Relationships are complicated. Perhaps none are more complicated than the relationship between art and money. What makes the relationship so complicated isn’t “love,” but “value.” Economic theories from Adam Smith to Karl Marx focus on the distinction between value-in-use (a pencil has value for its use) and value in exchange (a diamond can be traded for necessities, or for more diamonds). J.M. Keynes, arguably the most influential economist of the twentieth century, saw no difference between value and price – value, according to him, is a complicated calculus of demand, money supply, and velocity but for Keynes, everything has a price and price is the measure of value. If art has no price, then does that mean it has no value? If it is not or can not be exchanged, can it have value? This is the tangled web woven around Robert Rauschenberg’s “Canyon,” a work of art valued by the IRS at $65million, but which could not be sold because it includes a bald eagle carcass.* Marx would have valued the work based on Rauschenberg’s labor in creating it; Smith might very well say the work has no value as it is not useful and cannot be exchanged.
This conundrum isn’t limited to high profile artists and big numbers. The question of value pervades the arts policy community. That’s why I was surprised to read this recent statement from Ian David Moss’s createquity blog, “[O]fficially, Createquity takes no position on the value of the arts.” I’m not faulting most of what Ian wrote– I agree with his critical look at “mood affiliation,” but I believe it neither desirable nor possible to disentangle the concept of “value” from the arts if we are going to talk about public or private investment in artists and arts organizations. Rather than trying to pretend that there is a positive relationship between the arts and society about which some abstract “we” all agree (i.e. mood affiliation) let’s talk about the value proposition of the arts in a more specific way. For whom do “the arts” (itself a highly problematic aggregate term) provide value? Can that value be measured in something other than money?
The market is not now, nor has it ever been, an accurate means for determining the value of art (witness the “Canyon” controversy) but that doesn’t mean the arts don’t have value. Figuring out a way to talk about that value and yes, even measure that value, reflects not only the value of the art, but the VALUES that these abstract aggregated “we”s hold dear.
* The work was subsequently donated to the Museum of Modern Art as part of a settlement agreement with the IRS