What’s it worth to you?

“When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss Art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss Money.”

― Oscar Wilde

The following apocryphal story takes place early in Picasso’s career, before he was widely known. His art studio in Paris was full of paintings that showed early promise of greater things to come.

One day, Picasso was visited by an art dealer who had heard of the young artist’s prodigious talents. The dealer carefully examined the finished canvasses strewn around the studio. He approached Picasso and said, I’d like to purchase all the works that I see here. How much would you charge me?
Picasso quickly replied 5,000 francs.

The dealer was taken aback. 5,000 francs? he asked. How can you justify such an enormous price? You are a beginner. I can’t guarantee these paintings will even sell. That is much too high a price for an unknown artist to expect.

Picasso said, ok, 10,000 francs.

The dealer couldn’t believe it. He said, I just told you that 5,000 was too much, and then you doubled the amount! Did you not understand what I said?

Picasso said, ok, 20,000 francs.

The dealer immediately replied, Sold! He realized that Picasso was certain of his own worth and that no amount of bargaining or cajoling would change it. And the more he tried, the higher the price he ended up having to pay.
That’s the story I heard as a young artist. However, when I scoured the internet for this tale, I couldn’t find any references to it. I discovered that Picasso did indeed have early admirers, such as writer Gertrude Stein and dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. They helped him by purchasing paintings and getting others to do the same, but the prices were more reasonable for the time than the story suggests.
The Picasso in the story certainly had a lot of chutzpah when it came to pricing his own work. I have met beginning artists with similar hubris who thought nothing of charging high prices for their paintings. For example, one artist I knew was upset that she was charging only $100,000 per painting in her first show because she was convinced her paintings would resell for at least $1,000,000 each during her lifetime, even though she was unknown in the art world.

To some extent, the issue of price is indeed arbitrary. In the art world, there are artists who command tens of thousands of dollars for their art while others — no less talented — may struggle in relative obscurity. In the computer world, there are website developers who charge hundreds of dollars per hour and those who charge tens of dollars per hour, and it’s not always the case that the less expensive programmers do inferior work.

At the same time, price is also a matter of necessity, determined partly by the environment we find ourselves in. In the art world, I need to price my paintings high enough that galleries know they can make money if they choose to represent me. And from my computer work, I need to make a living.
For whatever reason, I never developed chutzpah when it came to valuing my work. Whether pricing my paintings or my hourly work, I always tried to reach a balance between making my work affordable for the buyer and making a living for myself.
So the following quote by the real Picasso is probably a more accurate description of what a young artist might be thinking about.

“When art critics get together they talk about Form and Structure and Meaning. When artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine.”

― Pablo Picasso