Summer is an excellent time to review topics covered before and evaluate whether they should be raised again. Four years ago I offered a preliminary overview of a way of discussing the benefits of the arts. The subject keeps coming up in conference presentations and workshops so I thought it would be appropriate to revisit it now and to add a brief update at the end. Here is a passage from my 2013 post Benefits of the Arts:
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.
Perhaps, to condense even further, we can frame the essential benefits of the arts as enhancing the human spirit and improving social relationships. Granted, both of those are ideas for intensely felt debate, but for whatever it’s worth, they are principles on which I can hang my hat.
Ultimately, the way we understand the benefits of the arts is critical. The benefits are the reason we do what we do. This framework is helpful for me. Feel free to use or ignore this as you please.