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Much is made of the “subjective value of art”. Listen to some and you would be forgiven for thinking that there are no absolutes whatsoever in the value of art – that there is no point trying to score a piece of artwork by its virtues or shortcomings and any attempt to do so is a kind of neo fascism. In reality a piece of art does have many objective values but the weight those values have in the eye of the appreciator make the difference in how that artwork is subjectively enjoyed.

What happens when that artwork had to destroy something in order to be created? This story is nothing new: the tyrenian purple dye used in ancient Rome cost 8,000 whelks for every gram, such was the production process. This made it very expensive, though I doubt many people lost sleep over the massacre of whelks.

Anyone with a property that has been singled out by a graffiti artist will have to make a decision about whether the art on their beloved wall has raised the value of the wall or lowered it. This ultimately depends upon the history of the wall and the quality of the art.

An example of Banksy graffiti.

An example of Banksy graffiti.

Sometimes it’s a clear-cut distinction: a Banksy on a rather machine-cut modern wall of no import or an offensive racial slur on the side of an ancient temple. It’s easy to say whether the addition has raised or lowered the overall value. Other times, the issue is much murkier.

National Geographic ran a story a few months ago on the Russian mammoth ivory trade. According to the article, mammoth tusks still litter the Russian steppes many millennia after their extinction. Some people earn their livelihood searching for them and selling them. Ivory-obsessed cultures such as China buy the tusks and, in the specific case of China, spend up to five years carving the ivory into something else. An example of the ivory carved artworks can be found here. There’s no denying that the resulting pieces are skilfully done but, personally, they don’t justify the deliberate destruction of something already beautiful and irreplaceable like mammoth ivory.

Then you get something like this:

26 000 year old Cro-Magnon ivory carving

26 000 year old Cro-Magnon ivory carving

26 000 year old Cro-Magnon ivory carving

26 000 year old Cro-Magnon ivory carving

Just like the modern Chinese carvings, this was also carved from mammoth ivory but now it is a 26,000 year old likeness of Cro-Magnon man – made by a Cro-Magnon – giving us an eyewitness window into a prehistoric world. It is now so old that it has innate historic value of its own in addition to the craftsmanship required to fashion it. It didn’t destroy the mammoth tusk any less but somehow it feels more acceptable.

Here’s another paradox: the Egyptian pyramids. Last surviving wonders of the world, they are a breath-taking testament to human achievement. The blocks used to construct the pyramids were hewn from nearby limestone quarries… Limestone quarries in which we have subsequently found the remains of Basilosaurus, the grandfather of modern whales.

The great pyramids of Giza

The great pyramids of Giza

Are there more fossils of Basilosaurus or its contemporaries locked inside those limestone blocks that make up the pyramid? I would be very surprised if there weren’t. Most people wouldn’t even consider taking the pyramids apart to find out. You had better hope I’m never in a position to make that decision because I would consider it.

So where is the line for you? At what point does art cease to be worth the sacrifice made to create it?

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