Esthetic Values

In my essay Objectivism versus “Austrian” Economics on Value (in the second preamble) I made the point that there are non-economic values as well as economic ones. For example, family and friends are values, but no one would dream about putting them up for sale in the market. A pet is a value, but it has market value only when you first buy it; if for some reason – illness or whatever – you can no longer take care of your pet and you do not want to put it down, you have no choice but giving it away for free. I also made a comparison between Human Action and Das Kapital, which may cost approximately the same in the bookstore but are of totally different value – the first one you buy to learn something about economics, the second one just to study the enemy. But I wrote nothing about esthetic values, so let me elaborate a little on them.

Esthetic products do have a market value, since people are willing to spend money on them: they buy novels or poetry collections, paintings or reproductions, gramophone records or CDs, theater or concert tickets, etc. But is the value of a novel, a painting or a musical composition really equivalent to its market value or price?

Well, take an obvious example: The value to me of Ayn Rand’s novels has nothing whatsoever to do with how many copies of them have been sold or to what price. I would not think less of them, if there were only one copy in existence and I were the only one to have read it. (This is of course an impossible scenario, but I think you get my point.) And for those of you who do not care for Ayn Rand’s novels but prefer Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake (or whatever), the point would be the same.

The same holds true for music. To me, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (or any of the great classical composers) is far more valuable than, say, modern rap or hip-hop. Yet, the price of the records is approximately the same, and for number of records sold, the moderns might out-number the classics.

Sometimes the discrepancy is dramatic. I do not know whether Vincent van Gogh sold any of his paintings while alive, but if he did, it must have been for pocket money. Today, one will have to pay millions to acquire a van Gogh. (Fortunately, there are good reproductions.)

And this is just a particularly dramatic example. It is also true of old masters whose greatness was discovered in their own life times. For example, I am sure that Leonardo da Vinci was paid for painting Mona Lisa; but how much do you think art collectors would pay for it today, if it were ever put up for sale at an auction?

I cannot claim originality for those observations. In her essay “What is Capitalism?” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Ayn Rand makes the distinction between “philosophically objective value” – i.e. “value estimated from the standpoint of the best possible to man” – and “socially objective value” – where the last stands for market value. She was too modest to use her own novels as examples, so she wrote:

For instance, it can be rationally proved […] that the works of Victor Hugo are objectively of immeasurably greater value than true-confession magazines.[1] But if a given man’s intellectual potential can barely manage to enjoy true confessions, there is no reason why his meager earnings, the product of his effort, should be spent on books he cannot read […] (P. 24 in the paperback edition.)

Neither is there any reason why a person who can only enjoy rap and hip-hop – or the European song contest – should pay for my enjoyment of the Brandenburg Concertos or Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin.

And in fact it is a good and valuable thing that this “discrepancy” exists. If Atlas Shrugged were priced according to its “philosophically objective value”[2], who could afford to buy it? And if only millionaires could afford to buy it, how could the man in the street discover its actual, non-commercial, value?


[1] I don’t dispute this; but I would like to see the rational proof.

[2] Assuming this could be estimated in monetary terms.

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