A Short And Fanciful History Of Value

I just posted this as a response in the comments to that guest post essay I published on my friend’s ArtsJournal blog:


Something to ponder:

When I was an undergrad a professor made the point that in the ancient Greek world life was taken for granted and death was not understood. They needed to explain death. Meanwhile, in the modern scientific world life is anything but taken for granted. Rather, death/non life is accepted as the natural state of the Universe and it is life itself which needs to be explained. To the ancients the world was populated with gods and miracles. That the world is alive was a given. Today we know that most of the universe is dead. Life itself is the miracle. We accept the inert foundation and admit that life itself is the exception. And it seems a much better explanation than the Greeks gave us.

But today’s world is also much more complex than things were back then. There is so much more to know, things to do, and places to be. The more we encounter the greater our need to make sense. There are still things we take for granted and others we feel the need to explain. And possibly its true that we take some of the wrong things for granted. Possibly its true we look for explanations where there are none. But this is how we interact with the world. What the world means to us is predicated on how we interact with it, what we are doing, what we believe in, and where our interests lead us.

Value is one such thing that plays a role in our lives. It is understood only so well at times. We take some things for granted that may not be wise and we question other things that require no explanation. Here is what I like to call “A Short And Fanciful History Of Value”:

Nothing is all there is. Is isn’t. The Big Bang explodes the universe into being. Matter spins out from the center. Stars coalesce, galaxies form, and bits of matter cool and become planets. On one or more planets the climate moderates to where an atmosphere forms. Waters pool in low spots on the surface. Billions upon billions upon billions of years pass, and then life forms. Something new. Quickly life spreads out and diversifies, mutating into a plurality of forms, becoming larger, and moving to new environments, adapting to different circumstances and evolving from suitability and disposition. Consciousness quickly follows, and self consciousness exerts itself among a select few. Species become social. There are now herds, schools, prides, and families. Among some few cognitive development turns to reflection. Instinct and self awareness are joined by abstraction. Social forms and non biological situations become more a matter of choice, and with it the Universe is introduced to caring. Some things now matter. Basic needs, instinctual desires, and other primitive biological functions now have to contend with reasons. The Universe welcomes value to its list of accomplishments. Beings begin caring about pragmatic things, not only what is good, but what is good for the good things. Beings invent ends and means. Culture grows up around the values that are held and the practices which manifest them. These beings continuously invent a bizarre array of things to believe in and practices to enact what they believe. The gods become known. Tribes become political. Wars are fought because different groups can’t agree what things constitute value. Populations spread and misunderstanding proliferates. The world becomes ever more complex and our values more complicated. Humans lose sight of where these values came from. The end.

When I hear that the arts do not have intrinsic value it seems what is being said is a fact about the arts. A fact like “Cats don’t have wings”. It seems to be something put forward that we should be able to check. You pick up some art, look at it, feel how heavy it is, check the density, and conclude that it lacks intrinsic value. Or perhaps when it is said that the the arts do not have intrinsic value it is meant as a logical impossibility. Like saying that numbers don’t have mass. More scientists in lab coats get together, study the problem, and determine rightly that it was never capable of intrinsic value, by definition.

The history of value may tell us otherwise. Whether the arts have intrinsic value or not isn’t a fact about the arts, its a fact about us. It asks the question “Do WE value the arts intrinsically?” When you are looking for intrinsic value you do not check the status of the world, you ask people: “Do you believe the arts have intrinsic value? Do the arts have a place in your life that does not require them to be justified? Do you treat the arts as worthy in themselves? Do you believe the value of the arts needs to be explained? Are the arts something alive for you, or are they dead?” What we are looking for is a system of beliefs, a culture.

The Short And Fanciful History Of Value suggests that it is WE who bring value to the world. It is WE who make of the world something valuable. It is our actions and our beliefs that invent value for the world. Culture is the propagation and manifestation of these values. And the things valued can be anything. It doesn’t have to make sense to us, only to those people for whom it matters. Some people throughout history have worshiped or venerated the spirits of their elders. This is what they value. This is what they do. We don’t need to check the Aether for ectoplasm. We need to ask them, “Is this what you value?”

When the Universe is mute on value it is humans who need to tell the stories of why certain things matter. This is not exceptional or unusual or unexpected. If you are looking for value you ask people. You look at a culture as evidence that these things are taken seriously. It can be anything. I repeat, anything. The arts are no more preposterous than anything else. And if you believe in the arts it can seem entirely reasonable that they should require no explanations, no justifications. Doubt is misplaced if we imagine this is a factual condition of the arts themselves. When people behave as if the arts mattered, the arts matter. Facts may tell us the world is not always as we imagine it, but if no one behaves as if something mattered, if no one actually cares, that is the only evidence a thing has no value for us.


My original essay was a doozy, but if you have the time and inclination you can read it here:


Things to think about…..

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!



About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Imagination, metacognition. Bookmark the permalink.

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