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

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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 '18 at 21:20
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    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 '18 at 21:25
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    @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 '18 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 '18 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 '18 at 15:39

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.


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  :)


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.

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