“Shouldn’t we be able to ascertain value by the importance things have for us?”

– Former Portland Poet Laureate Martin Steingesser

In a recent column in these pages (Maine Voices, “The value in the arts should not be measured by the money made,” July 19), poet Martin Steingesser laments the overriding emphasis on money displayed at a recent conference on “the creative economy.”

He notes that “the arts” bring millions of dollars to Maine, support more than 1,500 jobs and generate nearly $6 million in taxes for state and local governments. While admitting that the economic activity implied by these numbers is “inarguably a good thing,” he complained that the conference and, by implication, what these numbers measure is not “what the arts are really about.”

He concludes by asserting that the creative economy (whatever that may mean) would “make a handmaid of the arts” and decries the fact that we measure things “by how much money they’re worth” rather than by some unspecified, but presumably superior, yardstick.

I agree completely with Mr. Steingesser’s assertion that art is not about money. And I disagree just as completely with his conclusion that there is something sinister, even immoral, about measuring things by monetary worth.

Art is, as he says, finding the right word, note, image, movement to “set something in the heart ringing,” to create “light in their eyes.” And to create and appreciate art is a human achievement of which we are all capable and to which we all would do well to aspire.

But to attend a conference devoted to urban economic development expecting to hear disquisitions on the nature of art is simply naive, akin to attending a conference on rewriting the tax code expecting to learn about poetry.

Like many intellectual fads, the idea of “the creative economy” has a certain immediate allure — “Oh, that’s cool.” But upon deeper inspection, it disappears in a jumble of extremely elastic definitions and invidious comparisons of which industries and occupations are creative and which are not. But that’s a diversion for another column.

The ax I’m grinding today is the idea that measuring things in terms of money is somehow “bad,” reflective of defective, or, at least, less-cultivated values.

That position confuses the object and the yardstick. We commonly measure the speed of a car in miles per hour. We could just as well use furlongs per fortnight. There’s nothing right or wrong with either measure. And whichever we use says nothing about the car, its driver, its destination or the value of the travel accomplished.

Money is the way people — at least people in a free society — put value on what they make and do. And that includes artists. Just ask the writers and musicians who’ve struggled for decades to protect the money they believe they’re due for products they have created that can be made and distributed for virtually nothing.

And yes, people with money have, for time immemorial, used it to acquire status by buying trophy art, trophy cars, trophy companies, even trophy wives. That others may mutter, “How shallow,” is a condemnation not of money but of the values that that particular use of money expresses.

And therein lies my fundamental point. Economics is a way of understanding the values an individual, a community, a nation, a culture make manifest. By their fruits you shall know them. Getting tangled up in arguments about the scales used to measure the fruit is a dangerous diversion.

The importance things have for us is manifest in how we go about earning money and spending it. That importance may be honesty, love, greed, hypocrisy, status, ringing hearts or lights in our eyes and in the eyes of those around us. But whatever that importance, that value, may be, it is shaped by us, not by the yardstick we use to measure it.

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public-policy research firm. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

 


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