The answer, of course, is yeah but no. Or, more precisely, no but yeah.
You’ve got some trouble immediately though, in that you need to define value, and in art, that’s virtually impossible. Unless you talk pricing, in which case there are books with huge lists of what every piece of everything is work. The older pieces are normally worth more, purely because they’ve survived.
But you’re still left with arbitrary distinctions.
The truth is that we engage with classic works in a different way to how we engage with contemporary material. There’s some amount of respect for the ‘presence’ of history in the older stuff, and there’s something true about that.
Works of art are, generally, attempts to communicate some kind of notion, concept, emotion, feeling or statement. It’s an attempt to cross the gulf that exists between people and transfer a message across. It’s telepathy.
Now, as soon as the piece is finished, it becomes fixed in it’s time. Its not just the author’s mind or message that has been communicated (which in turn is built up of the structures of meaning of the politics and environment that the creator existed in) it is the mind or message at that particular point in time. I’ve explored this idea before, but basically any piece of art or text is “irradiated by history”. One particular slice of mind, frozen in space in a piece of art, and sent into the future to communicate some unique message.
It’s telepathy and time travel, all at once.
So the older the work, the more it feels like you’re communicating with a distant alien land.
Which is more interesting, perhaps, but not necessarily inherently more valuable. For a start, the whole process is doomed to failure, and there’s no way of measuring success. I’m pretty sure that communication theory, through stories about generals sending messages through woods, that you can never be certain if a message has arrived, and so you can never start the war you’ve been planning without a whole lot of blind faith.
This is true of telepathy, even through methods as mundane as music, sculpture, poetry or dance.
There’s so much room for the signal to turn into noise. Too much room for interpretation. And the reader is irradiated too.
A new political (in the huger sense of the word, not just old men grunting at each other) moment exists, and that is the lens you look through.
But we still throw out these messages in bottles, optimistically written in gibberish.
But it’s still beautiful. The effort, the interpretation. The impact.
For me, there is the potential for all art to have impact. I like to let it get under my skin and take me for a ride. I’m more likely to engage with the deeper meaning of stuff from the modern era onwards, but I can see a pure, almost apolitical beauty in the classics.
Because the context is so far away.
It teaches, but it’s free.
Illustration by Jaime.