The power of symbolic value

The power of symbolic value

Let’s say you are Catholic and maybe even Argentinian. You may have been familiar with the name of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires but not actually paid much attention to the man. Then one day – he becomes the Pope and thus, Gods representative on earth. (Personally, I don’t see how humans can pick Gods representative, but millions of Catholics don’t seem to mind…) Suddenly this modest man becomes the idol of millions of devotees. His kisses have healing power, his blessings change lives.


Let’s say you live in Devon and are familiar with the Buckland abbey. You may even have noticed the dark portrait that has been hanging on the wall for the past few years. Nothing peculiar about artworks in churches. Then, one day, it turns out that this dark portrait is an original painting by Rembrandt. The same painting you walked by without paying attention to – now has a completely new meaning (and is now worth 20 million pounds)! People are coming from far and wide to see it. Suddenly your small part of the world is “on the map”.

What is the connection between Pope Francis and Rembrandt? Here are two examples – a man and a painting – who’s change of status creates a huge change in social value. Did anything change in the subjects? The painting is exactly the same painting and the man hasn’t changed (although he probably won’t cook for himself or go to work by bus anymore…) – it is our perception of these subjects that have changed. It is a title – the Pope or Rembrandt – both heavy with symbolic value that causes us to see them in a different light. The title is not an inherent quality of the subject but a social, cultural construct that affects our point of view and the way in which we see the world around us.

Symbolic value is a major construct especially in the field of art as a work of art has no real inherent value. The mechanism of creating symbolic value is a complex affair, based on intangible assets but it is also simple as we actually need people beyond our reach to crown our kings to which we gladly bow our heads.