Adam Smith on the Value of Art

imitative arts labor theory of value exchange value use value

Eric Schliesser for AdamSmithWorks

May 10, 2023
Recently Northwestern University Professor Rachel Zuckert asked me about a possible elision between artistic merit and price in Adam Smith's relatively understudied essay, "Of the Imitative Arts." I was initially a bit surprised by Zuckert's concern because in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith's official definition of merit -- "In the beneficial... nature of the effects which the affection aims at, or tends to produce, consists the merit... of the action" (TMS) -- and subsequent treatment in TMS, Smith seems to keep merit very far removed from any concern with price or exchange value. But when I went back to the Imitative Arts essay, I immediately encountered the passage that could trigger Zuckert's question:
[A] The extraordinary resemblance of two natural objects, of twins, for example, is regarded as a curious circumstance; which, though it does not increase, yet does not diminish the beauty of either, considered as a separate and unconnected object. But the exact resemblance of two productions of art, seems to be always considered as some diminution of the merit of at least one of them; as it seems to prove, that one of them, at least, is a copy either of the other, or of some other original. One may say, even of the copy of a picture, that it derives its merit, not so much from its resemblance to the original, as from its resemblance to the object which the original was meant to resemble. The owner of the copy, so far from setting any high [i] value upon its resemblance to the original, is often anxious to destroy any [ii] value or merit which it might derive from this circumstance. He is often anxious to persuade both himself and other people that it is not a copy, but an original, of which what passes for the original is only a copy. But, whatever merit a copy may derive from its resemblance to the original, an original can certainly derive none from the resemblance of its copy.
But though a production of art seldom derives any merit from its resemblance to another object of the same kind, it frequently derives a great deal from its resemblance to an object of a different kind, whether that object be a production of art or of nature. A painted cloth, the work of some laborious Dutch artist, so curiously shaded and coloured as to represent the pile and softness of a woollen one, might derive some merit from its resemblance even to the sorry carpet which now lies before me. The copy might, and probably would, in this case, be of much greater [iii] value than the original. But if this carpet was represented as spread, either upon a floor or upon a table, and projecting from the back ground of the picture, with exact observation of perspective, and of light and shade, the merit of the imitation would be still greater.--Adam Smith "Of the Imitative Arts" I.4-5, pp. 178-179 in the Glasgow edition of Essays on Philosophical Subjects.

Now, 'value' is a technical term in Wealth of Nations (WN) and I will use Smith's treatment of it there to interpret this passage. Yet it is worth noting that in TMS 'value' is not introduced as a technical term, and throughout TMS Smith lets context determine what he means by 'value.' I cannot rule out that he intended to do so, too in “Of the Imitative Arts,” because there is evidence in the essay that he intended it as a kind of companion to TMS, or at least assumed some familiarity with TMS.* Unfortunately, context does not settle the issue in Imitative Arts.
In WN, 'value' does have a technical use and Smith spends considerable time explicitly disambiguating them in four chapters of Book One (4-7). At the end of WN 1.4, Smith distinguishes between two notions of value: utility and exchange (to be quoted below). He is explicit (the “three following chapters”) that the material in chapters WN 1.5-7 governs exchange value only. In fact, in order to explain the principles of exchange value, Smith distinguishes among three measures of exchange value: (i) natural or ordinary prices, (ii) real prices, and (iii) nominal or market prices. I have recently written an essay (trying to distance Smith from a labor theory of value), in which I explain the differences among these measures of exchange value here. I presuppose familiarity with it in what follows, but I do not think it is needed to understand what I am about to say.
Smith does not say much about use value, but here is the key passage in WN:
The word VALUE, it is to be observed, has two different meanings, and sometimes expresses the utility of some particular object, and sometimes the power of purchasing other goods which the possession of that object conveys. The one may be called ‘value in use ;’ the other, ‘value in exchange.’ The things which have the greatest value in use have frequently little or no value in exchange; and on the contrary, those which have the greatest value in exchange have frequently little or no value in use. Nothing is more useful than water: but it will purchase scarce any thing; scarce any thing can be had in exchange for it. A diamond, on the contrary, has scarce any value in use; but a very great quantity of other goods may frequently be had in exchange for it. WN 1.4.13

Smith is explicitly far removed here from the more modern economists' tendency to treat value in exchange as a useful proxy for (or revealed preference of) utility. It is crucial for my present purposes that there is no tendency in Smith to link use and exchange value in any systematic way. Interestingly enough, when Smith describes what he calls 'real price,' which is a measure of labor commanded in exchange, and which, in modern terms involves a fairly constant disutility for the working poor (relative to a staple food and stable technological background conditions), Smith does not use 'utility' or its cognates, but 'toil and trouble.'
What Smith means by ‘utility’ or value in use is underspecified at WN 1.4.13. In fact, Smith rarely discusses value in use or such utility in WN. However, a key passage on the nature of precious metals follows at WN 1.xi.c.31: "These qualities of utility, beauty, and scarcity, are the original foundation of the high price of those [precious] metals, or of the great quantity of other goods for which they can every where be exchanged." (191) In this context it is clear that 'utility" explicitly means 'useful' to the owner, and precious metals are useful in virtue of the fact that "they are less liable to rust and impurity, they can more easily be kept clean." (190) Smith goes one to explain that it is their beauty that makes them highly prized. So, crucially, while there is no conceptual or stable link between value in use (or use value/utility) and exchange value, value in use can, in some circumstances, enter into the exchange value of an object. It does so, in fact, when there is scarcity. 
Now, works of art (in the broad sense that Smith uses the term) can have beauty, artistic merit, and value in exchange. When in the Imitative Arts essay, Smith treats of value in exchange or the cost of a work of art, he tends to use 'expence.' Take one of my favorite passages in which he does so:
[B] A good painter will often execute in a few days a subject which would employ the best tapestry-weaver for many years; though, in proportion to his time, therefore, the latter is always much worse paid than the former, yet his work in the end comes commonly much dearer to market. The great expence of good Tapestry, the circumstance which confines it to the palaces of princes and great I lords, gives it, in the eyes of the greater part of people, an air of riches and magnificence, which contributes still further to compensate the imperfection of its imitation. In arts which address themselves, not to the prudent and the wise, but to the rich and the great, to the proud and the vain, we ought not to wonder if the appearance of great expence, of being what few people can purchase, of being one of the surest characteristics of great fortune, should often stand in the place of exquisite beauty, and contribute equally to recommend their productions. As the idea of expence seems often to embellish, so that of cheapness seems as frequently to tarnish the lustre even of very agreeable objects. Imitative Arts, I.13. pp. 183-2

What is interesting about this passage is that in his treatment of the painter and the tapestry weaver, Smith pretty explicitly denies a labor theory of value (in exchange). He also explicitly denies that expense in the art market, as far as the work of art appeals to status, tracks genuine beauty. However, in markets dominated by status, value in exchange (expense/cost) does track value in use because high exchange value enhances the use value of the work of art to the owner who can thereby signal riches and inspire envy (etc.). So much for set up.
In “Imitative Arts,” Smith uses 'value' only three times at I.4-5 in the passage quoted above and labeled ‘[A]’; I have labeled these to facilitate discussion. Since we are explicitly dealing with 'owners' in a market economy, it is tempting to read the use of 'value' as value in exchange. This is especially so because the tree uses of value are introduced after discussion of artistic merit ("One may say, even of the copy of a picture, that it derives its merit, not so much from its resemblance to the original, as from its resemblance to the object which the original was meant to resemble"). What follows, then, can never settle the issue. But I have three reasons for thinking that Smith means value in use when he uses 'value' the three times at I.4-5/[A].
First, because Smith is so careful to use ‘expence’ or cost when he discusses value in exchange subsequently, I am inclined to think that in this context by 'value' [i-iii] Smith means 'value in use' to the owner. Second, this is most obvious in [iii] because in the immediate context Smith is describing, the heightened artistic merit of works that copy works from a different genre or kind of art. A tapestry that represents a painting of a violinist or a painting in which a tapestry of a violinist is represented is of higher artistic merit than a tapestry of a violinist alone. Now, whether that artistic merit translates in higher exchange value is a contingent matter as Smith explains at passage [B]/I.13, and throughout WN.
Third, I will not deny that for some bourgeois owners the 'anxiety' over whether one has an original or a copy is caused by the possible exchange or resale value of a work. But it is telling that after introducing [i-ii], Smith does not explain the owner's interest in resale value, but rather in what "other people" think of the artistic merit. ("He is often anxious to persuade both himself and other people that it is not a copy, but an original, of which what passes for the original is only a copy. But, whatever merit a copy may derive from its resemblance to the original, an original can certainly derive none from the resemblance of its copy.")
That is to say, this owner is hoping others will admire his good taste rather than his riches. While I do not think one can claim with confidence that this is an owner only focused on what the "prudent and the wise" will think. I do think that the expectation that these judges may withhold their approval on his judgment or taste for owning a copy and not an original is what is causing the anxiety here and through this anxiety diminishing the value, that is, the value in use one might derive from owning the work of art.