Valuing Public Good

In preparing my last post [Structures and Models in Blogs, Oh My] about the recent discussions of structural and business models for arts organizations, I was gradually overcome with an uncomfortable sensation. The argument that the intrinsic benefits of the arts are undermined by the need to serve the public scares me.

When (and how) did furthering the public good 
become a bad thing?

Before I go any further, let me acknowledge that I’m walking around the rim of a precipice. Many of us (myself included) are so wedded to our own definitions and understandings of ideas related to this issue that it makes discussion extremely difficult. For instance, I have argued before (and still believe) that there is no such thing as an “intrinsic” value of art [Art for Arts Sake? There’s No Such Thing] if by that one means that it is valuable regardless of whether it has any impact on someone other than the creator. (I will grant a dispensation for “eventually” in this context to artists “ahead of their time,” but it’s a limited dispensation.) Art is, in my view, supposed to do something for people. And I would argue that the categories (as opposed to the details) of the deepest somethings are not indescribable: spiritual uplift, catharsis, emotional release, social bonding, and self understanding to name a few. At the same time, I think most of the people who talk about art’s intrinsic value are talking about these very things, so any perceived divide is largely a matter of vocabulary and definitions, not substance.

Another impediment to discussion sometimes arises when the word “public” is used. There is a tendency on the part of some to an erroneous assumption that talking about the “public” implies everyone has to benefit from every arts experience under discussion. That’s certainly not what I am saying. What I would like to see is a mindset wherein serious thought and effort are expended in developing relationships with some subset of the population that is not a current member of one of the arts establishment’s inner circles. And current “audiences” are in one of those circles. [Although, see The Words We Use.]

Finally, before I plunge ahead, let me clarify that for me in this context, engagement for the public good means relationship-building, and the relationships have to be reciprocal: mutual understanding, mutual trust, and mutual benefit.

That’s a lot of preface for making a couple of points about the public good, but our varied understandings of these terms and concepts get in the way. With the above in mind, let me say that there are real benefits to serving the public good as opposed to viewing that service as “the price we pay” for doing what we want to do.

  • From a practical standpoint, being seen as making a positive difference in people’s lives has great benefit in fundraising, marketing, and public policy.
  • From a moral perspective, serving the many (OK, at least more) rather than the few is uplifting.
  • From an artistic point of view, much of the greatest inspiration and advancement in creativity has come not from mining the inner circle but from exposure to inspiration from outside it. The more outside exposure there is, the richer the pallet becomes, the deeper the art. Seeking (and securing) new relationships can improve the art (if we let it).

While I am aware that there is disagreement on some of the points I made as preface to these bullets, all of us who bother to read a post such as this care deeply about art, know that it is profoundly important, and have dedicated their lives to its service. We have that common ground, and it is broad.

My principal advocacy is and will continue to be for widening our field of vision about the functions of art; for bringing, with integrity, art’s benefits to the lives of a wider swathe of the population; and for encouraging those of us on “the inside” to accept a deep responsibility for doing so.



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  1. michael rohd says

    i continue to value your thinking on all this, and enjoyed your interview on culture craver, doug. be well.