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Viewpoint – Valuing culture

How should we measure the value of a work of art? Let’s take, for example, Michelangelo’s statue of David in the Accademia in Florence.

25 June 2011

12:00 AM

25 June 2011

12:00 AM

How should we measure the value of a work of art? Let’s take, for example, Michelangelo’s statue of David in the Accademia in Florence.

How should we measure the value of a work of art? Let’s take, for example, Michelangelo’s statue of David in the Accademia in Florence. The 17ft marble figure attracts a huge number of visitors from all over the world, so the box denoting popularity gets a tick. The revenue box gets ticked as well because of the gallery’s entrance fees and the money spent on accompanying T-shirts and postcards. And also to be considered is the amount this piece would fetch in a hypothetical sale.

Crunching these numbers is one method of assessing the work’s value, but it is clearly pointless: ‘David’ is a (priceless) masterpiece. Knowing what the Galleria dell’Accademia raises in euros, its audience figures and its immense appeal as a tourist site does not capture the worth of the work — that is down to its unique artistic qualities.

Philosophers have long struggled with this problem. What constitutes a success? Is it long queues or quality? How do you know if something is good, and who decides anyway? Reaching a verdict can never be done scientifically because every assessment of worth is relative and to a degree subjective.

Most people accept that government should support the arts for the sake of the public good, recognising that the vagaries of the market do not always produce excellence. So public funding requires a leap of faith and a shared agreement that a civilised society will finance an artwork that is not always predictable, profitable or even popular in the hope that something astounding — beautiful, truthful, provoking — might be created. But the Department of Culture Media and Sport and other bodies that fund the arts think otherwise. They are frantically trying to work out the impossible: how to put an exact value on culture.


Organisations have been trying to find ways to measure the benefit of the arts since the 1980s and, over time, suggestions have become ever more artistically illiterate. Most recently the focus has been on their economic (do they make money?) and social (do they make people feel better, raise self-esteem and regenerate communities?) impact. In policy discussion there is little reference to language, texture, colour or melody, but a fixation on creative economy and social inclusion.

Despite strenuous efforts the attempts to prove economic and social benefits have failed: not all good art produces profit or has direct social consequences. In the meantime, cultural organisations have been struggling to produce data in order to try to ‘prove’ their worth.

However, the DCMS is gearing up to formalise further methods of valuing culture, which will only waste more time and money. The project involves the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and the Economic and Social Research Council, with advisers from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, the Greater London Authority, English Heritage and Arts Council England.

It’s an important group that will have serious implications for the future of cultural funding and academic research. In the words of one report, ‘Measuring the Value of Culture’, which is littered with phrases about ‘cost benefit analysis’ and ‘choice modelling’, the group plans to develop ‘a pragmatic approach’ to ‘economic valuation methods’. Other areas of public policy, especially health and transport, it argues, have developed the tools and concepts of economics successfully. Culture should follow.

The report advises the use of ‘stated preference techniques’ and ‘contingent valuation’, which, if translated, means asking people, for example, how much they would be prepared to pay to go into a museum, if the museum charged for entry. But are we really prepared to close down museums if it turns out that people reply not much? Does this response capture the worth of a Renaissance sculpture? Such questions reveal nothing about objects and artefacts and why they are significant.

Of course, economic evaluations and audience opinion are not always irrelevant, but they should not be the main criteria for valuing art. Health and transport benefits can be measured through statistics and graphs — but the worth of culture cannot. The central question should be about the artwork itself. Is the painting, object, score or dance any good? That is where a judgment is made, drawing on knowledge, personal experience and an openness to what is new. Today, making a judgment is considered too partial and too personal, while being non-judgmental is thought a positive virtue. But this reluctance to judge reveals a lack of genuine engagement with art and an absence of confidence in the public. For if someone is truly engaged they will argue the case for an artwork or a new genre. By relying primarily on calculations and polling, the art, the artist, the expert and the audience are ignored.

It looks likely that we shall see more and more evaluation forms, with funding becoming increasingly dependent on box-ticking and calculations, rather than on discussion and expert opinion. The arts sector, however, should have the courage to throw away the calculator, argue a position and make a judgment, as our forebears did. Otherwise we will all miss the measure of culture.

Tiffany Jenkins is director of the arts and society programme at the Institute of Ideas.

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