It’s Complicated

Robert Rauschenberg. Canyon. 1959. © 2012 Museum of Modern Art. Photo by John Wronn.

Robert Rauschenberg. Canyon. 1959. © 2012 Museum of Modern Art. Photo by John Wronn.

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

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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16 Responses to It’s Complicated

  1. Linda, I think your post in a subtle is the reason many artists feel frustrated today. You are absolutely correct in recalling that the NEA was forced to change it’s policy of awarding grants to artists because of right wing conservative political actions in what was a war of two cultures. Those early artist grants were award, through professional peer review, on the basis of excellence, one of the defining principles of the original NEH Act of 1965. It was thought that through providing excellence in Art that society becomes enriched. Your distinction between “value” and “excellence” seems forced. Would anyone agree that public or private money be spent on community art projects that are just ‘meh’?

    The problem is that the focus of monies spent on the Arts has changed but your community pretends it hasn’t.
    Youth art projects , children’s art educational programs, creative place making that makes real-estate more attractive, community art on the side of garbage trucks or murals, are all things that make our world more attractive and wonderful. But supporting those things is not the same as what the NEA supported for over 20years; the awarding of grants to individual, adult, full time, professional artists, to make artistic work that makes our cultural heritage richer.
    Comparing your “Home in the Desert” project’s value to the value of Damien Hirtst’s is two different things. It’s like saying a soup kitchen is more valuable (important) than a hospital room. They both are important in different ways.
    My gripe is that the funding roster of both the NEA and private funding sources is filled with projects like your “Home in the Desert” ( which is great!) but where is the arts policy discussion about the fact that my projects are ineligible?

    • lindaessig says:

      For some of my thoughts about individual artist funding, see — we’re not as far apart as you think. I’m not sure who you believe my “community” to be — the community I work with on “Home in the Desert?” “Bloggers?” “College professors?” “Lighting designers?” The discussion that has developed on this post has, for the most part, stayed focused on the question I am pondering about the relationship between art, money, and value, but as it appears to be shifting direction somewhat and becoming a tad personal, this comment will be the last on this thread. I hope to incite more thoughtful discourse in the future.

  2. Ian David Moss says:

    Richard, there’s much more (as always) to dig into re: your comment than I can accommodate at the moment, but there is one very important point I want to make, which is that you seem to have misunderstood what I mean by the term “citizen curators.” You write “and here is the big disagreement I have with your talk” and then follow that with a bunch of stuff that I said in the talk. Specifically, “So who has the most knowledgeable personal opinions about art? Who are the experts? Anyone who spends a lot of time studying art, writing about art, working with artists, working with art, looking at art, teaching art, reading about art.” That’s exactly who I mean by “citizen curators,” and that’s who I want driving the artistic marketplace. I use the term “citizen curators” only to emphasize that people who are not professionally involved in the arts world can still be quite knowledgeable about specific art forms. Of course not everyone is equally informed, and we need systems to take advantage of the large number of people who have an informed opinion without giving too much power to those who don’t. That’s what doesn’t exist out there right now.

    I find it amusing that you lump all us “policy makers” into a group, since first of all I don’t think I’ve ever been called that before, and second there’s quite a bit of disagreement on these issues amongst the people to which you refer! Hope we’ll get a chance to meet one another and find out how much common ground there really is.

  3. Ian, Thanks for the questions. The language of critically in the arts includes the writing and discussion by historians, critics, art writers, artists themselves and art appreciators who assess the quality, effectiveness, purpose, and intentions of art produced.

    Re:Clout Really? That is a surprising comment coming from a person with such devotion to writing about Arts Policy. I have enough believe in the power of Art, in the value of what Art does for humans, that I believe most of the worlds problems would be solved if Artists could rule this imaginary world you suggest.

    Re: Intrinsic Impact. I can literally feel the “but” in your use of the word “expert’. Why shouldn’t we use mostly “experts” in the field of art to measure (I still resist even using that word) things that happen in the field of Art? Don’t other fields use their experts?

    Not to keep picking on ArtPlace but I think it’s a great example. Who are the experts in the field of art, if any, that are making their granting decisions? What’s the chance that a powerful exhibition or project that would include deeply sexualized issues of gender or a vehement and anarchic topic of race relationships would ever get supported by a consortium of Philanthropies, Bankers and a rather emasculated NEA? If an artist or group of individuals wanted to enact a project that would instill deep meaning about the horror of rape in the America Military or institutionalize prisoning of black youth do you really believe they will ever get a NEA ‘Our Town’ grant for the project?
    Your Arts Policy Community is doing far more damage than simply trying to measure personal opinion or community affect. It’s participating in the designing of a system of measurement overseen by neo-conservative gatekeepers of culture.
    And the NEA…… It shouldn’t even be called the National Endowment for the Arts any more. It should be called the National Endowment for Art Organizations. Thats a completely different kind of endowment.

    • Ian David Moss says:

      Richard, I hope the next time I’m in Chicago you can come to Createquity Office Hours and we can solve the art world’s problems together in person. In the meantime I would be very interested to know your reaction to this talk I wrote in 2011, which coincidentally was given in your city. I suspect you’ll probably love about half of it and hate the rest.

      • Ian David Moss says:

        Sorry, I had it in my head that you were in Chicago I think because you commented on my blog once that you had attended a talk there. My mistake.

      • Ian, I’d love to. I use to live part time in Chicago but still get there frequently. Just let me know.
        Let’s see…ya I pretty much disagree with just about everything you said in your TEDX talk. I hope my response stays on course to Linda’s post about valuing art.

        Yes art was being made before the NEA. But people were getting around just find in horse and buggies and farmers were farming. It’s a silly argument. Bottom line: we make art today for reasons that have little to do with why art was being made 100 years ago, in a completely different environment.
        So why did we establish the NEA? There were political and social reason for it that anyone can easily look up on line but the key point for this discussion is addressed in the original version of the 1965 Act where it says…

        “That the practice of art and the study of the humanities requires constant dedication and devotion and that, while no government can call a great artists or scholar into existence, it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry, but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent.”

        The practice of art is unique, with unique challenges faced outside of our regular way of doing business in society. And the quote above states that if we want the arts and humanities to exist and thrive in this country, it behoves the Federal Government to take a responsibility in ” not only a climate encouraging freedom of though, imagination ,and inquiry ” but “the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent.”
        The NEA no longer directly provides what the act says it needs to.

        I think your talk confusingly describes the “Art Market” as having some type of duty to the public as a whole when it comes to experiencing art. The art market is nothing more than a whole bunch of little businesses each selling work they believe in or believe their specific clients would want to purchase.

        The art market, as you suggest, isn’t a bad judge of the long term value of art. It’s mass society who are a bad judge of the value of Art, long term and short term. That’s not meant as a disparaging remark. It’s a remark made to point out that Art leads society, it doesn’t follow societies current whims.
        And here is the big disagreement I have with your talk. You say, ” But you know, art is still a matter of taste”. No it’s not. Art isn’t a matter of taste. Appreciating Art is a matter of taste. There is a big difference.
        Your taste in art is your personal opinion. You have all the right in the world to your personal opinion about any type of art. But taste in art is different than Knowledge about Art. You can have a strong personal opinion about art that is completely unknowledgeable. Art isn’t subject. People are.
        So who has the most knowledgeable personal opinions about art? Who are the experts? Anyone who spends a lot of time studying art, writing about art, working with artists, working with art, looking at art, teaching art, reading about art.
        The purpose of a nation subsidizing the arts is not, as you say, to make the exchange between people and the arts possible. It’s to support the artists so they can make the art so that then the exchange can happen and the culture can be richer and healthier for it. That is what it lacking in your ideas about Art Policy.

        Would you suggest your “community of citizen curators” choose which which books will be purchased for our library shelves? Should those citizen curators be allowed to go through our Museums art treasures and decide for themselves which pieces get to stay and which ones get thrown out? Should we apply those curators to school subjects, architecture, highway design, medical research?

        Art policy makers are stuck. You have been led down a road where now what little piddly amount of money is spent on the Arts has to be parsed out via formula’s and statistic that attempt to show peoples personal opinions about art. You been led to believe that when people don’t purchase a ticket that they must not be getting what they want from art so art needs to change. I don’t deny the reality that people don’t buy something they don’t value. But there is a fundamental difference between how you and I see why they are not valuing Art. Thanks for asking!

        • lindaessig says:

          Gentlemen: Thank you for continuing this interesting discussion. Two things to think about: First, value and excellence are two different concepts. For example (and I believe Richard and I have disagreed about this publicly in the past), a community arts project may have tremendous value for the participants — intrinsic impact — but not necessarily result in “excellent” art. See, for example, my post about work we’re doing on “Home in the Desert” ( I would contend that that work has greater *public* value than does a work by Damien Hirst that sells for $10M at auction. Second, the NEA is not all of arts policy. There is a tendency to think that NEA equals US arts policy. However, the rights to free speech and free assembly are arts policy; the funding or lack of funding for arts education in schools is arts policy; the tax code with its deduction for charitable contributions is arts policy. Just as one cannot assume that all bloggers with an interest in evaluation are Thatcherite neoliberals, one cannot assume that all of arts policy is either, even if the NEA seemingly takes a turn in that direction. Remember that the NEA stopped direct funding to individual artists not because of an interest in growing organizations, but under the political pressure of the so-caled “culture wars.”

  4. Ian David Moss says:

    To Richard:

    Do we demand that the military provide “evidence” that the money we spend on arms really protects us? Do we require that oil companies provide “evidence” that their subsidies are needed?

    We should, and do. The problem is that the military-industrial complex has inherent political clout that is more important (to policy outcomes) than evidence. But this is not a good thing, and neither would it be if that clout belonged to artists instead.

    Yet the arts management sector has been pushed into this idea that not only do we need to prove that taxpayers and stakeholder are getting their monies worth but that the art affect actually can be measured and those measurements are worth something.

    No one needed to “push” me into believing this about the arts. I see measurement and evidence-gathering as valuable in and of themselves, whether in the arts or in any other field. I am not interested in measurement as a tool for advocacy; I’m interested in it as a tool for doing what we do better. I believe that anything can be measured, yes, literally anything, even art, even creativity, all of the intrinsic merits that you attach to great art. That’s not to say that everything is equally easy to measure, or with perfect accuracy, but it is all measurable. In fact, you yourself measure the value of art all the time. Every time you cast any kind of judgment about a work of art, you are making a measurement about its worth. That measurement may not have a number attached to it, but that does not make it any less of a measurement.

    • Ian, I don’t share you optimism that “anything can be measured”, specifically when it comes to “measuring” the poetic and the intrinsic aspects of art outside of the language of criticality. I’m not saying you can’t try, but if the type of art that gets funded or supported is based on those measurements then from a Art point of view we have a problem.
      My point is that I don’t see your community even trying to measuring the intrinsic value of art. Maybe it’s hidden but I can’t find anything in the Ixia guide that Linda linked that talks about measuring intrinsic artistic value. Likewise with ArtPlace America’s Vibrancy factors.They seem to tell us a lot about business and economic quality of life issue but little about the “Art” in the “Place”.

      PS. Why wouldn’t it be a good thing if artists had some political clout?

      • lindaessig says:

        Richard: the first factor on ixia’s “artistic value” axis is “visual/aesthetic enjoyment.”. This factor is intrinsic and measured qualitatively. You may also be interested in the Theatre Bay Area publication “Counting New Beans: Measuring the Intrinsic Impact of the Arts,” edited by Clayton Lord.

      • Ian David Moss says:

        What do you mean by the “language of criticality”?

        Re: clout, it would be great if artists had some. I was saying that it’s not good for the country when any special interest has so much clout that evidence of the need for policies to support that interest has no effect on policy outcomes. Just imagine a world in which artists are so popular and powerful that they can demand anything they want in Congress, and do. Eventually, we’ll get some pretty messed-up policies that hurt everybody who’s not an artist. Obviously we’re not likely to see such a world in our lifetimes, but the point is that evidence-based policy is a lot better than the alternatives.

        Re: intrinsic impact, what Linda said. In the past you’ve expressed approval for the peer-review process; that process measures the intrinsic impact/worth of art according to the opinions of experts. Totally legitimate measurement strategy, though I wish it involved a larger and less arbitrary selection of people. And indeed, most philanthropic support for the arts is still delivered this way, whether directly or indirectly – including the bulk of the NEA’s funding, which has “artistic excellence” as an explicit criteria.

  5. There has always been a way to talk about the true value of art (at least since Modernism anyway) and that has been by talking about the intrinsic value and effect that art has on people.
    Through the language of criticality, optics, psychology, and aesthetics we have the ability to discuss and debate the aesthetic affect art has on individuals and groups of people. That language is still available but in recent political times has been almost banished from the arts policy community.

    • lindaessig says:

      Richard: Aesthetic value is an important (some would say most important) consideration, but is not the only one. Ixia, in its excellent “Public Art: A Guide for Evaluation” provides a useful taxonomy of value axes:
      1. Artistic Value
      2. Social Values
      3. Environmental values and
      4. Economic values

      They apply this taxonomy not only to arts organizations, but to personal artistic products as well. You can access their materials here:

      • Linda, thanks for this link. As Ixia states, “The Labour Government’s “promotion of evidence-based policy, the arts sector is increasingly required to provide evidence of the outcomes and impacts of its work and activities.” This is the root of the problem. This is just neo-conservative/austerity speak, a political trick used to control the arts. Do we demand that the military provide “evidence” that the money we spend on arms really protects us? Do we require that oil companies provide “evidence” that their subsidies are needed? Yet the arts management sector has been pushed into this idea that not only do we need to prove that taxpayers and stakeholder are getting their monies worth but that the art affect actually can be measured and those measurements are worth something.
        What would have happen to Robert Mapplethorpe’s career had his work undergone Ixia’s evaluation process? Would the Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial ever been built had that project had to endure an evaluation for funding?
        I understanding their are other groups coming to the table especially when it comes to public art. But if the arts policy community isn’t putting the intrinsic value of art first, at the top of the list, every time, then whats the point?

  6. Ian David Moss says:

    Thanks for the link and commentary, Linda. I think we’re actually on the same page, more or less. By “takes no position” I just meant that Createquity does not come to the marketplace of ideas with a prior assumption that the arts hold any particular kind of universal value. We are open to considering all evidence about the nature and significance of the arts’ value to individuals and to groups, up to and including the entire human population, whether positive, negative, or profoundly inconclusive. Though it wasn’t the main focus of my post, I couldn’t agree more with you that we often try to overgeneralize about the value proposition of the arts, both in terms of audience and product. Paul DiMaggio’s writings on the “three fallacies” of cultural policy are instructive here, I think.

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