Date of Award

Spring 6-1-2023

Document Type

Thesis (Undergraduate)



First Advisor

Brooke Harrington, PhD

Second Advisor

Henry C. Clark


The word “priceless” gets thrown around a lot in colloquial language, but upon further reflection, the idea that something can be so valuable that it transcends the realm of commerce challenges the rational economic perspective of “market money,” whereby money “homogeniz[es] all qualitative distinctions into an abstract quantity” that may be exchanged “free from cultural or social constraints” as Zelizer (1989: 345) explains. In the subfield of economic sociology, scholars have argued against this pragmatic conception of money, proving that social ties, culture, institutions, social status, and systems of meaning all play a significant and demonstrable role in monetary exchange, and the economy cannot be extrapolated from its cultural context. In the sociology of art, scholars address how art is created, distributed, received, consumed, and used by the people who experience it. Artwork is a fascinating area for sociological study, as it is highly subjective, and thus susceptible to social and cultural influence. Due to this ambiguity of output, artworks depend on social norms and the word of legitimate institutions (and their experts) for the construction of their value.

Sociologists have paid close attention to the role of culture and the taken-for-granted norms of society in constructing the value of artwork. However, the current sociological literature has not yet connected art to the idea of it being “priceless.” Discussions of value and discussions of what art is have been separated within the sub disciples of economic sociology and sociology of art, respectively. Velthuis is one of the few to merge the sociological discussions of art and the market. While he successfully demonstrates the symbolic meanings of the pricing mechanism, his focus is limited to how numerical values are determined by markets. Missing still is an analysis of the symbolic meaning of the specific value “priceless” and how it is socially constructed. This thesis seeks to fill this gap by looking more closely at what it means for a painting to be accepted as priceless.

Included in

Sociology Commons