Responding to Clay Lord

Clay, you state “Knowing people prioritize core issue areas like education, job security, housing, public safety, and health and wellness, how do we show the important ways the arts intersect with their day-to-day lives?” and I wonder whether you feel that the arts are a “core issue”. It seems every effort you describe is an attempt to hitch the value of the arts to some other motivating force. Are you reluctant to credit the arts with value in themselves? As if the only reason people should care about the arts is that they serve some other need? Is that what you think about the arts?

My question is, if our “core values” don’t need to be bolstered by additional support but apparently can stand on their own, that they themselves don’t need to be justified, why is it we have ceded this ground for the arts themselves? Why are we concentrating on the merely subsidiary values the arts have? Value only in relation to other things in our lives for which we do NOT need similar justification? Because, while every data point you are articulating is true in some sense, these are never the reasons for art itself to exist.

No child ever picked up a paintbrush in the name of cognitive development. No patron of theater ever attended a show merely because the economy would benefit. The things you are describing are not specifically REASONS for art to even exist. The fact that art already has a place in people’s lives allows it to function in these various instrumental ways. We did not invent the arts to solve these other issues. Why, I wonder, do you think the arts are a part of human lives in the first place? Why does the world contain art rather than no art at all? As a means of benefiting the economy? What came first, the unquestioned value of art in human lives, or the value of the arts for some other purpose? When did we start needing to justify the arts? When did we begin questioning their value? In what sense are we right in doing so? In what sense does doing so miss the point?

Do you actually seek to justify the art in your own daily life? No one else I know does. I am a Beatles fan, a lover of Impressionist painting, a working ceramics artist, etc., etc., and it is never a question of being justified or not. In other words, why do you think the arts need to be justified, but benefiting the economy does not? Don’t you believe in the arts as a core value? Because others clearly do.

If there is art in your life, ask yourself why it is there. Is it only serving an outside purpose? Is that why you have art in your life? Or do we orient our lives in a way that positions art as something core to our sense of self, to who we think we are? Is our view on art any less inextricable from who we are than whether we are religious or not, politically conservative or liberal? Do we seek to prove the value of those things? The fact that there are opposing points of view does not seem to require that we ourselves need to hold such positions only because we are in some sense justified. The position itself justifies how we look out at the world. There are things we measure, and there are the measures themselves.

The gap seems to be between the people who think of the arts as a core value and those who do not, between something that measures the world and something that needs to be measured. Why do I get the sense that most of the arts field ‘leadership’ want to stand on the other side? Isn’t there something horrific in that? ‘Americans for the Arts‘ is an inspiring title for an organization. It gives me hope. Shouldn’t we be FULLY behind the arts rather than staking even some (much less all) of our chips on an anemic substitute that fits peoples lives merely in consequence of fulfilling other ends?

If we think that the arts only “intersect” with people’s day to day lives we have missed the point that the arts ARE how many people navigate the world. The arts guide us because they reflect who we are. Some of us, at least….. The arts don’t simply “intersect” with our lives because we would not be who we are without them. The arts are a form of bedrock that other things in our lives take their meaning from. The arts give our lives meaning and value. Where the arts are concerned meaning and value do not need to be imported from elsewhere….

It seems that most people for whom the arts matter prioritize the arts in roughly the same way that education, job security, public housing, etc., are prioritized. When we give examples only for why the arts matter some other way, for some extraneous benefit or impact they have, we are merely hitching our wagon to someone else’s. We hide the core value the arts have in a confusion of incidental relationships. The people who doubt the arts’ value will never be shown why the arts matter as they do to us. They will never learn to value the arts as a core value because we have already sold the arts as merely contingent on their own values. At most we may win isolated funding and policy battles but end up losing the real war to change the public’s hearts and minds.

When we give all our efforts into proving why the arts matter as something dependent on other priorities we undermine the idea that the arts themselves are a source of value, a measure for meaning in the world. Isn’t that a dangerous thing to do? Even suggesting it undercuts why art matters for some of us. How can we be Americans for the Arts and be for that?

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.
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