Is art a luxury or a necessity?

Lévy-Garboua and Montmarquette (2003, 211) conclude in a review of the field that ‘It is likely that the demand for arts is price-elastic and art is a luxury good. But this prediction stems more, as yet, from a theoretical conjecture than from well-replicated empirical estimates.’ This conclusion is interesting in light of the ongoing debate about whether art is a luxury or a necessity. So what is then the theoretical basis for believing the origins of art were a luxury rather than a necessity?

The main theory behind art being considered a luxury is based on Maslow’s (1943) theory that human motivation could be understood in the context of satisfying a hierarchy of needs, starting with the physiological, then safety, then love, followed by belonging, then esteem , and finally self-actualization. Once each had been met we would move on to the next. Based on this view art is an activity that people pursue when all these basic needs have been met. However, when reviewing the literature Whaba and Bridwell (1976), found little evidence for the ranking of needs proposed by Maslow, or for the existence of any hierarchy of needs.

Hence, there is little evidence that supports the view that art is a luxury, because it is meeting a less fundamental need in a hierarchy of needs, since such a hierarchy of needs does not exist.

Turning to the literature on the origins of art and aesthetics, I find that the origins of art, and indeed whether there is an art instinct are disputed. Arts antiquity as well as the way in which children spontaneously pick up sticks and start to draw with them, suggests there is an art instinct. However, this has puzzled evolutionary biologists and philosophers alike, since to be an instinct it has to serve a function that either aided survival or reproduction. Explanations have therefore been sought in the various instances where art like behaviour can be found. However, one source of puzzlement is precisely that art does not seem to be specific to any of these particular functions. Thus whilst art like behaviour occur in for example rituals and courting, it may still not have originated there. The philosopher Steve Davies in his book the Artful Species, as well as the neuroscientist Chatterjee in his book the Aesthetic Brain, are therefore neither convinced by the survival argument of Ellen Dissanayake that art plays a function by making special and is therefore used in rituals that aided survival, nor the reproductive argument of Miller that it originated to attract partners.

However, the fact that a phenomena is puzzling on the basis that it appears ‘useless’ from the point of view of survival does not mean that it may not later prove essential for survival. Sleep has puzzled evolutionary biologists as it appears to be an activity that would reduce the likelihood of surviving rather than enhancing it. However, the evidence of the repair function that sleep has for our bodies has made it clear that whilst it in itself may appear useless, it is an indispensable part of a survival package. Indeed we can not live without sleep due to synergies from sleeping and our ability to function when awake.

The question thus becomes is art like sleep, that is a seemingly useless yet indispensable part of a package for survival that is not yet fully understood? Or is it like a chair, that is a luxury good that was invented as a result of technological evolution and economic development following farming?

If art were a luxury good, we would have expected it to have been a by-product of farming just like furniture. However archaeological artefacts show that hunter-gatherers had musical instruments as well as having developed skills to paint and carve images. Due to the fact that many artistic goods, such as dancing, singing and drawing with the stick in the sand will have left no traces other than our natural inclination to pursue these activities, makes it impossible to know for how long humans have pursued them. However, the fact that we can trace art like behaviours to the animal kingdom, such as drawing, aesthetics and playing, suggests that it is more like sleep and thus might be part of a ‘survival package’ that is not yet fully understood.

Indeed the evidence that goes against the existence of a hierarchy of needs suggests that there are synergies across needs, and thus that human needs are working in symbiosis to aid survival. Hence the role that art might have had is a complementary function to other functions for survival, which would make its origins a necessity rather than a luxury.


Maslow, A.H. (1943) A theory of human motivation Psychological Review 50(4) 370-96.

Whaba, M.A. and Bridwell, L.G. (1976) “Maslow reconsidered: A review of research on the need hierarchy theory” Organizational Behaviour and Human Performance 15(2) 212-240.

Lévy-Garboua and Montmarquette (2003) Demand. In Towse, R. (Ed.), A handbook of cultural economics. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

One thought on “Is art a luxury or a necessity?”

  1. It seems to me that human intelligence (i.e. the capacity of human beings to cope with new situations and artificial environmental conditions for existence) is based on the creative playfulness that is trained, explored and expressed in art. Hence the undisputable and everlasting importance of art.

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