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The value of art in society

Building on How many aren’t well represented? (which considered culture as creation of meaning, and our engagement with this as a society and as individuals seeking identity), this post looks more towards the world of art.

Defining what we’re talking about in terms of art can be tricky: is it self-expression, purely subjective, or is it a way of seeing and representing realities and relationships that seeks more objective meaning? It seems in some ways society has commodified and co-opted artistic creativity into economic activity, either as branding and lifestyle or within the lucrative entertainment industry. But does art itself still have intrinsic value?

In modern cultural life economic considerations seem to seek recipes, possibly at the cost of other options (see Values and the economic for more thoughts on principles underlying human activity). So is art an ongoing flow of forms and interests as society explores itself and creates meaning, or a commercial concern trading on audience behaviour? There seems a tendency to play it safe and capitalise on trends, possibly artificially amplifying certain interests rather than cultivating new ones. I question if economics should have any say in cultural life; whether money muddies the waters of what’s happening there.

With the relationship of art to society more widely, it draws on images and ideas within society but does it do so to shock, to inform, to reinforce, to challenge, to offer meaning or alternatives, or to drive certain industries and conversations? Should art ‘say anything’ in politics or social life, or is it there to reflect reality back to us in a way we may judge with fresh eyes? In seeking to say something, I feel it lose some of its power; that it might be better leaving us free to interpret and decide for ourselves.

People seem to be identifying more – and more closely – with cultural forms such as films, books and artists in attempting to create their own sense of self. Which is interesting, and possibly concerning: maybe it’s always been the case, but maybe cultural institutions held different values and intentions in the past, and maybe people did so with a different awareness as well. Is the self holding an interest, or are we creating a self out of these things?

Who’s to say the meaning of art in society, and within education it seems Arts are still at risk of falling by the wayside – nice added extras that might serve a creative career or a well-rounded personality but a less ‘sensible’ choice for today’s economic realities. It seems society generally is struggling to relate to art, as discussed in this Guardian article on the future of Art History studies.

As with so many things, it’s hard to grasp what’s really going on and what it’s all about in terms of how we live. And, as with a few posts so far, this one is attempting to explore the topic for future consideration more than to definitively master these questions.

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