Benefits of the Arts

Half-BakedOne of the best things about blogging (especially in the summer when so many of my colleagues in academia are paying less attention) is the opportunity to experiment with ideas that are, shall we say, not fully baked.

Careful (and long-time) readers of this blog may recall that in my post Art for Art’s Sake? There’s No Such Thing, I expressed some discomfort with the notions of intrinsic and instrumental benefits of the arts. That construct from the Rand Corporation’s Gifts of the Muse has always given me pause because, in my way of thinking, any real benefit is “instrumental” in some way.

Recently, in considering issues of mission in the arts, I’ve returned to this question. Here’s my latest thinking:

Those for whom art has deep meaning have difficulty understanding/relating to people for whom that is not the case. As a result, we sometimes assume that simply putting forth our work or medium/genre is serving the community. So, in spite of our intent, the effect can be what I call artcentric, disconnected from humanity and off-putting to those who are not true believers. In contrast, the key for the future of the arts lies in finding ways to serve people who do not already feel the arts are important to them–ways that they recognize.

The core benefits of the arts are their impact on people–individually and collectively. For individuals the arts provide (or enhance) internal congruence–self-understanding, self-acceptance, identity, and pleasure to name a few. Between individuals, the arts aid relational alignment–facilitating relationship-building and understanding. In the community/society context, the arts foster social capital–both bonding among people of similar interests and backgrounds and bridging across lines of difference.

I would hold that all other forms of benefit–economic development principal among them–are ancillary benefits. These are valuable to communities but are not central to our mission of serving people through the arts.

This core/ancillary classification of benefits can satisfy the essence of the “arts for arts sake” position without forcing us to focus on the arts rather than on their benefits for people. We can then envision the deep mission of arts organizations as doing things that impact people’s lives in ways they cannot help but see.

This is early enough in my thinking that I don’t even know if I believe all of the above, but the core/ancillary distinction solves my discomfort with intrinsic/instrumental. Whether that makes it meaningful is another issue altogether.



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  1. I would suggest rather than create this false chasm between a “art for arts sake” position and a engaged public stance that we simply see that people BENEFIT from Art (not “the arts”) in various ways by FOCUSING on the art and artist. That focusing can be aided by arts organization through engagement and participation in what the arts are about.

  2. Haven’t you just relabeled the categories from the Rand study? Core=intrinsic and ancillary=instrumental?

    • Good Q. I had to go back and look at my earlier post, While the whole concept is still baking, I’d say no on two grounds. First, the rationale for the core/ancillary distinction is the impact on individuals and relationships rather than on the arts themselves. Even if the subsets were identical or nearly so, that to me is a significant distinction. Beyond that, though, some of the instrumental benefits the Rand report highlights (“social” in particular) would in my view be core rather than ancillary. But your point is well taken. I’m not sure yet what I think about the Rand classification of cognitive, behavioral, and health impacts as instrumental benefits. More baking is to be done.

  3. Interesting post, Doug, and I admit I’m attracted by the notion of convergence around art for art’s sake and art for people’s sake. But as I thought about it more, I realized that I couldn’t think of any commonly-cited benefits of the arts that *aren’t* about people. Even economic development, I would argue, falls into this category, as any benefits to a healthier economy are ultimately realized by people. (That those benefits may be unevenly distributed doesn’t change the central point – the same is true of virtually any other benefit of the arts.) So I guess I’m sticking with intrinsic vs. instrumental as the dominant paradigm, for now.

    • Ian, you and Waddy nailed one of the big “still in the oven” aspects of this. In attempting to process my thinking as a result of Waddy’s comment, I think I’ve addressed at least some of your concerns. I’m posting that response tomorrow morning.

      Thanks for prodding me along in this.

  4. I was once invited, as the ED of a community music school, to a discussion convened by a local foundation to discuss their next priorities as related to community need. As one of about a dozen representatives, I was the only arts person at the table. As others discussed their programs of providing food, shelter, tutoring, health care and other basic necessities of life, I brought up the fact that we also need beauty in our lives. The group responded with a positive “yes, indeed.” They said, loudly and unanimously, that not only did they need beauty to feed them to continue doing the work that they were doing, but that their clients needed beauty to give them respite, hope and experiences outside of themselves. Ever since that meeting, I have never questioned the value of what the arts do and why they are so integral to everyone’s lives, whether they directly realize it or not.

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