Valuing the Artist

Art in the broadest sense – including fine art, performance art, literature, music and so on – provides priceless value to individuals and society as a whole. However, the shameful fact is that most artists struggle to make ends meet.

Art is symbolic and metaphorical; its message is implicit and often vague. There are some exceptions, but most people just can’t make money out of things like that. It is very hard for businesses to make a profit from art so they steer well clear of it, which is not a bad thing at all. I certainly don’t think that art should be commercialised but artists still have to pay their bills.

Art has value that goes beyond exchange-money value. It adds to the well-being of individuals and society as a whole in different ways, including:

Cultural well-being

A culture, any culture, expresses itself through art. Art is a way for people to express themselves mean by ‘saying one thing and meaning another’ – as Robert Frost once describe poetry. In this way art can express cultural ideas without being explicit. The point is that good art tells you a lot about a culture and it also tells you a lot about yourself. It does this in ways that are usually subtle and nuanced and thereby can criticise and invoke change without being too overt and provocative.

Environmental well-being

Overall, art has a very small carbon footprint compared to most human artefacts and activities. Much art is experiential and therefore uses little material resources, in the way that other types of consumption do.

Personal Well-being

The beauty of art is that it makes you think. It needs active participation by the audience. It is like a conversation where each person is active, using their cognition and thereby adding to well-being. Any time your mind is doing something positive it is good for you.

As mentioned, art can teach us about ourselves, about each other and about the world around us. Art is considered by many to be intuitive and irrational – this is wrong. Art has a fundamental rational role in social inquiry, by revealing what is of value, and also revealing false values.

Valuing the artist

Whilst art has enormous personal and cultural value, few seem to pay for what it’s worth except the artists themselves. This is an appalling irony. Artists ‘pay’ by surviving on pitiful incomes and through the generosity and forbearance of their families and friends. In this way artists are subsidising our cultural growth and expression. They are also subsidising the growth of other sectors of our economy, in particular the economic powerhouse, tourism. Also the creative industries, which are much vaunted, get inspiration and stimulation from the arts.

With a life of financial hardship and with little, perceived or real, prospect of advancement artists often end up either ‘dropping out’ and relegating their art to a hobby (at best) or they struggle for years with no certainty that they will ever succeed.

Whatever is being done to help this situation is not working. The artists aren’t helping themselves, the industry and its advocates aren’t helping either because it’s a case of ‘the blind leading the blind’, the wider business community doesn’t help because there is widespread mutual misunderstanding and distrust, government policy initiatives and resources are not changing things, and society still sees art as a low value proposition, at least in money terms.

There is no simple solution to properly valuing the artist but there are at least three forms of answers:

  • Artists learn to promote themselves better – without compromising their art. All sorts of businesses promote less valuable, more harmful goods and services than artists provide. Artists should be proud of the tremendous value of their ‘product’ to promote it adequately.
  • The general public values intangible and experiential ‘things’ like art more than tangible ones. Life is not primarily about acquisition, consumption and ‘having’ of material products and goods. Life is about ‘being’, experiencing and making memories. The best things in life are not things!
  • We demand that governments, institutions and big business support the arts much more, not for financial return, but for the incalculable value that artists provide society.


By supporting artists to do what they do, we can support our well-being and theirs, and at the same time reduce our impacts on nature.