintings, manuscripts and books - and furniture, carpets, miniatures and other valuables were rescued. Another time when Cori Wegener became involved directly was after the Baghdad Museum was looted during the Iraqi invasion. Then an Army Reservist, she was sent to help assess the damage at the Museum and help restore the situation. Floods in Florence, Prague or Venice all evoke huge efforts to save art in past years, while an earthquake situation, in Aquila, Italy last year caused enormous distress at the lost of art and architecture.

The list goes on and on, but implicit in all the stories reported in the press is the message: people do care - very much - about art of all descriptions. They consider it important enough to save, even at risk of their own well being. Indeed, there is the Blue Shield organisation, which was set up to protect the world's cultural heritage by coordinating preparations to meet and respond to emergency situations, the cultural version of the Red Cross. Its existence is an interesting assessment of the value of art to mankind.