What's a piece of art worth, anyway?
To me, fine art is something to be loved, to be appreciated, not a commodity to be bought or sold. It's the last act of creation that bears some semblance of freedom from commercial concern. Certainly there are limits on what captures the popular imagination, and there's pressure to fit in with the cool kids in the trendy galleries, but fundamentally, art remains the act of the self. A patron cannot command an artist to move a line to a different part of the canvas, nor can he or she modify the artwork on their own without killing the "value" of the work.
So unlike music, film or literature, there's no space for patrons or buyers to actually place their own stamp on the artwork. What they can do is curate popular taste at astronomical costs.
In The Mona Lisa Curse (which is available on youtube for immediate watch), the narrator talks about how Gustav Klimt is the height of this purchased bamboozling. It may be worth millions in the fine art trade, but "Adele Bloch Bauer" is still a pretty horrible work of art (Klimt's so cliché that even Joss Whedon, a writer who isn't prone to aesthetic commentary, makes fun of his work in Buffy).
By placing that dollar value on it, however, the public is tricked into believing that liking the world's most expensive is the ultimate arbiter of good taste. Art critic Robert Hughes describes this as the "fictionalization of art." These millionaires can't change the artwork itself, but their "plutocratic wings" can certainly change how you see it and what you think of it.
You might think, "so what?" Isn't this still an improvement over a system when artists could only make a living if they're commissioned by the aristocracy?
There are two problems that are evident:
1. This system devalues the act of individual discovery. When you walk into a museum and find a work that truly blows your socks off, you're forced to wonder what others think of it, why it hasn't received as much press as celebrity masterworks, and why you don't have to fight a crowd of tourists to press your nose up to the glass.
2. The curation of art ceases to be a democratic process, or even an informed process. All it takes for a painting to be newsworthy these days is a price tag that exceeds $20 million or so. It doesn't matter whether it's loved by the masses, whether it represents a moment in time, or even whether an art critic finds it the exemplar of a movement. All that matters is that some jackass with more money than sense kinda liked it, and a bunch of other jackasses decided to bid against the original jackass. That's literally all it takes for a painting to be considered "valuable" or "important" these days. It's one person's opinion, in a world where my opinion or yours could never be as valuable as the one-percenter's opinion.