First published in June, 1st, 2001, for Erasmus University of Rotterdam, Hogeschool for Economishe Studies, Rotterdam, The Nertherlands.
Importance for society
The evolution of pictorial movements has been always linked with the development of humanity. Diversity of artistic styles has historically walked along with the dynamism of the social development of each period. From the Paleolithic monochromatic paintings, which lasted for centuries, to the in-state-of-flux multiple contemporary vanguards, the effects of development are clear. It seems impossible to imagine human civilization without the expressive activity of painting.
The social history of art studies the social conditions that make possible and influence in artistic production. The sociological aesthetic is a philosophical discipline, thinking about the world of senses, beauty and art related to the social and historic conditions of each moment.
Inside of the sociology of art, artistic phenomena are understood globally from their connection with another aspects of the social reality. The stylish evolution relates the economic, political, social and cultural factors of each historic moment. This interdependence art-society is related with the diffusion of mental habits transmitted by the type of education and the educational institutions. Social conditions not only affect the characteristics of the work, but also the values attributed to it, either aesthetic, economic, or any other one.
The relationship between art and society is reciprocal. After knowing the causes why pieces have been executed and explaining its form and its meaning, placing them in the place where they belong, very few times their social repercussions are followed and analyzed. Art history seldom pays attention to the process of social circulation of the piece, and therefore its radius of action, the effect that the piece produces, the interest submitted or how the piece is interpreted and used.
The art piece is not only a social product, and even less a passive item, it is in fact a constitutive element active inside society, which can influence people individually and collectively, reinforcing or transforming situations and values. It is a reciprocal and dialectical action, which influence and get influenced by thought, fashion and behavior guide lines of certain society sectors in a very evident way.
These relationships are dynamic, complex, indirect and variable both historically and socially. A very determinist point of view, simple and lineal, which lacks of a necessary flexibility able to assume diverse, polyvalent and changeable facts, will not be able to integrate this reality.
Art can transmit very different values, becoming often into a unexpected ideological vehicle. It can stimulate our thought and our imagination from a constructed image, depending on the viewer’s desire and ability to make associations. The structure of the receptor changes radically the effect of the art piece. The material and linguistic techniques condition its production, diffusion and reception process. Art often makes a sociologic portrait, reflecting the population controversy and worries.
If globalization is opening frontiers in so many markets, it is doing it even more in the generically international art market. This sublime creation of human beings is in expansion, after having abandoned elitism it is being introduced to the whole world, becoming accessible for people with diverse conditions. The importance of art for society relies upon its character to seek and promulgate beauty, enriching the cultural patrimony of countries and even more in the, so called, visual societies of today.
In the countries considered most developed, there is a lack in covering certain psychological necessities, leaving some sectors of the population unhappy. The lack of a clear social model, motivations, cosmopolitan visions, professional development and sometimes even effective development, are some examples of the direct effects of the progressive dehumanization of capitalist societies. These lacks are translated into psychological problems, the search for immediate pleasures and the willingness to leave the environment.
In this context of deep cultural mutations, at a point where many concepts have been abandoned, art acts as an educator, a visual transmitter of values. Sigmund Freud argued that the assimilation of artistic values is one of the main tools for the socialization of the individual. Bourdieu described art reception with two slopes, reinforcing in some the feeling of belonging while in others that of exclusion. However, nowadays the discriminatory sacred aspect of culture is losing its strength.
Something is clear: the experience of art undoubtedly culturally trains the spectator, helping him to understand the world were he lives and contributing materially to his quality of life.
The intrinsic value of painting
“Value” is the quality of a thing according to which it is thought as being more or less desirable, useful and important. The value of a painting involves two different aspects. The first one would include science and rationality, the second passion, emotion and morality. Culture, in the general sense of shared values and beliefs by a community, is linked to value.
If art is considered a public good it is because of its “extern positive effects”, whose benefits are not limited to the people who demand and supply it as a private good in a free market, but extend to the whole population.
These positive effects are:
- Value of existence, the population benefits from it even if some of the individuals do not participate in any artistic activity.
- Value of prestige, because some institutions provide a feeling of regional or national identity.
- Value of election or option, because it provides the possibility of access to cultural events.
- Value of education, because it contributes to the refinement of individuals and to the development of society’s creative thought.
- Value of legacy, because people benefit from the possibility of leaving a cultural heritage for future generations.
There are not means to measure a population’s desire, or appreciation for, a specific artwork since it varies according to the viewer’s education and the understanding of the artistic message, which often is not fully assimilated until long after its creation. Therefore, price would represent the only estimator of its value.
However, the satisfaction received by the consumer of paintings also denominates utility and clearly involves many structured aspects:
- Aesthetic value, or perception of beauty
- Cultivation power
- Prestige given
- Relationships attached
Measurement cannot only devalue the good measured, but also a relationship. Economic theory does not account for relationships and does not recognize a value that is beyond measure. To see this more clearly, the value of a child is beyond measure, and the mere suggestion that a child has a price would devalue the parent-child relationship.
Therefore, the intrinsic value of a painting is not measurable, as its value within a community is not measurable. Moreover, the requirement of measuring the value of paintings devalues the intrinsic value of their aesthetic experience, and a strictly commercial transaction ends the relationship between the painting and the seekers of the aesthetic experience.
One way to intensify this relationship is to make it reciprocal. If we want people to be committed to the value of art, we want them to contribute and invest on it. Then art producers recover their inventiveness and explore arrangements that bring them in closer relationship with aesthetic experience seekers, but always inside the loose creative freedom of the artist’s own creativity.
Clearly, it is necessary to attempt to avoid the impersonal and objectifying relationships that characterize transactions within governments and markets, in favor of an improvement in relationships to stimulate ongoing interactions, needed to sustain and develop the intrinsic values of art.
The Economist’s perspective tends to devalue two important distinctive features of art and culture: ambiguity (because paintings represent problems of meaning without solving them) and the reciprocity of human relationships. As a result, the aesthetic experience must transcend the sphere of economic transactions. However, artistic quality is, in fact, a matter of measurement in terms of economic value and prices. Nevertheless, the purity of artistic experience has not prevented this contemporary generalized commercialization and commodification of art.
In the Golden Ages the commodification of art was accepted as something natural and unproblematic, artists worked by assignments following the classical rules of art. But with the arrival of the ideas of Romanticism, painters became free to paint by their own impulses, a distinction that later would separate artistic production from commercial production.
Kant tried to justify the autonomy of our aesthetic experience when experiencing beauty, claiming that only the subjective and personal experience of the painting’s pure form matters. When this pure form motivates a group of individuals in experiencing beauty, then it is a commonly shared value, also called culture. Art is justified then, as an inspired creation commonly appreciated.
Artistic autonomy cannot vanish into the requirements and determinants of an all-embracing economics and politics. The experience of wonderment, indeterminacy and ambiguity resist any reduction to economic calculation and rationality.
 “La economía mundial y el desarrollo”, Juan Claudio Rodríguez Ferrera. Editorial Acento, Spain, 1997. ISBN. 84-483-0207-9
 “Guía del usuario de arte actual”, Rocio de la Villa Ardura. Editorial Tecnos, S.A. Madrid, Spain 1998. ISBN: 84-309-3119-8
 “Arts and Economics”, Bruno S. Frey, Heidelberg: Springer Verlag. 2000.
 “The value of culture, on the relationship between economics and arts”, Arjo Klamer, Amsterdam University Press. Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 1996. ISBN:90-5356-219-4