Benefits (Yet Again)

It has been two years since I posted my effort at categorizing the benefits of the arts. In both of my international trips this year the subject came up and people wanted to deal with it at length. The subject is an urgent one both because of the social and political pressures to justify funding (the fallback arguments are “instrumental” ones, “How can the arts improve non-arts outcomes?”) and our need to be able to articulate the inherent value of the arts to a disbelieving (or at least bemused) public.

So, again, here goes.

Those for whom the arts have deep meaning have difficulty understanding/relating to people for whom that is not the case. This is especially true when it comes to articulating why the arts are important. To simply say that there is something “ineffable” about the arts will yield nothing but blank stares from those who are not already “believers.” However, some of the more readily understood talking points (economic impact, educational support, health outcomes, etc.) have, arguably, been promoted beyond their actual merit and do not speak to the true reasons people are drawn to the arts.

While it is daunting to wade into this topic, a distinction between core and ancillary benefits might be of use. The core benefits of the arts are those that enhance the human spirit and improve social relationships. To further refine the concept, 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.

Ancillary benefits, in contrast and simply put, are all the benefits that do not fit in those categories. Among these, of course, are cognitive enhancement, improved health, and economic development, to name a few. These are valuable to individuals and/or communities but are not the most important roles of the arts.

This core/ancillary classification of benefits addresses the arts community’s discomfort with the emphasis placed on, for example, economic arguments for the arts. It can also satisfy the essence of the “arts for arts sake” position without forcing a focus on the arts rather than on their benefits for people. The mission of arts organizations can then be envisioned as doing things that impact people’s lives in ways they cannot help but see.

To summarize:

Core Benefits of the Arts: those that enhance the human spirit or improve social relationships

For individuals the arts provide (or enhance) internal congruence [e.g., self-understanding, self- acceptance, identity, and pleasure]

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]

Ancillary Benefits of the Arts: all other forms of benefit

Some of you have objected to this approach in earlier iterations. I heard you, took some things to heart, and chose to leave others as they were. I still think this has value for our on-going efforts to explain to ourselves and to the general public why what we do is so important. It is, after all, our responsibility to be the “explainers” if we want understanding and the support we hope will go with it.





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  1. You and I have talked this through and I can see that most of my objections are what have been left out. But I really get why the intrinsic approach has so little effect on folks for whom evidence of impacts matters most. From the outside, from the bemused non-believers, it is true that the intrinsic value of the arts is not evident and certainly not self evident. This is always the problem when one culture attempts to speak to another. The starting place for values is so disconnected that the basis for mutual agreement is more figment than fact. So our persuasion can’t be about that and instead needs to be a sort of conversion to a new way of thinking that accommodates both our reasons to be passionate and our reasons to be bemused.

    I have one argument that seems to make sense in establishing the intrinsic value of the arts to outsiders. My suggestion is to ask whether we can imagine a world without art. Because whether we ourselves are fans of art or not, we learn what it means to be human through the arts. A world in which those things did not exist would be a world in which the human could not adequately learn itself. I’d go even further. A world without the arts would be a world without human beings, period. Art is part of what makes us human, whether we like it or not. Whether we think funding it makes sense or not. Whether we are bemused by it or not. There needs to be an admission that the human world is constituted through art in a way that its absence removes with it that which makes us human in the first place.

    So it isn’t as much a matter of the arts being justified but more a matter of fully being ourselves. I may be able to survive personally without access to art, but the community I have learned from, the community which has taught me who I am is not a thing possible in the absence of art. The extremity of a person’s supposed complete distance from any art is an illusion of physical proximity. I wouldn’t even buy it in any form of the modern world where music greets us unawares and infrastructure and architecture are stylized for maximum beauty and livability. A more artful world is a more livable world in every sense. The reality is that the human being is constituted from a culture, and that culture necessarily expresses itself through the arts.

    This may be a new argument to you. It has only occurred to me in the aftermath of my dealing with cancer, so I have been lax in sharing it. I am of course curious what you think and whether it makes a different more recognizable difference to the bemused among us.

    Hope all is well!


    • As always, thanks for your extremely thoughtful comments. FWIW, my articulation of core benefits is an attempt to describe what the intrinsic benefits of the arts are. I see them reflected in your second and third paragraphs.