Jonathan T.D. Neil on whether art is good or just valuable

"Much of the critical consensus quite comfortably divides the world of art (and indeed the world itself) into market values and other values…" from the September 2014 issue

By Jonathan T.D. Neil

David Throsby and Anita Zednik have recently published a very considered attempt to quantify the difference and relationship between art’s economic value and its cultural value. Their paper, ‘The Economic and Cultural Value of Paintings: Some Empirical Evidence’ (in the Handbook of the Economics of Art and Culture, vol 2, 2014), is well worth reading, but the conclusion will not be surprising to most. Economic and cultural value, Throsby and Zednik show, are related but different. Important as a brake on the more fundamentalist economic perspective, their paper argues that the two values do not, or do not easily, ‘reduce’ to one another; they are not ‘perfectly correlated’, which, if they were, would mean that cultural value just is a work of art’s economic value – ie, its price – and vice versa.

I have argued before in these pages that one of the problems that we face in our recent discussions of (or complaints about) the art market is that we have a tendency to modify the concept of value in order to argue for differing, conflicting and ultimately incommensurable ‘values’, such as market ones and, say, aesthetic ones (read economic and cultural ones). Much of the critical consensus quite comfortably divides the world of art (and indeed the world itself) into market values and other values. Market values are easy. For most people, they are simply equivalent to the price of something. When artists and curators or even curmudgeonly critics like Dave Hickey and dilettantish sociologists like Sarah Thornton hem and haw about art-market reportage, they lament the freight trains of zeros that appear to be lining up with ever greater regularity behind the prices of works of art, almost as much as they lament the people manning the switches.

Much of the critical consensus quite comfortably divides the world of art (and indeed the world itself) into market values and other values

That art-market values seem to follow no law and no rationale; that the best explanation for billions of dollars being spent at present on one of the least scarce, highly renewable and most inessential resources around is simply that there is more money out there than ever before to spend on it; that those who possess this money, the wealthy, on the whole, are morons; and that even the price of art, because of discounts, preferential treatment, auction guarantees, insider dealing, etc, isn’t really ever the price of art (just like, if you’ve been reading Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys, 2014, the price of a stock is never really the price of a stock) – the idea that any of these non-explanations and non-rationales for art-market behaviour ever drives someone to actually look intently or think deeply about the concept of art’s value is, in a word, pathetic.

And the other side of the debate, where Hickey and Thornton and similar market iconoclasts presumably situate themselves, doesn’t look any better. Over here there is art’s aesthetic value, its political or social value, its educational value, its symbolic or spiritual value. In other words, its cultural value, which isn’t really a value at all. It’s question-begging of the highest degree. Art doesn’t have cultural value because it is cultural. Art holds value for a culture because it embodies, presumably, the values that the culture holds it to have. For example, if art has an educational value, it has it because it teaches us something, something worth being taught and, more to the point, learned. It’s not the teaching and learning alone that matters, it’s that ‘something’ – say, admiration for a particular kind of high achievement, or the chance to reflect on and empathise with another’s struggle – that, perhaps, we find valuable.

That ‘perhaps’ matters too, because it’s a question: what do we find valuable in works of art? More simply, what is art itself good for? What is art’s good? Let me repeat that: what is art’s good? This is a vastly different question than ‘what art is good?’ Not least because whatever art’s good is, should not be art’s alone. Take one of the most persistent claims for art’s good, its autonomy, which is neither specific to nor does it even begin with art: it’s modelled on individual liberty, a value, we should be reminded, that had to be, and continues to have to be, fought for.

This is what the late Ronald Dworkin, no partisan of value separatism, means when he writes that value is an ‘interpretive concept’, if not the interpretive concept. It has to be interpreted and responsibly argued for, such that ‘the various concepts and departments of value are interconnected and mutually supportive’. I’m not for cultural value (or any other value) over and apart from market or economic value, or vice versa. I’m for value, which is why I question, uncynically, art’s good.

This article was first published in the September 2014 issue.