Assigning Value?

I was so struck by this discussion when I read it this evening that I think it warrants a second post this week. The students, artists, and theologians over at Transpositions opened this discussion on the importance of art in culture, based on the current controversy in the UK over cutting government funds for the arts. The question is, is art essential to society? That is, when things become critical, should the arts be cut before (to use the specific example used in their discussion) healthcare? What should come before art, and what should come after art, when funding is cut?

Unfortunately, we exist in a world that requires these pieces of paper with arbitrarily assigned values to make anything happen. Since at least the Renaissance, artists have frequently functioned by having wealthy patrons fund their work. Or, they do what I and many others do, and have the bittersweet “day job” that pays the rent while pursuing what we love (a poet once said that the only thing worse than having a job is not having a job).

I have an inherent dislike for assigning monetary values to works of art, or, even worse, to an art form in general. I think the value of good art is inherent. Of course, as humans don’t create ex nihilo, artists must have supplies, and thus receive money from somewhere. Having recently experienced funding cuts for the arts in Virginia, I know how critical some public sustenance is to the art community at large. Yet, as much as any artist will insist on the necessity of good art for a healthy culture, I think the conversation on Transpositions asks an important question: is art absolutely critical for the survival of a culture? When the worst happens, and humanity enters “survival mode” (as in times of war), how critical does art become in Maslow’s Hierarchy? Dare we reduce it to make sure people are fed? Dare we not reduce it to make sure people are fed?

I think good art is indispensable to the emotional, spiritual, and psychological health of any society, as well as for influencing the positive movement of a society (L’Engle once said that only writers with something to say are censored). In both the UK and the U.S., there is an entire industry for creative professionals that will be heavily impacted when funding for the projects that employ them is reduced. During the Hollywood writer’s strike of 2007, many freelance support professionals were out of work for an extended period of time. I understand that a similar situation recently occurred in New York City when a CSI series stopped production. Many similar instances could occur when theatres, symphonies, and other venues are unable to maintain their volume of seasonal offerings.

Another question posed in the original post (for my readers of faith) is: what are the ecclesiological implications of this? In the West, I cringe at the idea of the Church influencing the arts until it becomes better educated about them, lest we end up with more Thomas Kincaid. Yet, historically, the Church has held an important role in the arts that it should reclaim.

Head over to Transpositions and read the post. There are many questions posited there that I haven’t even mentioned. Let them know your thoughts. And I’d love to hear them, here, as well.


  1. On the subject of the church influencing the arts, what I find most fascinating and perhaps ironic is that the Catholic church, in its heyday, was responsible for the greatest amount of secular art commissioned at the time. All of these bishops and cardinals had rooms in their houses covered floor to ceiling with naked nymphs and satyrs sporting in the brush, greek gods and goddesses hunting and celebrating, and raping nubile human girls, etc.

    Certainly, some of the greatest spiritual art in known history was also created around the same time, but there was far MORE secular art commissioned privately. At the time, it was equivalent to your pastor having a closet stuffed full of dirty magazines, except these were entire galleries in private homes.

    Fascinating hypocrisy in and of itself, the church has historically botched it when it comes to understanding and accepting art. I don’t like the idea that the ONLY art to have value would be art featuring a white Jesus bestowing his grace upon the masses, or scenes from the Bible, Kincaid’s mass produced pap, or portraits of “great men of faith”.

    If the work wasn’t specifically created to glorify God in its subject matter or have a Bible verse slapped on it, as in the case of Kincaid, it would be dismissed as worthless. As an artist myself, that bothers me. A lot. It limits the scope of ‘what counts as art’ so narrowly as to make anything outside its bounds nonexistent. I’ve always had issues with being told “conform to this, or you don’t count”. I deal with that enough just being an illustrator (like cartoonists and comic book artists, illustrators can’t be REAL artists, oh no *snort*). No church-sponsored art for me, thank you very much.

  2. Well said, Ashley! I think, along those lines, that a huge part of the problem is the arbitrary distinction that has been made between “sacred” and “secular.” I don’t for a second believe in this; there is no such thing as “sacred art” or “secular art,” there is only art. Some of it explicitly honors God, some explicitly dishonors Him, and some is neutral, but it is all art. There is, however, good art and bad art, and most of the cliche art that is produced with Bible verses all over it is bad. I find this horribly ironic, because it seems to me that, if an artist is going to explicitly claim to have created work in honor of God, then the work should be of the highest quality that the artist is capable of. Our culture, however, permits garbage to be made in the name of ratings so often that the Western Church accepts junk as long as it has Jesus’ name or picture (typically white, as you eloquently point out), but that’s a topic for a post of its own.

    Perhaps it is this distinction that leads to a judgmental attitude about what constitutes a “real” artist and what doesn’t based on genre or medium? I’m not certain. But I would be loathe to tell any illustrator, poet, or sculptor of trash bags that he/she was not a “real” artist.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. What counts as art is so very hard to pin down. In this day and age, people tend to be more open to the idea that art exists outside of the slim bounds presented by museums (and even those venues have opened up a great deal). I see this as a Good Thing™, but the cultural consciousness that accepts things as “art” and “not art” is still subject to personal opinions and social hangups.

    There is no hard and fast rule that says “You’re only an artist if you produce X,”. That doesn’t stop people from trying to qualify who gets to be an artist and who doesn’t based on their own petty opinions, though. I see it as a very personal thing. When you are an artist, whatever media you work in, you know it. It can hurt when others don’t recognize it, or try to play it down or belittle you because your chosen field isn’t their media of choice, but it doesn’t change the fact that you ARE an artist.

    I do have to give artists like Kincaid credit for finding a niche and exploiting it successfully. I may not like what they produce, but they are good at what they do, and in making it profit for them. I could only hope to be so successful one day. I also hope my work is less kitsch and more appreciated… but seeing as I draw mostly cute cartoon animals, that’s not terribly likely. Ah well. At least I have the sense of humor to laugh at myself.

  4. I think the most important thing is, as I once received advice to do, is to believe in what you’re creating. I definitely agree that success in art cannot be judged by how much it sells, or if the public at large likes it.

    And where would we be without cute cartoon animals?

  5. It’s hard to even begin to imagine life without art. Art is something people just DO. I have such an outlet with photography, as I know you do with your writing. It’s hard to imagine not having that, it’s like a chunk of myself would be missing.

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