What’s It Worth?

I used to watch “Antiques Roadshow,” one of the very few shows on public television that people actually watch in great numbers. But its popularity as well as the nature of the show itself are worth consideration. The former depends on the latter. But what is the show about? What does it mean? What are the subtle, hidden suggestions the show passes along to us? These are questions worth considering.

People bring family heirlooms and treasures to a city where cameras are set up and experts evaluate the worth of these treasures in dollars and cents. In a word, the “value” of things is translated before our eyes from delight, sentiment, and aesthetic appreciation to filthy lucre. It is a sign of what has been called the “commodification” of culture. In such a culture everything is turned into a commodity — including human labor — and a price is put on it which determines its value. Without the dollar sign attached to it, it has no value. We are so used to the process we no longer think about what has been lost in the translation. What things are really worth has given way to what price they can bring. “I love that painting, but is it worth anything?” This is absurd.  If you love the painting it has real value. You don’t need to attach a dollar sign to it.

The same sort of thing happens in “sport” which is the reduction of athleticism from something beautiful and valuable in itself for participants and spectators alike into a money-making proposition where television and promoters call the shots and the athletes are valued for what kind of market they create with their skills. The better ones make more money, and vice versa. Just think about what the commercialization of the Olympics has done. It has turned a series of athletic events that should amaze and astound us for the remarkable skill shown by the participants into a competitive spectacle where every medal earned is rewarded with dollars and carefully counted; winning has become not the main thing but the only thing that counts. It really isn’t: I don’t care if Vince Lombardy did say it. It is the event or the performance itself that should be valued, not wins and losses.

When I played and coached competitive tennis I loved to win. Don’t get me wrong. But I never fell into the trap of thinking that winning is what it’s all about. I played because I loved to play: to hit the good shot or to “be in the moment” when you know every shot will go where you want it to and nothing else matters. When I coached I always stressed performance. Let winning take care of itself; just give it your best effort. And I certainly would never have thought to put a price on winning or losing.

In a commodified culture something important is lost when these sorts of reductions take place. In reducing the value of heirlooms and family treasures to dollars and cents we lose the aesthetic and sentimental value of the objects themselves which has nothing whatever to do with money. In reducing athletics to sports we lose the thrill of watching another human being perform extraordinary feats of strength, skill, and movement as we worry about whether they will win or lose. Our three-dimensional world is hammered into a sheet.

We seem to have lost sight of why things are truly important to us in our urge to measure everything in terms of money. But how do we measure in this way the value of a child’s smile, a sunset, the trust the blind man has in his dog, or the love of another human? We can’t — certainly not in terms of dollars and cents. The important things don’t have a dollar value, they are valuable in themselves.