Arguments trying to make a case for the value of the arts usually come down to two ways of thinking about them: their intrinsic value as something inherently good or their ability to improve society in some way. David Ian Moss argues in the Stanford Social Innovation Review that this is an unproductive frame for the argument:
One problem with the intrinsic vs. instrumental distinction is that it’s something of a false dichotomy: Interrogate a dedicated arts supporter about why she believes funding is important, and you’ll eventually uncover reasons that are not specific to the arts. The arts teach us how to see and understand the world? So do history books. The arts provide a space for exercising creative potential? So does electrical engineering. One could reasonably argue that all the benefits of the arts are instrumental at some level, in service of some larger goal. But what is that goal, exactly? When we try to maximize the good in the world, what does that actually mean in practice?
Instead, he suggests:
If we think of wellbeing as a holistic measure of what is good in the world, then we can justify philanthropic support for the arts ever so simply by: 1) the arts’ contribution to wellbeing; and 2) philanthropy’s enabling of that contribution. Seen this way, the false distinction between intrinsic and instrumental benefits falls away, and instead we can think of them as direct and indirect contributions to wellbeing.
Makes sense. Particularly in a time when we’re obsessed with defining metrics to quantify engagement, impact and value. The problem with insisting on standardized measures for valuing art is that value is a relative and personal thing. Worse – standardized measurements might incentivize the wrong things. For example, measuring number of students served doesn’t measure the quality of that service. And yet, arts education funding is often dependent on numbers of experiences rather than depth of impact.