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.



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Fifth Anniversary Highlights: Art for Art’s Sake?

FiveCandlesDuring the month of August, Engaging Matters is republishing some of the most widely read articles from the five years this blog has been in existence.

Several times I have suggested it’s necessary to understand that some of our internal, somewhat coded language is off-putting to the world beyond our inner circles. “Arts for arts sake” is one example. Art for Art’s Sake? There’s No Such Thing (from early in 2012 and copied below) attempts to make the case that art is always about people. Follow up posts plowing similar ground are:

Art Is Not Fundamental
Art for Arts Sake Revisited
AfAS Follow Up

Art for Art’s Sake: There’s No Such Thing
(from January 2012)

So here is a bit of heresy for the New Year. A recent post by Clayton Lord on his blog New Beans, This Is Your Brain on Art (sizzle, sizzle), reminded me of my first exposure to the Rand Corporation’s 2005 Gifts of the Muse study. A distinction was made there between instrumental and intrinsic benefits of the arts. I remember feeling a bit uncertain about its reasoning at the time. I’ve remained so. Its central premise is that there are two kinds of benefits provided by the arts, intrinsic and instrumental. The latter have (and had) been highly touted as rationale for support for the arts, both public and private. The study claimed, rightly, that the instrumental benefits had been over-hyped at the expense of valuing the arts’ intrinsic benefits. So far, so good, especially when one evaluates the two categories. (The following is excerpted from the Research Brief linked above.)

Instrumental benefits were identified as:

  • economic (employment, tax revenues, spending; attraction of high-quality workforce)
  • cognitive (academic performance; basic skills, such as reading and math skills; learning process)
  • behavioral and attitudinal (attitudes toward school; self-discipline, self-efficacy; pro-social behavior among at-risk youth)
  • health (mental and physical health among elderly–especially Alzheimer’s patients; reduced anxiety in face of surgery, childbirth)
  • social (social interaction, community identity; social capital; community capacity for collective action)

Intrinsic benefits were in three categories:

  • immediate benefits, such as pleasure and captivation
  • growth in individual capacities–enhanced empathy for other people and cultures, powers of observation, and understanding of the world;
  • benefits that accrue largely to the public–the social bonds created among individuals and the expression of common values and community identity.

Where I had and have a question is what the fundamental difference is between the two categories? In each, the arts do things. They enhance or improve lives. They also overlap. For instance, how are “behavioral and attitudinal changes” different from those listed as examples of  “growth in individual capacities” or “social” from “benefits that accrue largely to the public”? Certainly, the economic and cognitive categories of instrumental benefits are outliers. They are the (relatively) new kids on the block for arts advocates and, particularly with economic benefits, were arguably the least unique to the arts. (How does the economic impact of the arts differ from–how is it better than–the economic impact of professional sports?)

But my point here is not a critique of the Rand report. It is simply a way in to the title of this post. What do we mean when we talk about “art for art’s sake”? I harbor a suspicion that some of the enthusiasm for the Rand report was rooted in the arts community’s preference for viewing the arts as transcendent experience. I do not differ. What concerns me is the fact that we can forget that the arts provide transcendent human experience. In other words, the value of the arts is in the impact it has upon people. As I sometimes say, if art took place unobserved in the woods, would it still be art? (We will now let the aestheticians hold forth.)

I worry that “art for art’s sake” sometimes leads us to believe that it is the art that is important, less than the impact the art has on people. It is the capacity for impact that led me to a career in the arts and it is a big piece of my commitment to engagement. As a result, I am uncomfortable with the “art for art’s sake” argument. Give me “art for people’s sake” any day. That is, in essence, what I see both instrumental and intrinsic benefits as supporting.



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AfAS Follow Up

AfAS“Art for art’s sake” is a concept that always generates discussion and passion. My last post (Art for Art’s Sake Revisited) was no exception. My good friend Andrew Taylor took me to task both for things I said and for some he assumed I did. (See his comments following the post.) He forced me to refine the intent of that post and in the process several things were clarified for me.

There are two points I was trying to make. First and by far the more important one in the context of this blog was that AfAS is insider baseball that is mystifying to outsiders and, potentially, an impediment to bringing them to an appreciation of the power of the arts. That’s the critical thing for the issue of attempting to build relationships with new communities.

Second–and I see this now as something I perhaps should have addressed separately–is an observation that we should examine our insider use of the phrase AfAS like I was suggesting with my observations about “music is the universal language.” The words AfAS do not really mean what most people who use them intend: art for the sake of art. I continue to believe the face value meaning of those words is not what we are trying to say. Our allegiance to AfAS as a truism is rooted in our understanding of what the phrase represents. (I did not intend for my framing of “art being important” as being the only meaning of it, though I can see how it can be read that way.)

In the back and forth on this topic, my buddy Bill Cleveland got in touch and shared an article of his from the 10/20/15 issue of Public Art Review. (Bravo, Sort of) He reminds us that if we use exclusionary language, people will hear it. “Haven’t we learned the hard way that, in our media-saturated world, there is no longer such a thing as a private conversation—and, surprise, surprise, that the way we communicate about art is often more impactful than the art itself?”

Also, George Tzougros from the Wisconsin Art Board shared this with me: Chancellor endorses art for art’s sake. It was published the same day of my post. 🙂 As I told George, We mean so many things by AfAS. But rarely if ever what the words by themselves suggest. I’m totally on board with the Chancellor of the Exchequer saying that the arts have far more importance than economic impact. It’s just that, again, it’s not for the sake of art, it’s for the sake of human beings (even “just” the artist!).

My interest in this blog is not to address the issue of artists and their relationship with the community. (I will continue to suggest that there may be ways of expanding opportunity for as well as the depth of artistic expression in artists being more community aware, but that’s a very different topic.) My self-assigned portfolio is arts organizations and here again Andrew made a good point. I sometimes conflate artists and arts organizations subconsciously because I come to this work from having been a composer and conductor. The artist frame of reference is easy to fall into. But my work in this blog and in my books, except where otherwise stated, is intended to focus exclusively on the relationship between arts organizations and their communities.



Art for Art’s Sake Revisited

AfASOne of my most widely read (and/or infamous) posts is Art for Art’s Sake: There’s No Such Thing. The thrust of that essay was that art always does something and is always for someone and so the concept of art for art’s sake, while it is an acknowledgement of the power of art is, taken at face value, a meaningless and perhaps unhelpful concept. Before I go on let me reiterate that I am wholly in sympathy with the phrase’s intent of celebrating the vital importance of the arts.

Over the last year I’ve seen a number of references to on the one hand the importance of maintaining the purity of intent that AfAS conveys and on the other hand the potential dangers of promoting the concept. Coming down (substantially) on the latter side, let me present here a brief segment from one of my presentations that address the question.

When I taught music, I would use one of the profession’s most closely held truisms to challenge my students’ understanding of the field. “Music is the universal language” is a sentence repeated with the reverence of scripture. It also happens to be false. Music is universal, but its language, grammar, and syntax are not. Traditional Chinese opera is as foreign and incomprehensible to Western ears as Strauss’s tone poems are to aboriginal peoples. That does not diminish either. It simply forces us to question what we mean by “music is universal.”

Similarly, a truism we all hold precious is the merit of “art for art’s sake.” It is a shorthand for art being important, art being meaningful. With that I whole-heartedly agree. Unfortunately, it can serve as an inadvertent barrier for those who have not felt art’s power in their own lives. For them the notion is so incomprehensible it can be off-putting the way rabid sports fans can be intimidating to those not similarly minded.

I understand why we are attracted to the concept. It springs from our appreciation of art as transcendent experience. Beyond the secret handshake aspect of it, however, the real danger is that it has led some to lose sight of the fact that the arts provide transcendent human experience. The “art for art’s sake” mindset can imply that it is the art that is important. It is not. This perspective can also function as an excuse, conscious or not, for ignoring community. These “artcentric” views need addressing.

The question, as I would frame it in this context, is “Do we serve a what or a whom?” Many of our mission statements are mostly or entirely focused on a what–the art that is the medium of our work. Consider this, while serving art may be what’s in the front of our minds, doing so

1) is not at heart what many of us really want to do,

Most artists are invested in their work because they want other people to share the joy they experience in it. While this may look or feel like focus on the art, their core purpose grows out of the impact of that art on people.

and 2) is a pretty strange thing to do.

Divorced from art’s impact (or potential impact) on others, serving art is–let’s be frank–a kind of idolatry.

The concept of art for art’s sake is a self-evident truth for all of us (and, again, I include myself here) for whom it is self-evident. However, for the many who are not true believers the concept is either incomprehensible, off-putting, or both. I worry that emphasis on this much-loved, long-held concept can get in the way of them taking advantage of the benefits and the value that the arts can provide. And that would be a tragedy.



Benefits of the Arts Follow-Up

Half-BakedA commenter on Benefits of the Arts asked a great question: observing the similarities between the Rand Corporation’s Gifts of the Muse intrinsic/instrumental categories, wasn’t my core/ancillary division simply a re-naming? (And Ian David Moss’s later comment was in a similar vein.) Here was  my semi-immediate response:

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.

I still believe that, but the question did force me to address several issues that had given me pause, at least subconsciously.  The Gifts‘ instrumental benefits are identified as economic, cognitive. behavioral and attitudinal, health, and social. The Gifts’ intrinsic benefits are identified as immediate benefits, such as pleasure and captivation, growth in individual [social] capacities, and benefits that accrue largely to the public.

I’ve always been clear that “economic” does not fit in my understanding of core benefits, those that I had described as impact on people. But I know that economic benefits impact people, so my original explanation was just plain faulty. And the social benefit was one I had specifically identified as core (fostering social capital)–although this is one with which Gifts struggled as well since it included social capital in both intrinsic and instrumental benefits. Then what do I do with cognitive, behavioral, and health? I think the arts support efforts to improve our thinking, behavior, and physical well-being, but they are not core benefits.

As a reminder, I had said that the core benefits were these:

  • For individuals the arts provide (or enhance) internal congruence . . . .
  • Between individuals, the arts aid relational alignment . . . .
  • In the community/society context, the arts foster social capital.

Upon reflection, I think I need to amend my overall label for core benefits of the arts to be something along the lines of enhancing the human spirit and improving social relationships. This is not an elegant solution, but it’s getting closer.

The baking continues.



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