Peter Lamarque and Gregory Currie: Cognitive and Aesthetic Values in Cultural Artefacts

Cultural artefacts come in many different shapes and sizes and are of many different kinds. They might be tools or weapons, paintings or songs, houses or jewellery. Sometimes it is obvious what values they possess. Practical artefacts made to serve practical purposes are valuable largely to the extent that they perform their functions well. Of course they might also be well designed and look good or feel good to use. That seems like a different kind of value. We might call it “aesthetic” value in contrast to purely practical value. Yet practical artefacts are usually praised both for their efficiency in doing what they are designed to do and for their (aesthetic) look and feel revealed in their design. These often go together. So in very many cases the aesthetic and the practical turn out to be not entirely distinct.

What about works of art? Traditionally aesthetic values are thought to be dominant in the arts. The value of looking at a painting, hearing a song, or musing on a poem lies, so it is said, in the pleasures these activities afford. Practical functions don’t seem important. Are not works of art valued “for their own sake”? But maybe that is too quick. Nor is it clear exactly what being valued “for its own sake” means.

Our project is to explore questions of this kind, addressed to cultural artefacts broadly labelled “works of art”. The focus will be specifically on aesthetic values and cognitive values, examining not just what such values are but how they are related. What do we mean by “cognitive” values? In brief, these are values centred on the advancement of knowledge or understanding. Cognitive values can be thought of as a species of practical value and they are commonly associated with certain art forms (notably representational arts) that are thought not only to afford aesthetic pleasure but also to add to the stock of human knowledge, including self-knowledge and what is sometimes called “know-how”.

Rather than engaging in a purely abstract or philosophical investigation our aim is to focus on three very specific but radically different case studies in the hope of shedding light on these kinds of value:

• The Palaeolithic wall paintings at Chauvet Cave
• A selection of Shakespeare’s sonnets, on the theme of time and mortality
• The Ridley Scott film Blade Runner

We chose these particular case studies for several reasons. We wanted examples of totally different art forms and media; we wanted a wide historical and cultural reach; we wanted artefacts that have already been subject to extensive debate (part of the interest is in the nature of those debates); and we wanted examples that might usefully reveal different aspects of the two principal kinds of values in our study.

We have planned three intensive workshops on these case studies bringing together experts from different perspectives and disciplines: archaeologists and palaeontologists for the cave paintings, Shakespeare scholars and literary theorists for the Sonnets, film theorists and critics for the film. We were delighted, for example, that Jill Cook, who curated the highly successful exhibition on “Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind” at the British Museum, contributed to the Chauvet Cave workshop (held on 7th February 2014), as did Andrew J Lawson, author of Painted Caves: Palaeolithic Rock Art in Western Europe. Throughout there is also an input from aesthetics and philosophy of art. The interdisciplinary nature of the enquiry is crucial to it. The remaining two workshops will take place at the end of February and in April.

It is difficult to predict what kinds of intellectual findings will emerge overall—that is what is exciting about it—but we are hoping that the unusual juxtaposition of the case studies, the breadth of expertise called on, and the philosophical overview to be developed will yield genuine new insights in the longstanding debate about the values of art in general and the complex relations between the cognitive and the aesthetic in particular.

Calvin Taylor: A Perspective from Cultural Economy

In 1930, reflecting on the possibilities of life 100 years into the future, the economist and later the first Chair of the Arts Council of Great Britain John Maynard Keynes predicted that humanity would have solved the “economic problem” but, would have in the process created a new one: “how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well”. In Keynes’s world the economy had one objective: to create the wealth necessary for the whole of society to live a full and rich cultural life. The two things were distinct. Interestingly, whilst Keynes was prepared to admit that there were alternatives to market economy (something the modern world has learned to forget); he would have found it difficult to imagine that culture was anything other than a given (the alternative being something over which the modern world simultaneously celebrates and agonises).

Things are very different today. You don’t need to subscribe to one of the many variants of postmodernism to see that the types of things that get bundled up respectively as ‘economic’ on the one hand and ‘culture’ on the other are very closely related. The emergence of a whole host of culturally reflexive economic imaginaries: the experience economy, the cultural economy and the creative economy to name just three here, ask important questions about the contemporary relationship of culture and economy, most importantly for my project, the extent to which they share common intellectual architecture, especially with respect to the use of the term value. Whilst economists of a more traditional stripe tend on the whole to ignore cultural matters (or assume that culture is just an odd corner of consumer economics), it is surprising to note how many advocates of culture fail to recognise any other model of economic life than those inscribed by marginalism and neo-classicism. In fact, I think many ardent defenders of culture’s specificity would be surprised to discover just how much their arguments rest on assumptions shared by precisely these kinds of models. What makes the alternative cultural economic imaginaries interesting is the possibility that they might actually suggest alternative economic models which might not reconcile easily with market economy.

My project, a critical review, is interested in how these models construct their respective ideas of cultural value and the extent to which they are capable of sustaining alternative ideas about economic life. For thirty years I have been reading economics, cultural analysis and philosophy in parallel (stimulated I would say by my under-graduate experience at City University, London, in the 1980s where I took courses in the History of Economic Thought, the Sociology of Art and Popular Culture, and Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Philosophy) with a sneaking suspicion that there are all sorts of historical entanglements between these three bodies of thought. Some of those entanglements, I think, have important things to say about our contemporary ideas of cultural value. My review will take a series of historical lenses on the relationship between culture and economy and apply them to our contemporary cultural imaginaries. My basic outlook is informed by the interactions between political economy, critical theory, cultural analysis and philosophy, for which together, I use the term cultural economy. This, I think, is something fundamentally different to cultural economics, which, on the whole works within the marginalist and neo-classical economic traditions.

As far as the specific AHRC Cultural Value Project goes, I am generally speaking unhappy that the ‘economic’ gets conflated with only one tradition or approach. I think the arguments about cultural value today have much to offer both economy and culture, and I think, in broad terms, culture has much to gain from entertaining a much more diverse view of economy than current positions seem to reflect. Keynes reflected on one kind of future for 2030. The world that could entertain the idea that economy and culture were fundamentally different things has gone. However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the object of achieving a rich and full cultural life for all society has gone with it. Maybe we need to think a little intensely about a different kind of economy, and with it the possibility of a different kind of cultural life.