A few years back, I was in a modern art museum and saw this painting by Russian Suprematist artist Kazimir Malevich:

enter image description here

It seems to me that the value of this painting lies completely in the identity of its creator and the context of its creation. Technically speaking, a complete amateur like myself, or even a young school child would easily be able to produce the same painting. Yet if that had been the case, no modern art museum would be showing it, and people wouldn't be paying money to see it.

To give another extreme example: A nude picture or painting of Kim Kardashian would be softcore pornography, but a nude picture or painting of a similar looking Saudi or Iranian woman would be subversive, radical, revolutionary, and definitely worthy of our attention.

In both examples, the context in which the art work was created is what determined its value, not the actual content of the work.

Is there any way of determining the inherent value of a piece of art, regardless of how it was produced or who produced it? Or is art always dependent on the context in which it is produced?

  • You're starting to understand why modern art isn't. :)
    – cHao
    Feb 1, 2018 at 21:20
  • 1
    It seems that you are trying to distinguish aesthetic vs cognitive value of art. "Artistic value" depends on diverse factors like skill of the creator, story of creation, originality, reachness of allusions, popular appeal, etc. Aesthetic factors are perceptual, and hence "inherent", although judgement of value still depends on cultural context, including technical and stylistic canons. But conceptual factors are like externalist meanings, they "ain't in the work" itself, the value of Malevich's paintings is largely cognitive.
    – Conifold
    Feb 1, 2018 at 21:25
  • 1
    @Conifold has it right, but to expand; in STEM, we have a saying 'just because no-one understands you, it doesn't make you an artist'. Art (when you get right down to it) is an alternative form of communication. Sometimes it's obfuscated by design, sometimes by the inability of the artist to express clearly their intent. The latter (in my view) is a lack of aesthetic capability, and the former is a lack of clarity. Even doing it on purpose seems to obfuscate the purpose of art for many and that needs to be taken into account when considering the merits of a piece.
    – Tim B II
    Feb 1, 2018 at 22:35
  • Could you explain the statement, 'In both examples, the context in which the art work was created is what determined its value, not the actual context of the work.' Does 'the actual context of the work' indicate the context in which it is displayed rather than created ?
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Feb 2, 2018 at 0:58
  • Good but boring book: Title: Art and concept : a philosophical study Author: Krukowski, Lucian, 1929- Publisher:University of Massachusetts Press,Pub date:c1987.
    – Gordon
    Feb 2, 2018 at 15:39

5 Answers 5


Well, no unambiguous answer, but it's somewhat a difference between "craftsmanship" and "intentionality", and you're asking whether or not art necessarily involves craftsmanship. Malevich is presumably asking you to consider more or less exactly that, what comprises art -- exactly what you're asking, whereby he's achieved his purpose. A school-child's black circle presumably wouldn't convey the same connotation. And phooey to black circles -- Robert Rauschenberg has some entirely blank canvases https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/98.308.A-C     And Duchamp's urinal https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_%28Duchamp%29 is (I believe) more or less taken to be the first such work.

To paraphrase (link below) the overall viewpoint, there's no such thing as objective art, only our interpretations of it. Every generation takes from the past what it needs to make sense of itself. You and I cannot see in an ancient Greek work of art what an ancient Greek saw.

A really terrific video about all this is at http://learner.org/resources/series1.html     Scroll down to Episode 9 at the very bottom, and click the VOD link on the right-hand-side to watch it. It's Part II that's particularly relevant to our discussion. I think you'll find it  ......... FASCINATING  :)


Is the value of art always contextual, or can it ever be inherent?

The meaning of something arises from its relationship to something else. Some context is always necessary. So it is true with art. As centuries pass, the context changes, and so the meaning to the viewer changes, as well.

I doubt that art could ever have a meaning that was "inherent", in the sense that the artwork should mean the same thing to all people at all times. To say that art has an inherent meaning says that art is close to mathematics. But while x+2=y means the same thing today as it did five hundred years ago, the meaning of Michelangelo's David changes with each new age. David is as close to timeless as art may approach, but its value to each viewer depends upon the life experience of that viewer.


Perhaps something that Cezanne wrote might be useful here:

Everything we see falls apart, vanishes. Nature is always the same, but nothing in her that appears to us, lasts. Our art must render the thrill of her permanence along with her elements, the appearance of all her . It must give us the taste of her eternity.

Malevich is painting one of the many names of the absolute.

He himself wrote:

the public sighed,"Everything which we loved is lost. We are in a desert .... Before us is nothing but a black square on a white background!...But this desert is filled with the spirit of nonobjective sensation which pervades everything

The context here is art-historical; another moment in the push away from non-representational art - what Malevich himself calls non-objective. What you call context is what Benjamin would have called its aura. Since art is aimed at human experience they require for this experience its aura.


The question of how to evaluate art and in particular whether the context of artworks is relevant for such an evaluation and the closely related question of where the value of artworks stems from have all been controversial questions. Some insist that the context is indispensable - in which case the artist's intentions play a central role in the evaluation of the work -- the example you have provided demonstrates the strength of this view. Others however rather claim that the context is not relevant and that the body of the artwork is what counts; in which case the artist is not of interest for purpose of evaluating artworks and criteria relating to composition colors etc. are those enlisted in order to assess the artworks on their own. Still others claim that artworks are only those works that are presented in Museums - indeed an institutional or pragmatic approach. One notable philosopher who holds such a view is George Dickie. His view circumvents the very difficulty you raised in your insightful question but it amounts to viewing artworks as no more than cultural-social-institutional actions.


In a cosmic sense, art cannot have inherent value. It is in the context of humans on earth, their sense organs, brains and the developmental state in time. When this absolute context is true, everything at a lower level must be contextual.

Let us examine the value of art within this context.

What is happening when my brain converts the sound vibrations of a Mozart sonata or Maria Callas aria into electrical signals and experiences them? Why does it generate a nice feeling, pleasure? Also, the sensation of joy does not need anyone else to be present, not even the performer. Other than enjoyment, it does not convey any information. It is unlikely that such a complex characteristic would be an accident or vestigial. So why have we evolved to create and experience certain combinations and sequences of sound in an enjoyable way? How does it support life?

From what we observe about the creation, reception and effects of music, it could serve multiple purposes for life.

Art could have evolved in one of several ways, based on its utility for life. One role it could play is to make the registering, analysis, retention and reuse of event sequences that we experience. For example, it rains heavily, and there are mudflows, the hut collapses. Or the cock crows and it is dawn and time to wake up and get going. Drawings and paintings help humans record events and causes and effects. Musical notes in specific sequences create a melody the mind can focus on and follow. Like it can track the flight of the deer and the chase of the lion. In this role, art is a teaching aid for the brain.

The other function it could have is to increase the capacity of the more advanced parts of the brain by exercising them (e.g. the cortex), although they may have evolved a lot before art came into the picture. Another possibility is that it could help calm the more reactive parts of the brain (which meditation and mindfulness do too).

Art could also, in a secondary role, strengthen the bonding within social groups. The Arts represent the more complex emotions of humans and sharing the experience of music, dance and art could strengthen the bonds within human groups. To the extent that some other species also exhibit the capacity for music and dance, it applies to them too.

Our perception of Art is intimately tied to our senses. Therefore, its existence, form and value are entirely relative to our species. For any other species on our planet, it may be similar but will not be the same. For an alien species with very different sense organs and evolutionary needs, art may not exist or will be very different if it does.

Sunsets over the ocean look good to us. Is it because it is a sign that everything is fine with the world? The life-giving sun is there, just right for us. There’s water, even if it is salty. Music sounds good to us. Is it because it resembles the sounds of natural things that are wholesome for us, such as flowing water, singing birds, flowing air? Is the ability to create and enjoy art only possible when we have leisure time? And because leisure is a sign of satiation, comfort, shelter and safety, does art enhance it by generating positive feelings and make us strive for such conditions?

Then what about sad songs? How are they good for us? How about paintings of war and death? How are they good for us? One answer could be that they remind us of what we should not be, what we should not do. So, art could also be serving the function of reflection and teaching. And it may do it for many of us together. It could be a way for us to agree on what is right for us and what is not.

In summary, either art makes us more fit for survival directly or pushes us to such behaviour that the enjoyment of Art becomes possible in our lives. Either way, it is utilitarian as an enabler or as a source of pleasurable sensations that accompany healthy activities.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.