Matthew Kieran:  The Value of Art

In Berys Gaut and Dominic Lopes, The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (2001) 


This document is a summary of Kieran. 
My personal comments are in red. 
These comments have been added to help students understand his arguments.

We begin with the basic distinction between instrumental and intrinsic value.

Some theorist (e.g., Budd) hold that art's value is intrinsic in this way: each work's value is the value of the experience it  offers us (assuming the person is knowledgeable about the type of art in question). In other words, a work's value is the experience we have while interacting with it, and not any additional consequences arising from that interaction. 

In brief, a work of art is pleasurable for its own sake, not for the sake of other benefits that art viewing may have.

Stecker's response: Why is this intrinsic? It's instrumental, because the value is the "end realized" by having access to it.

Two kinds of instrumental value:

  • Purely Instrumental -- we value the thing ONLY because of some end it allows us to achieve.
  • Mixed -- we value what the thing allows us to achieve, but only if this is the means by which we achieve those ends. The means are "internal to the ends involved."

In addition to the intrinsic/instrumental debate, there is the question of what sorts of general ends are unique to art.

  • Aestheticism: the value of a work of art lies in its aesthetic rewards.
  • Cognitivism: art is a specialized craft, the craft of leading us to certain cognitive-affective ends.


Art provides an aesthetic experience. 

What experience are we talking about? The overall experience of unity, complexity, and intensity that comes from attending to all the interrelations among all the elements of a successful work of art. [Kieran does not say so, but at this point he is summarizing the views of Monroe Beardsley.]

Three reasons in favor of aestheticism:

  1. It explains why, when two works have the same message & cognitive value, only one the two will be valuable as art.
  2. If we valued works for cognitive reasons, we would not appreciate "works with whose content we may disagree vehemently." We must value it apart from its content, and aestheticism allows that we can appreciate how the content is handled without having to admire the content.
  3. Aestheticism places a sharp difference of kind between art, craft, entertainment (e.g., mass culture), and propaganda.

Objections to aestheticism:

  1. There is conceptual art of considerable value, but it lacks aesthetic value, such as some of Duchamp's work.
  2. However technically accomplished, we think that art with trite and sentimental content is not as good as art with profound content.
  3. Historically, most art was created for commercial reasons, or as craft, or as a species of propaganda. 


All art has communicative ends. [After all, we interpret it as utterance, don't we?]

Art's special value is how it deepens our understanding by enhancing our response to the work's cognitive content. It enhances our perspective on the world. [This idea saves cognitivism from the objection that any two works whose content has the same paraphrase must be equally good. A novel by Thomas Wolfe and the film The Wizard of Oz may both carry the message "there's no place like home," but they certainly don't convey it the same way.]

Objections to cognitivism:

  1. If two works have the same content, then a badly executed work is just as good as any other, provided they provide the same relationship to the same content.

    Two responses to this objection.
    • Nussbaum -- Emphasis on imaginative engagement
    • Gaut -- Emphasis on the presence of emotion in our cognitive-affective response to art. The film To Kill a Mockingbird doesn't just tell us that racism is bad: it makes us feel it, too.
  2. Many good or great works have no significant content, and hence do not expand our understanding of anything. For instance, a lot of great instrumental music. [For just this reason, instrumental music was ranked as the weakest art form by some writers in the 18th century.]
  3. If cognitivism is true, then how can we value works which appear to be fundamentally mistaken? Bad ideas should negate their value. 
    Reply: it might be false, but truth isn't everything: it might be interestingly mistaken! [But then how is really horrible statement to be challenged as an artistic failing? Doesn't this assign too much value to Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will?]

Final proposal: Perhaps ART has no organizing value. Perhaps some arts (that's plural!) are mainly of cognitive value, and some arts are mainly of aesthetic value. To think one type of value holds of all arts may be overly ambitious. Instrumental music is primarily of value according to aestheticism, while literature is more obviously of value according to cognitivism. 

Although Kieran does not discuss this implication, we discussed his example of Renoir paintings and their "cloying sentimentality." Perhaps Kieran's judgment stems from ignorance of the POLITICAL content that some of them conveyed to their original audience. We looked at Renoir's Acrobats at the Circus Fernando, which presents working children. But this illustrates how the cognitive value of older art may evaporate, so that only those who know a great deal about the circumstances of their production and original presentation will be aware of their full cognitive-affective impact. But if cultural change reduces the cognitive accessibility of works, then there is little cognitive value in attending to older works of art.

                        Last updated March22, 2006