What is the Value of Art?
What is the Value of Art?
What is the value of art? That is a question I have often been asked by people when I was recently making a career change and teaching at the University of Utah’s School of Art and Design. In response to the question, “What is the value of art?” many art educators responded with “money,” others with “service,” and still others simply said, “Art is subjective.” I agree that art is subjective, but not in the way most would expect from an educator making a profession out of telling students what is the value of art.
The value of art is determined by each person viewing it. This is true for music, literature, films, sculptures, and paintings. To take a simple example, if I am judging the value of a work of art based on my personal experience and reaction to it, then I would say that such a response is the sole determining factor. Someone else might view a piece differently because she has a different relation to the subject or perceive more meaning in the piece based on her past relationship with a deceased artist. Each relationship can change the value of a piece of art, which makes each piece valuable as that particular relationship defines the value of art.
In my experience, all art teachers, regardless of the subject they teach, should begin their classes by describing the purpose of the class and the intent to create an atmosphere that will help students to develop meaningful relationships with one another. Such an introduction allows the students to become comfortable with asking questions and allows the art teacher to introduce his or her point of view regarding the value of art. In turn, the student will be able to answer the teacher’s questions and build on the ideas generated through the discussions. Such interaction fosters learning, development, and happiness in the student and leads to a deep sense of satisfaction with life.
From this perspective, it would seem that the purpose of the art classroom is to encourage the development of critical thinking skills – which is exactly what a good teacher tries to do. A common question among college students as to what is the value of art – apart from the enjoyment it might bring – is how well it teaches them about social and political issues. They are keenly interested in these topics because they relate to what they know and understand better. Thus, it becomes imperative for a good teacher to engage his or her students in such topics. In fact, I would say that such discussions are as important to the development of a student as the art itself.
It is unfortunate that many people think that what is the value of art is simply a matter of opinion. In truth, opinions and arguments always vary as much as interests do. In other words, whether a work of art is good or bad is not merely a matter of preference, but is dependent on the overall context in which it is viewed. Thus, it is essential for art teachers to know their students’ political and social views before imparting them with such information. In my own view, exposure to wider social and political contexts is highly important for students so that they can see the big picture and appreciate the finer aspects of life.
Of course, the ultimate question of what is the value of art remains unanswered. What is it that makes certain works of art valuable? The answer may be found in the variety of answers that different people have offered throughout the ages. Perhaps one day a universally acceptable definition will be developed. Until then, every student must take responsibility for his or her own understanding of art and what it means to him or her.