News & Commentary On the value of art By Sam McAuliffe | July 3, 2020 | 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. Facebook Twitter Pinterest LinkedIn Email About the Author: Sam McAuliffe Sam McAuliffe is a musician and academic undertaking a PhD in music and philosophy at Monash University.