Theme 6: Inspiring through the Arts
The importance of the arts in the development of nations often can seem incidental as the relationship to the development of nations is not as direct as that of technologies or medicine.
- How can the cultural and philosophical ideas presented in the arts impact society and lead to a better world?
- In what ways do the arts contribute to the creativity and innovation of society?
- How can encouragement of investment in the arts be delivered?
The world is but a canvas to our imagination.
–Henry David Thoreau
The importance of the arts in society—in the development of nations, as well as for prosperity and social flourishing—is often downplayed in contrast to the importance of other things, like technology for example. Yet the argument has been made that cultural and philosophical ideas are equally important in making the world a better place, while the arts positively contribute to the creativity and innovation of society. How can we evaluate the value of the arts in society in relation to other social goods such as science and industry? Are these competing goods, or can they flourish simultaneously? And how can encouragement of investment in the arts be delivered—what role should the arts have in the education of youth and in the infrastructure of communities?
Resource Allocation for the Arts
In some industrialized nations today, the arts play a diminishing role in education and in society compared to science, math and technology. 1
In the United States, for example, public schools have decreased funding for basic elementary art and music education for the past few decades, while theatre and drama programs in higher education institutions similarly experience budget cuts and the requirement to do more with less. The idea underpinning such trends is that the arts have no direct relationship to economic development and prosperity or, worse, a negative relationship, taking away from the valuation and funding of those projects and programs which trigger economic growth and prosperity, like those in the “hard” sciences, business and economics
Even if we recognize the place of the arts in their own individual lives—the intrinsic value of listening to music, going to a play, or drawing or painting, for example—we are often hard-pressed to argue the case for investment in the arts in economic terms. One reason for this is that the arts are often connected in our thinking to emotions and subjectivity. Music, drama, and photographs can make us feel happy or sad. We may enjoy looking upon the city landscape and pondering innovative architecture there, but such a beauty more a source of inspiration, or distraction from important material concerns? Though a link between musical and mathematical abilities has been found, 2 does the traditional line of thought that the arts and the sciences are separate spheres still persist? Is it valuable to maintain this line of thinking or to consider what each area can offer the other?
In a world where results and learning outcomes are becoming increasingly important, the arts are also trivialized by those who value assessment and standardization in education and economic data. 3 Toimprove society in a rational way, we often look to develop economic indicators and financial indexes, determine test and performance scores and set objective assessments. Yet the world of art can be a more subjective space which does not easily fit into this outcomes-based model. It is hard to judge in the arts using standards everyone can agree upon whether it is good or bad to be sloppy or neat, provoke happiness or sadness or colour in the lines or through them. How, then, can we be expected to value the arts in a rational way in society when it is impossible to value individual pieces of art in such a rational way, lacking any kind of universally accepted code for what is better or worse, more productive or less productive? Is productivity even a valuable concept when we think of the arts?
Though some shy away from involvement and investment in the arts due to their distance from these concepts of rationality and economic productivity, others argue nonetheless that the arts are a critical, even integral, part of the human intellectual and educational experience. According to Robert Eskridge, “Science and art naturally overlap. Both are means of investigation. Both involve ideas, theories, and hypotheses that are tested in places where mind and hand come together…and learn to transform information into something else.” 4 As the arts involve creativity, so too do the hard sciences, and among scientists beauty can be appreciated in sustainable systems in engineering or biology and in the design of the world, while artists must appreciate material and empirical concepts in a certain way in order to construct masterpieces, mix paints, create provocative music or put pen to paper to write words that resonate deeply with other people.
Seen thusly, the arts and the sciences are not in conflict but operate alongside one another in human life. As Leonardo da Vinci studied anatomy to arrive at his compelling designs of human forms, so too do artists today study theorists in objective environments to develop a knowledge base to inform their work. The arts likewise inspire hard scientists to think outside the box, developing influential and important scientific theories and principles through paying attention to philosophy, logic and other aesthetic cognitive activities.
Encouraging Investment in the Arts
In societies where modernization is forefront on people’s minds, as well as in societies whose future prosperity seems bound and determined by economic rather than aesthetic principles, how can the arts be valued appropriately? How should investment in the arts be delivered?
- Funding arts programs in schools, institutions of higher education, and other government and community organizations focused on developing and/or reviving the arts.
- By what criteria can we decide who deserves the most money?
- What output would be required to sustain funding over time for arts-based projects and programs?
- Should investment in arts be compared to investment in industry and the sciences and maths? Why or why not? And if so—how?
- Should everyone be required to study the arts? For how long?
- How can we determine the goals of arts education, or other learning outcomes?
- Are all arts equal? Should everyone be required to study philosophy, dance, music, fine art, photography, architecture, television and film production and so on? What about those arts whose products are less thoroughly integrated into consumer markets—such as Hollywood film production versus abstract painting?
- How do we decide what should and should not be seen, heard, or explored by all or part of a population?
- Is art something that everyone should be able to freely explore, or should it be subject to the same consumer market as entertainment?
- How should we as a society reward artists? Will the recent challenges to copyright by the rise of the internet cause a decline in the quality or quantity of artists’ work?
- What about artists’ property? As in the sciences, should artists entitled to the profits of their work? Can artists be expected to produce art at discounted rates for the benefit of society? What sort of lifestyle or economic standing do artists deserve?
- Is it necessary to prove the value of the arts in economic and quantitative terms? Can the value of the arts be determined in such a manner?
- Should the value of the arts be subject to government intervention, or should local communities and individuals instead be encouraged to value and prioritize art—or devalue and dismiss art—as they choose?
- Should art be expected to serve a specific purpose in society, such as to encourage and reflect nationalism, or religious or cultural traditions or practices? What about artwork that encourages rebellion, the move away from tradition, anarchy and chaos? Who decides what is acceptable, valuable, and unacceptable in the world of art?
Decision making and judgment relative to the arts is different to that in the sciences, industry, and maths. In math we typically believe that answers are simply right or wrong; in the sciences, a hypothesis must be proven true or false. Yet the intuitive disparity between the arts and the hard sciences may obscure strands of connection between the two. There is indeed a place for theory, philosophy and aesthetic judgment in the maths and sciences, while successful art often relies on a foundation of empirical knowledge from a more traditional scientific base. In society we are not simply economic actors and workers, but thinkers and feelers, members of communities, religious believers and creators of our landscape.
With this understanding that the arts and the sciences are similarly important and not separate spheres of life, we must continue to ask questions about how we can understand the value of the arts in modern society and how we can respond to revaluations of the arts that reveal a more nuanced and holistic view. Are commercial and abstract arts equally important? How important is the study of the arts to the development of youth, the future citizens and creators of our social world? How can we encourage investment in the arts when arts outputs are not always as obvious, tangible, or even intuitive as are projects to construct efficient buildings or teach maths better? These questions are important to ask ourselves today even if they are unlikely to be answered for all places and all times. Such grappling also inspires us to rethink our direction for the future with the use of a wider variety of perspectives, introducing new possibilities that are impossible to come to using traditional dualistic thinking.
- Robert Eskridge, “Exploration and the Cosmos: The Consilience of Science and Art,” lecture, Art Institute of Chicago, January 7, 2003. ↩
- A. B. Graziano, et al.“Enhanced Learning of Proportional Math Through Music Training and Spatial-temporal Training,”Neurological Research 21, 1999:139-152. ↩
- Eskridge, “Exploration and the Cosmos.” ↩
- Eskridge, “Exploration and the Cosmos.” ↩