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Is there a Better Case for the Arts?
A Public Conversation Among People Who Care

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March 07, 2005

It's not about the spinach

Is there a better case to be made for the arts? The case we’ve been making—that the arts are good for us instrumentally and extrinsically—is one well worth challenging. The Wallace Foundation report is a wonderfully useful review of the literature, and a helpful critique of the more dubious claims of social science. And it offers arts advocates a clear “takeaway” message: we should move from extrinsic to intrinsic arts benefits, from instrumental arguments to something else.

But we need to be careful that we don’t replicate the same instrumentalist problems, now made “intrinsic.” If we argue that the arts are good for us personally, not just socially, we’ve just repackaged the same “cultural spinach.” We’ll end up arguing about personal and spiritual uplift, for individuals not communities. What I want us to do, instead, is to recognize and celebrate why the arts are good, not why they are good for us.

To do this, we need to let go of a social science dominated model of the arts. The alternative option the Wallace report offers is about the intrinsic “uses and gratifications” allegedly offered by the arts. We’ve been down this road in communication studies, and I find it wrongheaded. I prefer understanding varieties of culture as socially constructed and sustained, rather than trying to measure what art does for us personally and psychologically. The value of the arts isn’t about how it allegedly satisfies various personal needs, or fills in various psychological gaps. Instead, it’s about how various forms of culture have meaning and value for various social groups. Their “message” is in their meaning. And what the “arts” mean to arts-engaged types is very different from what they mean to arts-disengaged types. That’s what we need to understand, and work with.

So what happens if we adopt this more interpretive, ritual view of the arts? What happens if we define the arts as particular versions of socially constructed and sustained culture? What cases can we make if we understand the fine arts as arenas of meaning, not transmitters of experience? We can find out more about what the fine arts mean to people who mistrust or dislike them, and we can sort out how cultural experiences vary or stay the same across forms of culture like crafts, hobbies, and sports events, as well as the fine arts. We can consider the kinds of public sphere questions and cultivation arguments that the RAND report raised, in relation to the varieties of kinds of cultural forms people choose for, and against.

In the end, we are all fans, just of different forms of culture. For art fans, the task is to help people understand why we love the stuff we love. But it is also to become curious about, and respectful of, those who seem immune to the forms that give us such pleasure, and who instead find meaning and value in forms that give us the creeps. That’s where I think we need to begin.

Posted by jjensen at March 7, 2005 08:57 AM


Joli's point about the language we use to promote the arts is very well taken and, I think, central to the problem many arts groups face in attracting the attention of an entertainment-saturated public. Whereas Hollywood relies on glitter and action to draw moviegoers, and rock bands promote themselves with attitude and in-your-face bluster, we in the performing arts have adopted an all-too-refined pitch centered not around the enjoyment of the experience, but around such whiny entreaties as "You'll be transformed," or "But it's [ugh] good for you!"

We spend a lot of time bemoaning the anti-intellectualism that seems to have taken hold in the US over the last few decades, but in my view, this issue is simply a red herring distracting us from the larger problem, which is that arts groups have been left in the dust by a finely honed science of marketing/branding which has been embraced by nearly every other profession. The good news is, this sorry condition ought to be completely reversible, if we can just get over our own profundity and start acting like the entertainers we are. The public doesn't give a damn about the difference between a for-profit baseball team, a for-profit movie house, and a non-profit theatre or orchestra. They care about having a good time on their night out, and if we make our first priority the promotion of our product as enjoyable (as opposed to the cultural spinach Joli describes), there is no reason that we can't give people that transformative experience without having to beg them to embrace it.

Posted by: Sam Bergman at March 7, 2005 10:28 AM

Sam, I agree, and I think that along those same lines it's good to keep in mind the social aspect of what draws initially draws people to the arts. At art and museum openings here in LA, for example, I've noticed that alot of people, especially among the young singles scene, will show up more for the party than specifically to look at the work. Which I think is great. Because along with having a night out with their friends, they also are exposed to the artwork, they'll talk about it, and some of them will come back again on their own.

Posted by: David at March 7, 2005 11:12 AM

I must take issue with the notion advanced by Joli Jensen that the arts “allegedly [satisfy] personal needs.” Satisfying personal (cognitive) needs is, as a matter of fact, the primary function of art. I am deeply touched, for example, by Thomas Eakins’s “Portrait of Susan Macdowell Eakins” (“Mrs. Thomas Eakins”) at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. In that work, Eakins selected, isolated, and stressed qualities he perceived in his wife that he obviously valued. My response to the painting can only be explained by reference to similar human qualities that are important to me, and the fact that I need to be able to experience such traits—of character, sensibility, and so on—as if they were percepts. Eakins’s portrait of Susan allows me to do just that in a manner not possible in real life. That is the kind of thing the arts—including fiction and dance, for example—do. (For an image of Eakins’s portrait, and others by him, as well as further discussion of the issue in question, see my “Thomas Eakins: Painting Pure Thought” in the August 2003 “Aristos.”)

Posted by: Louis Torres at March 7, 2005 06:09 PM

Sam Bergman writes:
"The public doesn't give a damn about the difference between a for-profit baseball team, a for-profit movie house, and a non-profit theatre or orchestra. They care about having a good time on their night out, and if we make our first priority the promotion of our product as enjoyable ... "

I'd be interested in your ideas of how to bring the (sports?) entertainment experience into, say, a concert hall or theatre. My recent experiences with sports is that the game is now less the issue than all the hoopla and hypela crammed into every square inch of space and into every potential bit of silence. My friends in athletics and/or the athletic promotion business say that their job is to control and manipulate the experience by any means necessary. Promotion doesn't end when the game begins, it starts well before the event, runs through it, and continues long after. And this means not giving the fan any time in which to think about what s/he is seeing. Can this, should this, be taken into the arts world? Schickele did a hilarious job with the play-by-play to Beethoven's Fifth but is that a blueprint? Something tells me I'm misinterpreting Mr. Bergman's point. I desperately hope so.

Ravi "My God, he thinks it's an oboe concerto!" Narasimhan
Redondo Beach, CA

Posted by: Ravi Narasimhan at March 7, 2005 09:21 PM

Joli Jensen's points are very important I think. I wonder if rather than guarding the particular genres and contexts that are part of the loose rubric of "the arts," those that care for engaged, playful, disciplined, transforming aesthetic experiences could embrace a cultural policy calling for a more broad stewardship?

We want, I may suggest, a more vibrant public culture in all its dimensions. Arts, sports, folklife, many of the other recreational genres, humanities, public sciences, they are all about individual growth and public engagement. Looking at the broad sweep and cultivating public and private strategies to give us more and better cannot help to serve the interests of those committed to those practices that move us the most...

Posted by: Rory Turner at March 8, 2005 01:05 PM

Thank you for creating this blog. I'm not very involved in the arts, but I always valued my opportunities to see a play or hear a concert. If you are wondering how things can be changed, imagine mixing presentation. Each piece of music has a story. Can you show it in the background, on the ceilings, on the walls, in the air in 3D? Can you give the audience the story at the same time that they hear it played? Can you create a concert that involves the audience in some way besides presenting them with the most perfect sounds? Yes, in Disneyland, they give music and 3d presentation over the water and people flock to it each summer night, and stay for the entire show sequence. I believe that people need to be able to relate to the art, and understand it, in order to get excited and wish to spend an evening with you. I think that most people growing in the USA have very limited exposure and understanding to the classics. Having a concert narrated might not be so bad, like in Peter and the wolf, it helps people imagine the sounds as real, to understand and relate to what they are presented with. I think that the second piece to greater sponsorship by more people is accessibility. If you want people to know what it is they might experience, offering sound bytes on the webpage, and pictures. Advertising it as a party as someone mentioned might help. It could well be a music and wine tasting evening. Maybe advertise these on radio channels that people who listen to popular music listen to instead of advertising it in mostly classical channels. Letting people win free concert tickets by answering some funny questions might help generate excitement about these events. Theme parties like Halloween with very ghoulish music from different types might work, and even offer a haunted house through the lobby to draw people to hear you. What I'm trying to say is, you need to give people who know nothing about this art a way to relate to it, so they can begin experiencing it as real and hopefully seek it again once they have experienced the beauty of it. There is nothing quite as good as in person experiences, and you have the talents and venues to do it.

Posted by: Tzila at March 8, 2005 11:01 PM

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Ben Cameron
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Director of the Curb Center, Former Chair, NEA more

Joli Jensen
Professor, University of Tulsa, Author: "Is Art Good for Us?" more

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Culture critic, Washington Post more

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Director, Bolz Center, University of Wisconsin more

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Top arts researchers will come together to present and dissect the latest data at Measuring the Muse, an unprecedented National Arts Journalism Program-Alliance for the Arts conference at Columbia University.

The Values Study
A collaborative effort of 20 Connecticut arts organizations, the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, and facilitator/author Alan S. Brown. The effort trained arts leaders to interview key members of their constituency, to discover what they valued about the creative experience -- in their own words. The process was sponsored by The Wallace Foundation's State Arts Partnerships for Cultural Participation (START) Program.

Valuing Culture
An initiative of London-based think tank, Demos. This effort brought cultural and policy leaders together to discuss the public value of culture in the UK. Resources include (with a downloadable briefing report by Adrian Ellis), a collection of speeches from the event in June 2003, and a summary report by John Holden called Capturing Cultural Value.

The Arts and Economic Prosperity
The 2002 report and related resources assessing the economic impact of America's nonprofit arts industry, based on surveys of 3,000 nonprofit arts organizations and more than 40,000 attendees at arts events in 91 cities in 33 states, plus the District of Columbia.

The Value of the Performing Arts in Ten Communities
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