Benefits of the Arts (Again)

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.



Photo: Attribution Some rights reserved by PICS by MARTY

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  2. It would be churlish to dispute that the arts have benefits. Even if you don’t like the arts you can see the effects the arts have on other people and on the communities they live in. Even if you think art is no more than a luxury in your own life you can admit that other people feel differently and that the arts have wider social benefits that have nothing to do with one’s own personal appreciation. So I would always agree that at least one reason we can point to for doing art, for engaging with art, for supporting the arts, and for welcoming art in our lives is that we see art as carrying benefits out into the world. We can accept as a fact that art has benefits, whether we experience them personally or not. It is not an argument that simply because “I have no use for the arts” that the arts are not in other ways useful. It would be like suggesting oatmeal was not nutritious simply because I didn’t eat it….

    However, when you suggest that “The benefits are the reason we do what we do” I think you are overstating the case. Benefits can certainly be A reason, but suggesting they are THE reason mistakes at least some of their importance. Benefits can always be meaningful. I say “can” advisedly. Not every impact will matter to us. They could, perhaps, if we accepted certain other things as worth caring about. But there is not a strict equivalence between impacting and mattering. Not everything that has a benefit matters to us and not everything that matters to us is a benefit. So to say that art matters because it is impactful clearly ignores not only that not all benefits matter to us (even though oatmeal is nutritious, that is NOT a reason for people who choose NOT to eat it) but also that there may be other reasons BESIDES whether the arts have a benefit. In other words, it is an open question whether the benefits of the arts exhaustively account for why we do what we do. In other other words, reasons why the arts matter may not be adequately summed up in a listing of benefits. Saying that benefits exist and that some benefits matter is not the same as saying ONLY benefits matter. And yet in so many discussion we point exclusively to benefits as why we do what we do…..

    One of the confusions we seem prone to is mistaking causes for reasons. Causes are facts that can be ascertained objectively about how things work in the world. And as the arts are something in this world we can observe how the arts make a difference, both to individuals and to society. We can trace the impacts, and we can study the benefits. All that is observable by looking at how the arts behave causally in the world. Simply, the arts ARE instrumental. But as I discussed above, reasons seem non-identical with causes. A benefit is not necessarily a reason, even if it is specifically a cause to an effect, a means to an end….. We need to understand that REASONS are NOT causes, necessarily. We, for instance, have reasons that are independent of the causal consequences. In fact, we have reasons that explicitly ignore the lack of benefit and even the expected negative consequences. We do it anyway. Just because. Because THIS is what matters to us. Because DOING IT is the important thing, not what happens after.

    If we are hypnotized by the idea of benefits, then everything can seem weighted by that way of looking at things. It is like having a hammer and feeling the world needs pounding. Understanding the limitations of a framework of benefits is crucial to really understanding why we do what we do. Not always or necessarily because of benefits, but because we have reasons that are often independent of benefits. We have been hung up on benefits too long. It has blinded us to the variety of reasons people have for doing things. It is a form of snow blindness, where we are immersed in a uniform background by choice, by only considering benefits as worth our while. And we experience a white-out of things we can see, the nuance disappears, the contrast blurs, everything starts to look as though it had to be some form of benefit.

    It is time to start looking outside this whitewashing of why people do what they do. We need to stop thinking the hammer in our hands is our only tool, and that therefor we are necessarily limited to pounding things. There are other tools. Benefit is only one among many. Are we brave enough to step out from our obsession?