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On the value of art

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Following Australian Education Minister Dan Tehan’s proposed university fee restructure, numerous articles have emerged arguing both for and against the proposal. A common question appearing on both sides of the argument: what value does art have for our society and culture?

Many in favour of Tehan’s re-structure argue that art offers little to our broader concerns as a nation. Those against – and those determined to champion art – have for the most part focussed their rebuttals on the value of an ‘arts degree’ more generally, rather focussing specifically on art itself. On social media, the importance of art is being hotly debated from all angles.

This is a complex topic with no simple answer. Our ability to comprehend the value of art is being obscured by our increasingly technical understanding of the world – such that we are attempting to establish art’s value based on inapt criteria. Put simply, judging art based on objective, scientific or economic criteria results in a square peg, round hole scenario.

Commentators including Ben Eltham, Richard Flanagan, and Stephanie Eslake have highlighted the value and economic strength of the humanities more broadly,  pointing out the importance of humanities degrees for employment opportunities with respect to critical thinking and so forth. While immensely important from an economic and intellectual standpoint, these arguments tend to still position art itself as ancillary.  In this sense the focus leans toward what being an artist, or someone interested in the humanities more generally, teaches us in the sense of a transferrable skillset.

The economic argument that the arts sector contributes much more to the economy than many tend to think makes a lot of sense, not only because money = good, but also because if there is any argument that is going to convince politicians, an economic one would be a strong choice.

But appealing to the economic significance of art first and foremost is flawed on at least two counts, in that:

(1) the government likely already knows the economic contribution of the arts and for whatever reason, doesn’t find this convincing; and

(2) the economic argument undermines the value of art itself, which is essentially a non-monetary value, akin to teachers who can create value well beyond their salary.

By putting economic reasoning first, we replace ‘value-in-itself’ with ‘value-for-money’.

But how does the value for money proposition stack up when art is faced off against immunologists, farmers, psychologists, and politicians? What is more useful: the farmer who harvests the food we eat, or the painter who creates a portrait of the farmer?? From an economic standpoint, the farmer wins every time, and so they should. That’s because the value of art does not lie in its value for money. It lies in the value it has in itself.

By putting economic reasoning first, we replace ‘value-in-itself’ with ‘value-for-money’.

The Italian philosopher Luigi Pareyson (1918-1991) spoke of a “culture of surrogates”, where specific practices, such as art, are replaced by an inferior or different practice, such as economics, that reduces or corrupts the original practice. Art, it would seem – or at least our appreciation and understanding of art – has been corrupted.

We are all to blame, and artists are not exempt. This process has been happening for a long time. Take for example the mid-to-late 18th century, when musicians excitedly and willingly used the written score as a surrogate for the music itself. On the one hand this was a logical step where musicians took advantage of the printing press; on the other, it was a move that elevated the status of the ‘composer’.

Indeed, somewhere between the Renaissance and romanticism, making art became much more about the artist making it, than the art itself; again, the value of art in itself takes a hit at the hands of artists. At every turn, arguably for the past 2000 years or more, art has been slowly corrupted. In place of art’s value in itself, a surrogate has replaced it, gradually obscuring art’s importance.

In the broader scheme of things, few would consider art to be central to their lives. And indeed, art has become somewhat solipsistic in nature – we think of the genius creator, working in solitude, or perhaps the person who, stressed from their day job, takes respite behind an easel, or with a guitar in their hands. For many, art has become about the individual – divorced from society and culture.

Luckily for Australians though, we have an exemplary model of how art is essential to life to and culture, if we should care to listen to our First Nations peoples. For them, art isn’t an ‘add on’ that you partake in once the ‘real jobs’ are taken care of. Instead, songs were, and are, integral to teaching and learning, even with respect to geography. Australian historian Bill Gammage writes a beautiful passage about songlines [the path the ancestral progenitor took as it brought country into being – every aspect of land, sea, and sky lies on a songline]: “if you can sing a song you can follow it … if you can’t … you are lost.” This attitude highlights the music in itself. The value has not been corrupted by value for money.

We have not all together lost this intrinsic value; we simply struggle to recognise it. Art makes us think, it stands for something. It illuminates culture and draws us into a conversation with ourselves and with others. Art can be so powerful that in experiencing it one may temporarily forget themselves. This is why Bob Dylan and Bob Marley’s protest songs were so important – through music they did what nothing else bearing the same message could, they united people with their affectual character. Or consider the way the photo of the green-eyed ‘Afghan Girl’ unravelled both the torment of war and intrusion of personal space over a series of decades.

Art does not merely reflect or represent the world, but it illuminates the world. It brings us into an encounter with concrete experience.

This is what underpins the value of art in itself. Art does not merely reflect or represent the world, but it illuminates the world. It brings us into an encounter with concrete experience. It brings to the fore qualities of life otherwise overlooked, or qualities that other disciplines cannot account for. Art speaks to us in ways nothing else can.

But its voice is being stifled.

Our increasing infatuation with Trumpian impactful slogans at the expense of ideas and truth, and our concern with objectivity at the expense of the human is making what is commonly discussed as a means to an end merely a means without an end.

There is no switch we can flip to make people recognise the value of art in itself. And it is clear our government has no intention of leading the way. But as artists – as people who value the humanities more generally – we might become more vigilant. We might study the history of art and its relationship with the world more broadly to see how, over time, art has gradually been pushed to the periphery.

We might also study the way art is embraced by our First Nations peoples such that art is not separate to but intrinsic to life, or by the Ancient Greeks, where art provided ethical guidance on how to live, to find evidence of the ways in which art might be recognised as being essential to our lives. We might be conscious of the ways in which we portray and teach art to one another. And we might ready ourselves for the question: ‘why does art matter?’ While this question is more complex than asking a doctor why medicine matters, we need to respond just as convincingly. Because art does matter. And with the post-truth world upon us, it matters more than ever.

4 responses to “On the value of art

  1. thanks, this is a good read. i’m not sure that the ‘art in itself’ argument is convincing enough – it’s what we artists usually turn to in moments of funding crisis. the writer already complicates this by suggesting various values outside of itself, such as it being an historical marker or as a meaning-making exercise. my view is that artists are essential workers as historians, commentators, cultural analyzers, sociologists, etc – there still needs to be an argument of its extrinsic value (most industries, with some very notable exceptions, use money as a stand in for other value)

  2. This is the best piece of writing I have ever come across on Workplace at Monash.

    I just add a couple of points.

    The word ‘scholarly’ derives from the Ancient Greek word for ‘leisure’. Originally, ‘scholarship’ was what we do after we do our ‘work’, that is, ‘scholarship’ is what we do in our free time. Thus, ‘scholarship’, and I would say art too, is ‘useless’ in the best possible sense of the word – it is not done for an end outside itself, it is its own end. Doing art and doing scholarship enrich the heart and soul of the doer, whether the doer here is an observer. listener, or participant, or a mixture of these three. For more on this point see Simon Ley’s great collection called ‘The Hall of Uselessness’ (an old Chinese phrase for the world of the humanities and arts).

    One problem is that ‘value’ these days is not just about money, but the things that we understandably think that money can buy – power, status, and prestige. But as Professor David Graeber (LSE) has shown in his book ‘Bullshit Jobs’, an enormous amount of the money earned these days, and the power, status and prestige linked to it, are founded on ridiculous jobs and tasks. There must be thousands of academics and administrators in universities around the world whose products (reports, articles, spreadsheets etc) have zero positive effect on the world. If these jobs and tasks disappeared nobody would notice or care. Very often, the people in such jobs have impressive looking job titles, earn a lot of money, and have a lot of prestige and power, but in substance their jobs are ridiculously useless, but this kind of uselessness is utterly different from that of the uselessness of the arts and humanities, because the people doing bullshit jobs (and those around them) have to pretend that their jobs are anything but bullshit.

    As the writer suggests, (and if he doesn’t, I claim) most of us are more or less philistines these days. Very few of us have deep and sophisticated appreciation of the really good things in life, that is, of the things which touch the heart and soul. And in this regard, our education systems stand condemned.

    On final comment, one marvellous work about the Australian aborigines that I think is fantastic is Stehlow’s ‘Songs of Central Australia’, where he records the songs of the Aranda that made their lives, practically their entire lives, so full of meaning.

  3. Clearly put. I wonder if there might be a broader argument about consciousness or awareness being different due to art. For example, Heidegger’s description of awareness of driving a car in time moves away from the mechanism itself, I add, back to our social practices. Art retains this attention because it doesn’t solve a problem or provide a service. A work of art continues to convey experience and knowledge.

  4. Sigh …

    Every time a columnist writes that “art has intrinsic value” I want to scream.

    Firstly, most average Australians don’t know what the word intrinsic means.
    Secondly, art DOESN’T have intrinsic value to everyone. Only a percentage of the population. The same way that sport only has intrinsic value to a percentage of the population. Or damn fine pornography …
    Finally, you’ve already lost the argument if you’re telling people how ‘intrinsically important’ something is to them. They should be telling you how important it is.

    * * *

    On a side note, what are the chances Shonky Morrison will reduce the financial life-line to Zombie Real Estate in the form of Negative Gearing ?

    Negative Gearing kills economies. It’s that simple !

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