Decorative but not useful: the instrumental benefits of the arts

you'll be sorry if you doWhat good are the arts beyond the personal aesthetic pleasure we gain from them?

There is quite a list out there, of these so-called instrumental benefits of the arts: they make us more empathetic people, or so a grant to the Minneapolis Institute of Art hopes (in a recent review essay I claim that we still don’t really know much as to whether this is true, or even whether it would be a good thing if it were true)*, they help doctors be better at their job, and suffer less burnout, and Americans for the Arts has a long list, some of which might be true (the arts can improve health, and academic performance) and some of which is simply blether (all those percentage-of-GDP figures). Duncan Watt provides advice on calculating the “return on investment” in arts spending.

What’s all this information for? Some of it is simply interesting for our understanding of how we are influenced by art – I don’t know whether exposure to the arts actually does increase our levels of empathy towards certain people, but it’s an interesting question to be sure. But you don’t have to work in the art world long to know that these instrumental benefits are not seen as a purely intellectual enquiry, but are a tool for advocacy – the Americans for the Arts list is explicit about this, it’s why they made the list!

But what’s interesting about the “advocacy” case is the step not taken: does anybody in the arts world think that the National Endowment for the Arts, and state and local funding agencies, and foundations and personal philanthropy in the arts, ought to direct their funding of arts organizations, in an effective altruism sort of way, towards those specific kinds of art presentation and audience where the instrumental benefits would be greatest? If “economic impact” is actually a thing (I’m saying this purely for the sake of argument, obviously), and it is found to have larger impact than other sorts of instrumental benefit, should funding be directed at those arts activities found to have the greatest economic impact? After all, that’s how we use return-on-investment estimates in other sectors. If, per dollar of funding support, the wealth generated through increased tourism is greater than the wealth generated through community development, should arts spending target the former at the expense of the latter? Should peer review panels award museums and artists according to the estimated degree to which the competing proposals will increase empathy?

I’m not sure anybody thinks we should take these steps, and neither do I. Instrumental benefits are used in advocacy – give more to “the arts”! – but we would be, rightly, very wary of actually using the findings of instrumental benefits to shift funding allocations away from this and towards that, in accordance with the findings of research studies. Actual arts funding will always come back to the twin, generic goals of “excellence” and “access”, as it has been since arm’s length arts councils began. It’s vague, to be sure, and people will never fully agree at any one time on the best balance between the two. But it does come back to helping in the production of great art, with the chance for lots of people to experience it, for its own sake. Not such a bad system, if a bit “unscientific”.

So all these instrumental benefits? The “arts advocacy” system, so far as I can understand it, wants us to take the results as a very good thing to be looked upon in wonder. But please don’t take them off the shelf and try to use them.

* Shoot me an email if you are interested in my paper on empathy in the arts but don’t have library access…

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  1. Michael, What you say is true but advocacy is for people outside the arts to have a reason to support the arts that isn’t apparent to outsiders. If I might use basketball as an analogy, since my son lives in that world, he doesn’t play basketball because it encourages self-discipline, builds character, creates a sense of empathy toward others, teaches him to be on time or face consequences, or any of that, He plays basketball because he loves it, while those in the community and in the high school describe all these instrumental benefits as the reason to support a basketball program.

    What’s different about the arts? I’ll never understand why my son loves his sport so much and what it means to him internally, just as he’ll never understand what an artist feels when performing or making art. But just as basketball advocates have created a rich, welcoming environment for those who want to play, I’ll use whatever tools I can to convince others to enable us to have a well supported arts sector so that artists and their most sophisticated audiences can feel that … whatever it is.

    So, yay, advocacy. But boo to advocacy (including this week’s Americans for the Arts materials) that suggests a unique power or the arts in economic development or anything else. Just as there are lots of ways to “build character and self-discipline” other than basketball, so there are lots of methods to achieve economic development, better SAT scores, more fun neighborhoods, and all that. We don’t need to claim exclusivity or some unique magic dollar-generating power. But the arts do provide those instrumental benefits, so why not trumpet them to the world, so long as we are not confused internally about what we’re doing?