Here’s a comment (slightly modified) I just submitted on Americans for the Arts’ ARTSblog. The original post is part of their ‘Cultural Districts and Communities’ blog salon that ran last week. The case being made in this particular post is that art is an essential part of creativity, and that dropping art from things like education reflects poorly on the content and expressive powers of creativity. While that may be true, it also shifts the goal posts in such a way that we are no longer arguing for art but for art’s necessary place in creativity, community, and such. And that’s a bad thing.
Here’s what I mean:
One issue I see is that most of these descriptions of the arts focus on the instrumental value of art and arts practice, that art is important because of its agency for these other things. The terms used are things like ‘through line’, ‘ingredient’, ‘essential part’, a ‘role in cultivating creativity’, a ‘component in cultivating creativity’, ‘power in cultivating creativity’, etc. The difficulty is that by treating art as a means to an end you allow that the end takes priority over the means and that different means are equally and sometimes better able to achieve them. No wonder science supporters use the same tactics at the expense of art! Science does all of these creative things, and occasionally it does them even better. The obvious standard bearer for meaningful innovation is technology and science, not art.
If art is only worth doing/promoting for the instrumental value of encouraging creativity and innovation (etc.), then clearly it is only one possible option and has to continually prove itself against competing players and alternate resources. By phrasing our arguments in this way we set up a direct competition with things like the sciences. And yet these are the grounds we seem best prepared to defend the arts on. But, if you argue on these extrinsic grounds the best you can hope for is that naysayers will come to believe the arts are an important means to important ends. You will never get them to believe that the arts are important in themselves….. Those were not the cards on the table. That was not the wager offered.
My fear is that we have traded out the intrinsic value of the arts for only its extrinsic rewards, and that leaves us in the position where art is only one tool among many to solve a particular problem. We have staked our advocacy on one throw of the dice for how well the arts accomplish some other noble goal (creativity/innovation), not that the arts themselves are worthy. Its as if art is merely subservient to this other end, and if its just a tool, one tool is often as good as another. If solving the problem is what’s important then the means of solving it are not just less important but important only so far as they work. And people are justified in having their own ‘tool’ preferences. You like art? I like science? Who wins? By defending art in this way we are playing a weak hand in a game where the odds are stacked against us. We are fighting on foreign soil. We are betting against the house…..
In today’s world science does not need to prove itself. Its obvious in daily life how important technology is. That case has been made, and no one really needs to argue for it. Science is not just a tool but a good in itself. Ask anyone in a modern culture whether it would make sense to live in a world without science and its hard to imagine a response that didn’t recoil at the thought. But ask an ordinary person if they could live in a world without art and the responses might become less convincing. If art is supposed to be ‘for’ something we have yet to make that case. And in the meantime we have taken our eye off the ball, as it were. The reason for art itself has become confused with the things art is supposedly good for…..
And the reason for our confusion and all the losing hands played is that we have not done as good a job of arguing the intrinsic value of the arts, that this is how we define ourselves and that this is how we express ourselves. Art isn’t just something we do to be more creative and more innovative, its who we are as human beings. Forget the lofty stuff in museums and concert halls, art is what we do when we tell a child a story to put them to bed. Its what we do when we cook a meal from scratch. Its humming a tune. Its what we do anytime we exercise our aesthetic judgment, to see beauty in the world.
Humans have been doing these things from before the first cave paintings, as long as we have invested meaning in the world. Art isn’t simply a particular tradition, its what it means to live a human life. And if you can’t make that case, the arts will never be respected and facilitated the way that something like science is….
Or so it seems to me…….
Make beauty real!