Is Art Good for Us?

Is Art Good for Us?The arts make you a better person. The arts make better communities. The arts make students better learners. The arts save souls. These are persistent myths of American culture that we all accept and embrace in our management, advocacy, and self-definition as arts managers. But it’s astounding how quickly this ‘instrumental’ view of the arts unravels when the right strings are pulled.

Joli Jensen pulls all of the rights strings in this fascinating analysis of why we came to think this way, and why we are so wrong.

Is Art Good for Us? questions the transformational power of high culture by tracking its fairly recent roots. Her words will work here better than mine:

These arguments—that the arts are good for us, the media bad for us, and the arts can counteract the effects of media—depend on an instrumental view of culture. An instrumental view of culture assumes that cultural forms do something to us. This view presumes that good culture does us good, and bad culture does us harm. If we are exposed to good stuff, we become better people; if we are exposed to bad stuff, we become worse. This treats high culture like a tonic, something we ingest that has direct effects. The instrumental view of the arts relies on a medicinal metaphor: the arts are good medicine, especially in today’s “sick” society. The mass media, in contrast, are bad medicine, poisoning a healthy society.

Jensen tracks these arguments through the work of Tocqueville, Whitman, Mumford, and finally her patron saint John Dewey (mine too). She ultimately suggests that the expressive view of art and culture is more useful, and less debilitating. Even though we often claim the instrumental benefit of art to advance our political power, she suggests that those claims keep us from actually making a difference in the world.

If we want to change the world, we need to do it directly. The arts aren’t good FOR us; the ARE us — expressions of us. We can’t look to the arts to transform us, or to make the world a better place. To make things better, we need to dispense with instrumental logic and intervening variables, and find democratic ways to identify and engage in right action. It’s up to us, not art.

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(any purchase benefits the Bolz Center for Arts Administration library fund…not much, admittedly, but a bit)