On the Subjective Value of Art

On a Facebook thread I was participating in, someone asked me whether I thought there was an inherent value to a film beyond the audience’s reaction.

I found this to be such a bizarre question that it merits its own blog post.

To me, it seems obvious and self-evident that there’s no such thing as an intrinsic value to a piece of art. Artwork only has value to the extent that people value it. I can’t fathom what any other definition of artistic value would even mean.

There is, of course, no standard way to measure just how much an individual cares about a given work of art. But if there were, you could hypothetically add up how much each individual cares to get the precise total of what that artwork is worth.

If a lot of people care strongly about something, then that is a more valuable, and hence better, piece of art than something that a few people only vaguely care about.*

Note that there could be a piece of art that many people simply aren’t aware of, and would care about very strongly if they were exposed to it. Those are artworks that have the *potential* to be valuable. I would argue that the role of the critic is to steer people towards those works. (Or to steer them away from works that would be a waste of their limited time/attention/money, so they can instead focus on something they are more likely to enjoy.) But until a piece of art finds a broad audience, its value is limited to the people who have seen it and are thus able to value it.

When you are discussing “great” movies, you first have to define what you mean by “great.”  This is why I started my Movies We Still Care About series with an explanation of the definition I was using.

It would certainly be reasonable for someone to include obscure movies that people would love if only they knew about them in his definition of “great.”  (Even though I didn’t in my definition.)

But there are quite a few pieces of art, and film in particular, which are beloved by critics but rejected by mainstream audiences even after the audience is aware of them. At that point, it becomes silly to call these “great” movies. Rather, they are niche movies that only appeal to a limited demographic, with that demographic being “snooty film snobs.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with niche movies. They are enjoyed by the people who enjoy them. Snooty film snobs are still people, and while their opinions shouldn’t count more than the average person, they also shouldn’t count less.

But it’s silly to proclaim that there’s something wrong with the majority of people who fail to share that niche taste.

A movie is great because people think it’s great. No other definition makes sense.

As to how you go about making a movie that people will think is great, that’s a much more complicated and difficult question. So difficult that the best filmmakers in the world will still fail most of the time.

But when they succeed, it sure is something special.

* Things get more complicated when you try to compare something that a smaller amount of people care about strongly to something that a larger amount of people care about weakly. What’s the aggregate value of an episode of NCIS compared to an episode of Game of Thrones? Without a clear way to measure how much people care about something, there’s no meaningful way to compare the 6 million people that are highly engaged with Game of Thrones to the 17 million people who are for the most part less engaged with NCIS. (Those are the US numbers for the most recent episodes.) Of course if you’re a Game of Thrones fan like me, you think Game of Thrones is obviously better than NCIS.  But it’s not so obvious why your opinion should count more than the larger number of people who watch NCIS and not Game of Thrones.

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