This is the view of Geoffrey Crossick, outgoing vice-chancellor of the University of London, who will direct the two-year Cultural Value programme, launched on 19 July by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
The initiative will fund projects that attempt to "conceptualise, identify and provide evidence" of the benefits of arts and cultural activity in non-economic terms.
As a secondary aim, the projects will also examine the role of university education and research in underpinning such benefits.
Rick Rylance, chief executive of the AHRC, said: "While we might feel we instinctively understand the value of culture...defining and expressing that value is surprisingly difficult, let alone the challenge of persuading others of its importance.
"But it is vital for us all, and for the future, that we do."
Professor Crossick said that the programme would help people to "talk with more confidence about what culture does in terms of bringing value to individuals and society, rather than automatically fashioning arguments on the basis of what others want to hear us say".
The lack of such arguments was felt most keenly around the time of government spending reviews, when "arts and culture and those academic disciplines that support them are asked to justify the spending on them".
He added: "Every time we respond [in terms of] what is the latest fashion that we think will impress the government: that is how economic impact has come to dominate the discussion of the value of the arts over the past decade.
"This is not to say economic impact doesn't matter. The economic impact of cultural activity undoubtedly exists, but it isn't the most interesting or important thing [the arts] do."
Professor Crossick denied that the programme was aimed primarily at influencing the upcoming spending review, which could come as early as next year.
"My interest is in bringing academic rigour to bear on key issues of long-term policy in the valuing of arts and culture," he said.
He added that the "greatest success" for the programme would be if approaches it came up with "are used time and time again" for future spending reviews.
Professor Rylance said there was "enormous" interest in the programme "from economists of culture through to people working on the psychology of cultural interaction".
He hoped that at least some of the projects would involve partnerships between academics and the wider cultural community.
The programme will be overseen by an advisory board that Professor Crossick expects to encompass "major people in national and international cultural sectors".
Their role will partly be "to signal that they see this as a very significant project".
The AHRC has also announced that it is to participate in the £7 million lottery-funded Digital Research and Development Fund for the Arts. According to Professor Rylance, the three-year scheme, which also involves Arts Council England and innovation charity Nesta, will examine how arts organisations can use digital technology to "develop their offer".
Projects will be carried out in partnership with researchers and technology companies.