Updated: Oct 2, 2022
The money that is paid for artwork can be eye-watering (and often controversial). But what is it about art that makes it valuable?
In his book “The Art Instinct”, Dennis Dutton lays out the fundamentals. Firstly, art is frequently made of materials that are not commonly found, or that are costly to acquire (it’s always interesting, and indeed surprising, to find out from artists how much they need to sell their work just to recoup their costs). Secondly, art is generally very time consuming to create and, even if it is quickly executed, the skills that were required to make can be time-consuming or difficult to acquire. He also points out that art which does not seem to have any possible use can be more impressive to us (an interesting one to ponder), as can art which has only a fleeting existence (e.g. the work of Andy Goldworthy) - which perhaps draws on the same psychology of limited time offers commonly used in sales. Finally, the value of art can also be affected by whether special intellectual or creative effort was required to achieve the results (e.g. artists may work with some sort of handicap) .
Of course, these factors are not the whole story; there is not some sort of checklist for art that we can go through to calculate value. Rather, we have an innate sense of what we think is good and impressive when it comes to displays of human skill and talent.
Why do we have this innate sense? Well, from an evolutionary standpoint, high-skill displays - be it artistic or athletic - would historically have been Darwinian fitness signals. It is therefore pleasurable to witness these displays, and we also really like to break these performances down and evaluate them, work out how these people achieved what they did (and gossip about whether their efforts were genuine or if there was any deception involved). When we admire people, it also really motivates us to want to improve ourselves and strive to be like these role models, so this trait of admiration would also be beneficial in evolutionary terms .
Does this innate sense mean that we can’t ever be won over by art that isn’t actually good? Well, we are unlikely to be won over by a simple claim that ‘bad’ art was meant ironically, but a good, thought-out explanation about what the artist was intending to do and why can lead us into new ways of thinking. We can essentially learn to acquire aesthetic pleasure in new ways, and appreciate that art can be for the eye and for the mind, and that so-called “bad art” may be intentionally just for the mind. In other words, our perceived value of art comes from our culture - our personalities and our tastes - and this is something we create as a community, so we “decide” what should be placed on a pedestal .
Value can’t be completely dependent on ever-changing cultural tastes though, as our culture is conditioned by our human nature and our instincts, and these are essentially permanent. So art becomes valuable when it is revered in a particular culture but this scenario of seemingly endless possibilities will not play out - our underlying human nature will always set limits on what culture and the arts can accomplish, and therefore what can be appreciated and considered valuable .
Dutton D. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, & Human Evolution. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2009.