The notion of cultural value is a matter of considerable and often heated debate, both in its conceptualization and in its application. Whether it is a discourse about the absolutism of measuring cultural value within the halls of academia or a debate over the cultural merits of McDonald’s versus Mozart in a coffee shop, the notion of cultural value is contentious. It is perhaps pouring gasoline onto the fire to invite an economic approach to the issue of cultural value. The economics discipline, often regarded as imperialistic and overly rationalist, brings a great deal of baggage with it. Humanistic scholars of cultural forms and values often bristle at the mention of an outsider economist, trained in theories of prices and firms, colonizing cultural studies. There is a (mis)perception that the economic approach relies on soulless, cold and calculating rational actors. This leads many who work in the cultural arena to be suspicious of and sometimes even deny any possibility of economists’ contribution. To many, an economic theory associated with profit-maximizing firms seems ill-suited to describe many artists. And perhaps some suspicion of a discipline rooted in assuming everyone is “rational” is well-founded.
Nonetheless, the economic approach still has some useful insights and tools to contribute to the study of cultural value. Economics as the study of choice under conditions of scarcity indeed has in its purview a vast landscape of human behavior. Yet this wide range of fields to which to apply economic analysis to does not imply that economics can answer all of the interesting or important questions about each field. Nowhere should this limitation on the scope of economic analysis be clearer than in the cultural realm. Economists have a very well developed notion of “value,” yet economic value is not the only value we can associate with something. Economic value can complement other measures of value, just as height measurements can complement weight measurements in describing an object.
The usefulness of introducing economic values into discussions in the cultural realm may ultimately be determined by whether this additional information is useful to decision-makers. This pragmatic application of economic tools to cultural issues is evident in the use of market research to improve museum operations and regional impact analyses to justify public subsidy for arts programs. The concept of “cultural capital” has also been applied to arguments for building demand for and appreciation of certain activities.