Art, Value in

views updated


The question of the nature of art, what art is, has been much more widely discussed in philosophy than the question of its value, why art matters. The two issues cannot be completely disentangled, of course, since any account of what makes art art will inevitably isolate features of special importance. In fact, all the main theories of the nature of art have an implicit explanation of its value, but since the question of the value of art has social as well as philosophical significance, it is useful to make these implicit accounts explicit, and thus expose them to critical scrutiny.

Four lines of thought have emerged as the principal ways in which philosophers and artists have explained the importance of art. These can be given convenient labels: hedonism, aestheticism, expressionism, and cognitivism. Briefly, the first holds that art is valuable for the pleasure derived from it; the second that art is valuable as a source of beauty; the third that art is valuable as a vehicle for expressing emotion; and the fourth that art is a source of knowledge and understanding equivalent to, but distinct from, science and philosophy.

Abstractly stated in this way, it unclear whether any of these theories construe the relationship between art and its value as intrinsic or instrumental. That is to say, is the value in question to be found in art itself, or is art simply a means to it? We might also wonder whether the value resides in the properties of art objectsbooks, sculptures, paintings, compositions, and so onor in the experiences that these things give rise to in those who look or listen. These are issues that can be examined at a general level, but in fact the distinctions that they invokeintrinsic/instrumental and object/experienceare more important in some explanations of the value of art than in others.


The contention that art is valuable for the pleasure we derive from it is both longstanding and widespread. Indeed, most people, including those engaged in the arts, probably assume its truth without question. Yet as an explanation of the value and importance of art, it faces several difficulties. Before these can be considered directly, one point of clarification is required.

It is natural for people to describe their engagement with the arts in terms of enjoyment, and to express their artistic judgments in terms of liking and disliking. One result is that positive responses to art are usually construed as expressions of enjoyment obtained from encountering things we like. This then leads to the assumption that a favorable view of an artwork is an expression of pleasure. But in fact the conflation of pleasure and enjoyment is a mistake. Enjoyment can arise from other things besides pleasure. While the enjoyment of a good wine or a fine meal is largely, and sometimes exclusively, the result of gastronomic pleasure, a scientific lecture or a television documentary can be enjoyable for their intellectual content. They provide us with interesting material to think about, rather than a pleasurable experience to savor.

It might be replied that intellectual stimulation is a special kind of pleasure. The danger with this response is that it simply collapses the valuable into the pleasurable, and thus converts a substantial claimthat art is valuable because it is pleasurableinto an uninformative analytic claimthat to say art is valuable is the same as saying that it is pleasurable. In this way the claim about value and pleasure becomes true by definition. It follows that if hedonism about art is to be a substantial theory, we need to distinguish between enjoying something and getting pleasure from it. The fact that we derive pleasure from something is one reason for enjoying it and finding it valuable. But it is not the only possible reason.

In the light of this clarification we can now state the three main questions facing hedonism about art. First, is it generally true, as a matter of empirical fact, that the arts generate pleasurable experiences? Second, is it possible to discriminate between major and minor works of art in terms of pleasure? Third, if art is valuable because of the pleasure it gives us, would not other, better sources of pleasure make art redundant?

The first of these questions is a factual matter about which we have to be open-minded. Since probably the majority of people who philosophize about the value and importance of art are themselves art lovers, there is a tendency to assume that art does generally give pleasure. But the statistics of people attending classical concerts, reading serious literature, and making visits to art galleries do not bear this out. Considered solely in terms of the pleasure they give, soap operas, pop music, television shoot-'em-ups, and romantic pulp fiction almost certainly top grand opera, classical music, Shakespeare, and nineteenth-century Russian novels. Indeed, the position of the arts is worse than this. Far more people are bored by Shakespeare than are entertained by him, and to those same people, two hours of Bach or Beethoven is probably a dreadful prospect. Even artworks expressly created for entertaining can, with the passage to time, cease to provide much in the way of pleasure. For example, compared with modern television comedies like Friends or Blackadder, Restoration comedy is a very poor source of amusement.

The examples chosen to make this point can also be used to elaborate the second of the two difficulties outlined above. An enthusiast for classical music might insist that the principal value of concert going is indeed the pleasure we derive from it. While it is true that tastes differ, this pleasure, for those who find concert going pleasurable, is just as great or even greater than the pleasure of pop music, chiefly because high-quality music gives pleasure repeatedly. A similar claim might be made on the part of all the arts, but even if we concede that the arts give great pleasure to those who like them, this does not give us any reason to rank them higher than more mundane sources of pleasure, like crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, or board games.

This issue was expressly addressed by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (17481832), who was willing to argue that since pleasure is the ultimate source of all value, pushpin (a kind of board game) is as good as poetry. What Bentham did not observe, however, is that subscribing to hedonism raises not only a question about the comparative value of the aesthetic and the nonaesthetic but also a problem within the realm of the aesthetic itself. If the value of an artwork is derived from the pleasure it gives, then major works of art must give more pleasure than minor ones. But have we any reason to believe this? Can pleasure be correlated with estimations of aesthetic merit? Is a piece of music by a major composer like Beethoven, for example, guaranteed to give more pleasure than one by a minor composer like Luigi Boccherini?

This raises a contentious philosophical topic: whether pleasure can be measured or not. But even if it can, it would be difficult to show that the relative amounts of pleasure given by different works of art can be mapped onto the relative artistic merits customarily accorded to them. One suggested solution to this second difficulty is to be found in Bentham's utilitarian successor, John Stuart Mill (18061873), who tried to draw a distinction between higher and lower pleasures, a distinction that might be called upon to distinguish the relative merits of poetry over those of pushpin and the merits of Beethoven over those of Boccherini.

How are we to differentiate between higher and lower pleasures? According to Mill, this can only be done in terms of quantity or quality. The former, he thought, will not serve the purpose, since if the only difference between higher and lower pleasures is quantity, then any lower pleasure can equal the value of a higher pleasure provided there is more of it. Lots of pushpin will be equivalent to a little poetry. So the difference between the two must be qualitative. How is this difference in quality to be assessed? Mill's answer is that we should entrust the assessment to a competent judge, defined as someone who has experience of both the pleasures in question. The problem with this proposal is that the deliverances of such a judge cannot in principle be distinguished from mere preferences. Perhaps someone who declares opera to be a higher pleasure than soap opera does indeed detect differing qualities of pleasure arising from each of them. But it could be that there is no more to this "judgment" than a personal preference for opera. And we have no way of telling which is the case.

In any event, there is a further difficulty. If the value of art lies in the pleasure we get from it, and if, as seems obviously true, there are other good sources of pleasure, sports for example, it follows that a world without art would be no worse off than a world with art, provided that it had other sources from which equally pleasurable experiences could be generated. This objection relates to an important distinction drawn at the start, the instrumental versus the intrinsic. Hedonism attributes instrumental value, rather than intrinsic value, to art, and thereby implies that art has no value in and of itself. It is chiefly on this point that an alternative theory of the value of art, aestheticism, is built.


The slogan "Art for art's sake" is a familiar one, and it is intended to capture the thought that art has value that cannot be accessed or realized in any other way. What could this intrinsic value be? One obvious contender is beauty. Since ancient times it has been believed that an important function of the arts is to make beautiful thingspaintings, poems, music, buildings, and so onand that these are to be savored for their beauty alone. Aestheticism holds that, though beautiful things are indeed pleasing, it is in their beauty, and not in the pleasure they give us, that their value lies. Since this beauty is an intrinsic property of the object, it cannot be replaced or substituted for without loss, as the extrinsic effect of giving us pleasure can be.

Now while it is undoubtedly true that many artworks are very beautiful, and valued in large part for this reason, it does not seem plausible to make beauty the ultimate explanation of their value, for two reasons. First, beauty is to be found elsewhere than in art. Second, not all art is, or aims to be, beautiful.

The first point is established by the existence of natural beauty. From the time of the ancient Greeks, human bodies and faces have not only been admired for their beauty, but regarded as templates and standards by which the beauty of pictures and statues is to be measured. Since the eighteenth century, landscapes, skies, and seascapes have also been held up as striking instances of the beautiful. All of these things are natural, not manufactured, and are therefore not works of art (the issue of divine creation aside). But if beauty is all around us in natural forms, a world without art would not be a world without beauty, and while this fact does not detract from artistic beauty, it does mean that beauty does not give art any special claim to value.

In any case, while some artworks are indeed beautiful, not all are. For some works of art, in fact, the concept of beauty seems hard to apply. There are beautiful speeches in Shakespeare's tragedies, but could Lear or Othello be called "beautiful" as a whole? Moreover, even in the visual arts and in music, many widely acclaimed works seem expressly to eschew beauty. In Picasso's famous painting Les demoiselles d'Avignon, the figures and faces are uglydeliberately so, it seems. Many modern composers have written music that is harsh and disjointed rather than harmonious and melodic. The pre-Raphaelite painters and Romantic composers of the nineteenth century strove for visual and aural beauty, but the movements that followed them in the twentieth century strove equally vigorously to avoid it. In short, exclusive focus on beauty can at best explain the value only of some art, and even then not uniquely so.


These two objections to aestheticism are overcome in a third theory: that the value of art lies in its being an expression of emotion. The difference between natural beauty and beauty in art is that the former is not an expression of anything, whereas the latter is. It is the expression of the artist's emotion or feeling. Conversely, though emotion can be expressed through beauty, it can be expressed in other ways too. What enables us to classify Titian and Picasso, Schubert and Schoenberg together under the label "art" is that these radically different styles are all equally modes of expression.

Expressionism as an explanation of the value of art is almost as widely held as hedonism. Among its best known advocates were the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce (18661952) and the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (18281910). But on closer inspection, it too encounters great difficulties. Three are specially important: Whose emotion is it that an artwork expresses? Why is the expression of emotion a good thing? What place does expressionism leave for imagination?

It might seem obvious to answer the first of these questions by saying that the emotion expressed is that of the creator (the author, painter, composer, and so on). But suppose we say of Othello, for example, that it is a dramatic expression of jealousy. What reason have we to say that it is Shakespeare's jealousy that is expressed? Since we know hardly anything about Shakespeare, still less about the circumstances in which he came to write this play, we have no reason to say this. Something similar is true of a huge number of artworks. We do not know much, if anything, about the psychological or emotional history of their creators, and so we cannot say whether they ever felt the emotions expressed in their works.

An alternative would be to locate the emotion in the audience. Aristotle thought that dramatic works are "cathartic." That is to say, they become the vehicles by which audiences give vent to emotions that are often debilitating when discharged into ordinary life. His examples are fear and pity. By discharging these emotions on imaginary objects, we are less burdened by them in the business of day-to-day living. Aristotle only applied the theory of catharsis to drama, and it is unclear whether it could equally be applied to all the arts. But even if it can, there is this further question: What is so good about the expression of emotion as such? Imagine that a work enables those who watch, listen, or otherwise contemplate it, to give vent to ethnic feeling. Without the work, their racist emotions would never have had such clear definition or powerful expression. But why should that commend the work to us? It seems most plausible to hold that it is the powerful expression of good emotions that is to be valued, not the powerful expression of emotion per se. On the contrary, hurtful or destructive emotions ought not to be given powerful expression.

To identify the emotion expressed in a work of art as the audience's, then, carries no positive value; it could as easily be negative. To attribute it to the author means, in a very large number of cases, making unwarranted assumptions about the artist's psychological biography. But a further objection is that, by insisting that the origins of an artwork must lie in its creator's personal history, we seem thereby to deny any influence to the very faculty that seems central to artistic creativity, namely imagination. The great genius of such a major work of art as the novel Middlemarch lies in George Eliot's ability to rise above the confines of personal experience and imagine a world of people and events that the author never encountered. The most fundamental objection to expressionism is that it reduces acts of imagination to acts of reporting and recording.


Some exponents of an expressionist account of art, notably R. G. Collingwood (18891943), have seen this difficulty and, in their efforts to avoid it, have effectively shifted the center of attention from feeling and expression to imagination and understanding. If there is any value in works that express or depict racist or other negative feelings, it lies not in the expression itself, but in the extent to which it gives us insight into the minds of those who have such feelings. This idea motivates the move from expressionism to cognitivism, the view that art should be valued as a form of understanding. On this view, the powerful expression of emotion we find in Othello, for example, should be valued for enabling us to understand and appreciate the mind of the intensely jealous. From this point of view, the play supplies its audience with material for thought rather than feeling, and it is of no consequence whether Shakespeare ever felt any of the same sort of rage as the character he invented. Indeed, it adds to the critical assessment of the play if he never did, since in that case the play stands as an even more impressive act of imagination.

Aesthetic cognitivism thus overcomes the most important objections to expressionism by construing artworks as acts of imagination rather than autobiography, and valuing them as such. By shifting the focus to imagination, it also circumvents some of the objections brought against aestheticism and hedonism. The products of the imagination can be beautiful, but this is not what makes them works of art. Artworks stand in contrast to natural beauty because natural beauty is not the outcome of imagination. The relative merits of major and minor works lie in the degree to which the understanding they offer us is more or less profound, and this is a judgment quite independent of the pleasure we do or do not derive from them. Relatively shallow works can be attractive and pleasing; much more profound ones rather taxing.

And yet aesthetic cognitivism faces difficulties of its own. First among these is the relation between imagination and reality. If we are to say that works of art enhance our understanding, this implies that they give us insight into the realities of human experience. But how can they do this if the people, places, and events that they depict are all products of the imagination? Must not understanding track how things really are, rather than how someone has imagined them to be? Second, while aesthetic cognitivism may seem plausible with respect to representative art, it seems more implausible when applied to abstract art. Great novels, films, and figurative paintings are easily thought of as giving us insight into life, but how can this be said of abstract painting, instrumental music, or architecture?

These are important questions, and it is by no means clear that they can be answered. But even if they can, there is a further issue. Does cognitivism about the arts not lead to their redundancy somewhat as hedonism does? G. W. F. Hegel (17701831) was perhaps the greatest philosopher whose account of art can be broadly described as cognitivist, and he quite explicitly thought that because its value lies in its contribution to the development of human understanding, art must eventually be replaced by philosophy. Even at its best, we might say, art can only gesture toward the sort of understanding that philosophy makes explicit.

The most promising reply to this anxiety lies in stressing the sensuous nature of art, which enables it to enhance our felt experience. An artwork does not tell us about the nature of things, events, or people by formulating general statements about them. Rather, it depicts what has been called a "concrete universal," products of the imagination that give us a sense of what it is like to be present and to undergo the experience of things, people, and events from a particular perspective. In other words, art illuminates the things around us rather than providing us with information about them in the way that science, history, and philosophy do.

Whether this response is ultimately satisfactory is a large topic, but cognitivism's emphasis on the sensuous and on the imagination has the merit of being true to two central aspects of the arts. One further implication of cognitivism is that if the sensual is essential, the late-twentieth-century movement known as conceptual art may signal an acknowledgment of the end of art. This is an implication that some philosophers, notably Arthur C. Danto, have endorsed and even welcomed.

See also Aesthetic Experience; Aesthetic Qualities; Art, Interpretation of; Art, Truth in; Beauty; Ugliness.


Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by Malcolm Heath. London: Penguin, 1997.

Bell, Clive. Art. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Budd, Malcolm. Values of Art. London: Penguin, 1995.

Collingwood, R. G. The Principles of Art. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1938.

Croce, Benedetto. Æsthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic. Translated by Douglas Ainslie. London: Peter Owen, 1953.

Danto, Arthur C. After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. "The Relevance of the Beautiful" and Other Essays. Translated by Nicholas Walker. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Goodman, Nelson. Ways of Worldmaking. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett. 1978.

Hegel, G. W. F. Aesthetics. Translated by T. M. Knox. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1975.

Hume, David. Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1987.

Langer, Susanne K. Feeling and Form. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953.

Levinson, Jerrold. The Pleasures of Aesthetics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. London: Fontana, 1985.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Birth of Tragedy. Translated by Shaun Whiteside. London: Penguin, 1993.

Schaper, Eva, ed. Pleasure, Preference, and Value: Studies in Philosophical Aesthetics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Scruton, Roger. Art and Imagination. London: Methuen, 1974.

Tolstoy, Leo. What Is Art? Translated by Aylmer Maude. Oxford, U.K.: World Classics, 1955.

Walton, Kendall L. Mimesis as Make-Believe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Gordon Graham (2005)