The Value of Art

The value of art is regularly challenged. Our state recently lowered the amount of money going to the Massachusetts Cultural Council. This raises a question: are the arguments we use for arts funding the best? The Americans for the Arts conference was recently held in Boston to discuss these kinds of issues. I’ll add to that discussion to say that instrumental arguments for art are not enough. We need to show that art has intrinsic value, and this value is found in the uniquely aesthetic experience it offers.

Trying to find some ‘practical’ value for art, people mention only the fringe benefits of art. And, for the purposes of obtaining funding, these instrumental reasons have had success. Art helps people to think more creatively in their chosen career. So, art has professional value. Art can stimulate the economy, especially for tourism. So, art has financial value. Art can help fuel discussion about current social issues and help at-risk youth. So, art has social and political value. And there are other kinds of reasons like these; I have only given a sample.

These instrumental arguments are good, and they have their place. But are these the fundamental reasons that make art valuable? They have one major flaw as a defense for art. As soon as people discover a better way to reach those same goals, then the value of art diminishes. Art has definite instrumental value, but this is not complete. Something is instrumental when it leads to something else. But art is valuable first for its own sake.

Having intrinsic value, however, does not mean art has no purpose. The practice of creating and appreciating art, without some purpose, would be irrational. Imagine people spending years of their lives practicing and appreciating art, and it literally had no purpose. Even if artists made art for the money, which seems unlikely, then the beholders would be crazy for paying money for objects or performances that had no purpose. Art, therefore, must have a purpose, and it must be basic, not instrumental.

While we could point to many different purposes of art—religious, political, expression, and others—there might be one that rises up as a more prominent purpose. If you notice, these purposes all have to do with what the work might mean. What if the meaning of the work of art is lost? It seems commonplace that people aren’t always sure what an artist is trying to convey, but they like it anyway. Why?

Along with meaning, an artist has ‘aesthetic’ considerations in mind. Traditionally, the aesthetic was associated mostly with beauty. There is some truth to that association. Many works of art are beautiful, even though we sometimes disagree about their degree of beauty. But ‘aesthetic’ can be interpreted more broadly than previously thought. Beauty admits of degrees, so the aesthetic considerations also come in degrees. Color, composition, style, lighting, form, and many other design elements are considered carefully by the artist in hopes of producing something people want to see and see again. They want their works experienced and contemplated, not merely glanced at and interpreted. The ‘aesthetic’ considerations are what make the meaning come alive to the beholder.

Aesthetic experience is integral to our well-being. Consider a world lacking significantly in beauty, color, proportion, sublimity, and so on. Could people really flourish in such a world? Certainly the answer is no. Though we may not agree about which things are beautiful and to what degree, we all seek beauty, in different ways, for our well-being. This is why art is so valuable because it is the main way people present beauty to each other. But since we have different tastes and there is no exact formula for producing beauty, we need a wide variety of art to bring the greatest amount of beauty into the world. When advocating for art, we can and should use the instrumental values to show the added benefits of art. But we also need to highlight the intrinsic value of art. This combination will be more powerful for presenting the value of art to our community.

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