Working through an idea

Now that I’m almost four weeks in to my new position as Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA, I have some headspace to return to An Ouroboros. I’m working through a thorny section of the second essay in the book, an essay on art, experience, meaning, and value. Here’s the Moebius strip I’ve create for myself:

Bill Sharpe, in his short book Economies of Life: Patterns of health and wealth, argues that art is the very currency of experience, much as scores and statistics are the currency of sport and money is the currency of the market. To understand his explanation, one first needs to accept his basic premise that an economy is “a coordinated pattern of human activity enabled by a currency.”[1] Sharpe’s contention, with which I agree, is that although we each experience art individually, when patterns form of multiple experiences, we have culture. Art, then, is the way in which these patterns of multiple experiences are made visible; art is the currency of experience.

However, one could argue that the reverse is also true: experience is the currency of art. If, as in the market economy, the value of a product is measured in its currency, money, then in the economy of culture, the value of art (the cultural “product”) is measured in its currency, experience. We understand the value of art through our experience of it.


[1] Sharpe, B. (2010). Economies of Life: Patterns of health and wealth. London: International Futures Forum, p. 32.


Moebius Strip By JoshDif – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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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5 Responses to Working through an idea

  1. Pingback: One sentence at a time | Creative Infrastructure

  2. Sharpe seems to suggest another sense in which the meaning or value of art is in its capacity as a means to some other end. If art is the “currency of experience” in the same sense that money is the “currency of the market”, then there is a unidirectional explanation of the one in terms of the other. The market *explains* money and experience *explains* art. Which, as you point out, is bogus.

    Do you know the ancient Greek myth of Procrustes? In it the innkeeper, Procrustes, guarantees his guests will fit the beds perfectly. Normally that means that the bed will conform to the size of the person lying in it, that the person measures the bed. However, Procrustes had a different idea. The bed was one size and it was used to measure the people themselves. If they were too long they had some portion of their limbs lopped off, if too small they were stretched out. The bed was used to measure the person, in other words, rather than the other way around.

    This is what we continually do when we frame the arts in terms that place it in subservience to some other feature or condition of our lives. We see the arts as fundamentally measurable, as though understanding the arts relied exclusively on the ability to get a read of its benefits to the economy, for instance, or in this case with Sharpe of its currency for experience.

    This is not to say that we CAN’T measure these things, because obviously we do. The arts ARE good for the economy, it turns out. But the problem is that we take this explanation to suffice, that we now imagine, therefor, that we understand the arts in some fundamental sense. But we are doing no more than Procrustes. We are taking things that are for us the measure of meaning and value and subjecting them to themselves being measured. And often this is a butchery and misunderstanding as violent as anything Procrustes did.

    When we measure things that are themselves measures we make a category mistake. Yes, such things often CAN be measured, but to understand a measure AS a measure means we have to USE IT as a measure. Measuring the measure merely gives us a DIFFERENT understanding. We are too often deceived by an obsession to subject anything and everything to a form of measurement. What this does is sidestep the reality that not everything in our lives functions as a measurable thing. What we fail to grasp is that in addition to things worth measuring there are also the measures themselves…….

    Any time we measure something there are two parts. There is the thing that gets measured and the thing we measure by. One is an open question, and the other is something that holds fast, that is itself not (at this time) under scrutiny. The thing that gets measured is an empirical question, but the measure itself functions in a way that is beyond our doubts. The measure only functions by its ability to remain in place while the things we measure by it are compared. There is no other way to do this.

    And the arts are just such a thing that functions in many of our lives as a measure. The value they have are not in doubt (to us). It is not a question for us whether the arts are meaningful. Rather, the arts are what GIVES meaning to our lives. Not the other way round. We are who we are because we measure the world, its meaning and its value, THROUGH the arts.

    Sharpe is right that the arts are connected to experience, but he has the wrong end of the stick. As you suggest, rightly, for those of us for whom the arts matter, our experience of the world IS the currency of the arts.

    • lindaessig says:

      Thanks for you comment and the introduction to the Procrustes fable. I wasn’t aware of it before but it fits so well with the struggle that the whole book is about: to get the bed that’s the right fit without cutting off the toes or, worse, the head of the art.

  3. arlenegoldbard says:

    Hope it’s all going wonderfully well!

    It’s a cul-de-sac because art can’t be jammed into the frame “economy.” Sport fits better because it’s a competition, but the frame can’t even hold sport’s dimensions of well-being, conviviality, etc. what is illuminated by trying to fit 10 pounds of art into a five-pound bag? The way out is to find a frame that can actually hold it.

    • lindaessig says:

      Hi Arlene – thanks for this, because it points to the need to better explain the expansive view of “economy” I use here. I am not trying to jam art into an exchange economy or financial economy, but rather to free it from considerations of money by saying it is in another economy ( understood as pattern of social behavior) altogether. Does that make sense?

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