Musings on the value of art

Aug. 24, 2014, 1:02 p.m.

Auguste Rodin’s “The Burghers of Calais” in Memorial Court are the most dearly held sculptures on campus; students frequently place mementos and flowers in these sculptures’ hands. But at the same time, campus sculptures that are more highly regarded by critics receive little attention. So, what determines the value of a work of art to society: broad affection or critical acclaim?

Art enriches our lives and its value lies therein, and therein alone. Art that fails to enrich our lives, either directly or indirectly, is of little value, whether this art be painting, sculpture, poetry, film, literature or music. Nothing can be more democratic than the purpose of art and nothing is more elitist than its judgment by a select few.

Art should excite us, inspire us, move us and intrigue us regardless of its judgment by critics. Art should evoke sustained interest from us — from us the people. Critics are certainly more qualified than the layperson to judge the technical merit of any art, but are critics better judges of the value of any art to society than society itself?

In “The Wisdom of Crowds,” James Surowiecki posits that in many contexts masses have better judgment than even the most qualified individual. His argument pivots off “Vox Populi” by Sir Francis Galton, which Galton followed with “The Ballot-Box,” both in Nature, March, 1907. Galton had sought to investigate “the trustworthiness and peculiarities of popular judgments.” He related how in 1906, at a livestock fair in Plymouth, England, about 800 individuals paid sixpence each to participate in a competition to guess the weight of a fat ox. Galton found that the mean of these guesses was accurate to within a pound of the true weight of the fat ox — and, remarkably, this mean was more accurate than the guesses of cattle experts.

Cattle experts are to the weight of a fat ox what art critics are to the value of art.

The value of art lies in how wide of an audience relates to it and in what fashion. Art whose appreciation is limited to critics and experts is less valuable to society than art with sustained mass appeal precisely because the former fails to enrich the lives of the many. Even when art’s audience is circumscribed by culture, race and gender, an artwork’s value depends on how wide and sustained its audience is, and how deeply this audience relates to the artwork.

No critic can ever be the final arbiter of any artwork’s value to a society: Only that society in its aggregate of individuals can be the final arbiter of this.

To be sure, mass snap judgment is no more to be trusted than expert snap judgement: History is littered with forgettable movies that were once blockbusters or Oscar winners. It is considered mass judgment that is the final determinant of any artwork’s value to society. While Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings were not acclaimed during his lifetime, his paintings such as “The Starry Night” are now both wildly popular and highly acclaimed. The willingness of the many, after considered mass judgment, to pay for reproductions of his paintings is a sure sign of their broad appreciation.

Robert Frost suggested that a poem is “a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget.” So is all art. But the most valuable art is more than just this: It sustains our interest in it. Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” no doubt memorialized “what it would impoverish us to forget” — the Spanish Civil War in particular, and the horrors of war in general — and it expanded the boundaries of art to Cubism, and in both these respects it is indeed valuable. But Picasso’s “Don Quixote,” for instance, though much less acclaimed, commands a much wider audience as a popular poster. If the latter enriches us so much more, is it not more valuable to society?

While pop art, as by Andy Warhol, might have deserved its 15 minutes of fame, it is art that draws us back to itself to discover in it what we previously missed that is so much more valuable. Can any pop artwork compare in its value to society to William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” or Michelangelo’s “David”? What attracts us to art is its perceived beauty, but what sustains our interest in it is its ambiguity, intrigue and depth.

Often lost on critics is that the art of old we cherish most is that which was conceived for the layperson of the day. For instance, Charles Dickens serialized his best known novels in periodicals, which made them widely accessible, and Shakespeare wrote his plays to entertain the local theatergoers of his day. The value of these novels and plays lies not in their critical acclaim, but in their sustained mass appeal, even if both stem from the art’s intrigue.

So, the next time you see art that moves you, stop, be excited, inspired and intrigued, and disregard its critics. You, as much as anyone else, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, are the final arbiter of its value, even if not its price.


Gitika Nalwa is an intern with The Stanford Daily. Contact her at [email protected].

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