What is art? It’s a question that has vexed everyone from philosophers to taxi drivers over the years. This question also throws up an even more complicated follow-up: what is art worth?
That second question was tested this week in Dubai when Christie’s put up for sale a mammoth work by Turkish-Jordanian artist Fahr El-Nissa Zeid named Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life, an abstract work completed in 1962.
In simplistic terms, the answer was $2.7m (Dh9.9m).
The less superficial version of the answer is that it failed to create a record for art by a Middle Eastern artist, falling just short of the price set in 2008 by Oh Persepolis, a 1975 work by Parvis Tanavoli.
Art is, essentially, in the eye of the beholder, but at the top level of art, aesthetics mixes with marketing. The price was set not just by the quality of the work but also by Zeid’s reputation.
And it is also affected by timing. That 2008 auction was held in the heady months just before the global financial crisis really hit.
The sister piece to the record-holder, Oh Persepolis II, was also up for auction this week and sold on Tuesday for $941,000.