The Value of Art
After a distinctly self-contemplative night, I began to wonder what it is that attracts people to art. Certainly I consider myself an artist of sorts… but what is it that makes me an artist? Why do I practice art? Why does anyone immerse themselves in abstract activities that, for the most part, do not add to financial security or other measurable values?
We know that art has been around before written language. Ancient carvings and cave-wall paintings attest to an early drive to participate in artistic endeavors. I would say that our skills as artists have improved since the first cave paintings… but I think there must be the same seed of creativity that connects long forgotten ancestors and modern artists.
I think that the most obvious similarity is that dedicated artists tend to create art that reflects important aspects of their lives. When it comes to ancient man, what could have been more important than food and reproduction? Ancient art is ripe with images of hunting and pregnant women.
As human society evolved into more stable communities, the art changed. Over time the focus on survival was supplanted with self-emulation. In ancient Egypt, for example, the art turned to worshipping the value of great kings and all-powerful gods. The same happened in most cultures.
I doubt that common slaves of Egypt felt that preserving kingly honor for eternity was a motivating factor; slaves probably would have produced an entirely different art than what we find in tombs had they the resources to create art. What is telling is that the art that survived from ancient times reflects directly the values of the people producing and preserving it: in terms of Egypt… it was of the Pharaohs.
European Medieval art reflects a mixture of pagan and Christian ideals. We can deduce that local kings whose roots were largely pagan mixed with the influence of Rome. The artistic work commissioned throughout this time is a constant reminder of those influences.
Take this on up to our own time. An important note to take is that as the traditional religious values of historic importance in the west have been challenged in intellectual circles, the focus of art has strayed. Prehistoric art was focused on life and death… ancient art turned to the afterlife and mysticism; modern art has no focus. I am confident that mass media and the internet have a large role in the change… perhaps we are still too early in the new era to be able to define the motivating factor behind the art that will last; but I feel that the reality is that art has no focus in our age because it is not the secluded craft of the gifted and appointed.
Can we assume that we are different than ancient artists? I doubt we are different. The likely disparity is that very few humans, throughout the last ten thousand years, could afford to practice any artistic endeavors—those who weren’t lucky enough to be drafted into the artist class had no time or money to be creative when they were in from the field. Modern humans have much more luxury than ancient people… meaning they have the freedom to participate in artistic endeavors even if their art brings in little or no financial compensation.
So what is the value of art? Honestly, I really don’t think that art has an enduring value. A piece of art is divine to one man and ridiculous to the next. Revered artists of the past may not have produced anything more amazing than countless others, but through happenstance become icons.
I feel that art is important, but its value is intangible. The more remote the art, the higher its value to our intellectual heritage… but still… it was simply created by simple men portraying their own simple values—or the values of their masters and employers. As a benchmark of our progress and set of values, art is important. But I turn my back on the high-brow notion that artists have a deeper insight on this world from the rest of humanity.
Art comes from our apparently innate desire to express ourselves; some of us, at least, feel the urge to be creative. I would wager that some of the art dug up from times past has less cultural significance than some archeologists say; there is a percentage of art created by any artist that has no deep inspiration beyond a desire to make something beautiful, novel or strange. Other art is simply a form of mimicking.
What is the objective value of a piece of art? I don’t know… and I doubt you know either. All I know is that art is an important part of our lives… and I’m happy that I enjoy it. Moreover, I am glad I appreciate the act of conjuring artistic creations. There is no broad value to any specific piece of artwork in this world, in my opinion… all art has local and temporal value—though some are fortunate to outlive others. But pieces that evoke wonder and appreciation and awe are definitely of utmost emotional value to anyone with an open mind or heart.