One cannot speak of value without implicitly or explicitly speaking of values. Barbara Herrnstein Smith made this point eloquently clear in her meticulous study of the “double discourse” of value, Contingencies of Value. “On the one hand,” Smith explains, “there is the discourse of economic theory: money, commerce, technology, industry, production and consumption, workers and consumers; on the other hand, there is the discourse of aesthetic axiology: culture, art, genius, creation and appreciation, artists and connoisseurs.” These two “hands” may use different yardsticks for measuring what is worth one's time, money, effort, or attention, but both participate in the same complex, dynamic system of evaluation – a system that is social and interdependent, rather than presocial or transcendent. Arguing that “All value is radically contingent, being neither a fixed attribute, an inherent quality, or an objective property of things but, rather, an effect of multiple, continuously changing, and continuously interacting variables,” Smith eschews the notion of intrinsic aesthetic value (a value that inheres in things, in works), and claims, rather, that value is conferred through communal processes – that is, through the work of valuing.
This work goes unnoticed when there is a high degree of agreement in a community. When there is less consensus in a community about particular practices, inclinations, or forms, cultural artifacts that align with those practices, inclinations, or forms will be regarded as matters of personal preference: some people prefer Beethoven to Bach, Beyoncé to Taylor Swift, blue to green. When there is general agreement in a community – say, that Beethoven's music is worthy of more regard than Taylor Swift's, or that a Michelangelo fresco is worth preserving while a spray-painted wall in Los Angeles can (and, some would say, should) be targeted for removal – the preference for Beethoven or Michelangelo will seem to be intrinsic to the music or the painting, rather than the result of unacknowledged, perhaps unconscious, communal decision-making. For Smith, “Here, as elsewhere, a co-incidence of contingencies among individual subjects who interact as members of some community will operate for them as noncontingency and be interpreted by them accordingly.”