Respect for the intrinsic value of the arts

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, communityand 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…….

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Beauty, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Respect for the intrinsic value of the arts

  1. I’ve been asking myself similar questions in response to our schools’ recent inclusion of Art into the STEM focus. The discussion gives props to the arts as a legitimate field of study, but only in so far as it promotes advances in technology. This way, aren’t we teaching our kids that something isn’t worth doing if, like you said, the ends don’t justify the means? When I write a cover letter for a job in the public school system, I mask all my good, aesthetic-focused intentions in curriculum speak about how art supports the STEM classes. Am I being smart and just playing the game to get in or does that mean I’m not ready to make a case for art…for art’s sake? The fact that we’re asking these questions means there’s something brewing and THAT’S what I want in on. A motto would unite us, but I’m pretty sure we’re all too sarcastic for that.

    • I’m with you on this!

      Unfortunately I can see why we are in this position in the first place, and you illustrate this with the example of the cover letters: The game we are playing is rigged so that the validity of art isn’t even on the table. That’s not what we are debating. Its almost as if we need to make the instrumental case for art for short term necessity (getting the job or pulling in donors or securing grant/government funding) because people already don’t believe in the arts. We’ve almost thrown in the towel on trying to make that case. Because we fear we can’t convince the people in charge we settle for something attainable, but by doing so we undercut the real value of the arts. We trade funding now for a a patch of sand to rest on from which nothing stable can be built. I fear this will only come to haunt us…..

      I agree that folks are starting to see some of the shortcomings of this instrumental approach. Diane Ragsdale has been brought in to teach a course on aesthetics for MBA students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and she is not going to aim at its instrumental value for business ventures. (

      I’ve also heard a number of advocates attempt to reclaim the high ground in various ways. If you haven’t read the Arts Ripple Effect report there is a lot of food for thought there in how we can recast our arguments. Well worth a read:

      Click to access Arts_topos_1-10.pdf

      I am not settled on how best to approach this except that an important way to remind folks of the value of art is that we get them to self identify as artists. By seeing the role and value of ‘being creative’ in our own daily lives we get to see how much this actually makes us who we are. It defines us. The things we are sensitive to, the nuances of beauty, and how we in general navigate through the world are all issues built on an aesthetic foundation. We are all artists in some basic sense, but we’ve been sold on the idea that only special people are artists and that only the great masterpieces in museums and concert halls are ‘real art’….. Once we see how interlaced art is with our own daily activities we can start to see how necessary it is, and how worth supporting it is as something fundamental to our humanness.

      But I guess that’s also the dilemma facing the Humanities and Liberal Arts in general. The project of making students better human beings, more well rounded, and more capable of independent thought is getting hammered from the instrumental arguments of the sciences and other ‘applied’ fields. If it doesn’t lead to a well paying job why study it? If it doesn’t have some demonstrative effect on the physical world why fund it? Maybe we need to start our arguments at a more basic level…….

      Thanks for the conversation!

      Hope all is well!


  2. One back and forth with you, Carter, and I’ve officially lost my map. So I’ll try to keep it simple and make sense…The business world is a controlled, sterile environment where data defines the person. The real world is an exciting, messy combination of multiple personalities. I think this discord produces major anxiety which leads to immediate gratification decision-making. And big business, through advertising, is right there to hand out candy.

    But, art is a state of mind that frees a person to think for herself, to learn how to learn (thanks for that), to be aware and critical and exist within the creative process that is humanity. The best case for art is to imagine a world without it. Self-awareness makes us human, for goodness sake! Emphasize the fundamental nature of art and maybe “non-artists” will begin to see it and feel it more often, recognize how art affects them, equate that to a value system, and then art might get the funding it deserves.

    We’re talking about a kind of art that belongs to everyone…art, not Art.

    • Amen sister!

      Yeah, I think that one of the problems of art advocacy is that it tries to make the case that the only important art is the big stuff, the things that get commodified and the stuff we are sold as ‘candy’ by privileged establishments and institutional structures of power. You can’t buy and sell a person’s native curiosity and self-awareness, so of course that interests the establishment less. No wonder funding goes more to propping up things like museums, orchestras and theaters than to children’s arts education! No wonder it goes to these filters rather than to individual artists! Its why you see the outcry among some artists that “Not everyone is an artist”. What they are protecting is the stuff they have been sold as their admission into the institution of Art. Some professional artists are our own worst enemy, they have so thoroughly bought into the system that denies the importance of every person’s native creative intelligence…..

      So, yeah. We need to remind folks of the little ‘a’ art and how that is fundamental to what makes us human. In that sense everyone IS an artist, whether they acknowledge it or not. Its not a profession as much as its an expression of what it means to be human.

      Sorry if I was unclear in my response to you, but everything we have said sounds like we agree. I have spent enough time listening to arts advocates to see which battles they are prepared to fight and to take the measure of the opposition. Arts advocacy seems mired in unproductive efforts that simply play by the rules of institutions holding the purse strings. If we let them dictate how we advocate for art the battle is mostly over before it really began…..

      (I hope I haven’t confused things more…..)

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for putting in the hard work to make art more a part of people’s everyday lives 🙂 Thanks for helping us see it and feel it more often!


  3. Pingback: Clay Blog Review: February 2015 - Pottery Making Info

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