In our last episode, I mentioned Gifts of the Muse, which is a 120-page document created to "improve the current understanding of the arts' full range of effects in order to inform public debate and policy." (It's available for purchase or free here.)
They come to some really important conclusions that could have very real, but not necessarily comforting, consequences for those of us making art now.
The study begins by focusing on the two types of value the arts can offer, dividing them into instrumental values and intrinsic values.
Simply put, instrumental values are those offered when art is used to accomplish other goals, which usually have nothing to do with art per se. These are the values we're promoting when we mention that listening to classical music improves your math skills and that building theatres and galleries will help the downtown area grow economically. It's why we care about every single redundant study that proves that art improves elementary education. It's the reason arts organizations are so thrilled with Richard Florida's "creative class" work. "See," they cry, "See?!? You need us!" The larger the institution, it seems, the more pressed they are to focus on instrumental values when they sell their programs to public and corporate funders. It's a product of our current culture.
How did this happen?
In the early years of public funding, from the late 1960s through the 1970s ... the American public hardly questioned the benefits of the arts. Public funding was intended to create a cultural sector befitting a nation of America's economic and political power. There were, of course, charged political debates about how public funding should be allocated ... but the benefits of the arts themselves were rarely debated.
In the early 1990s, however, a combination of factors put arts supporters on the defensive. A recession intensified budget battles at the state and federal level, there was growing skepticism about government programs coupled with a movement toward greater accountability, and works of art produced by publicly funded artists were being loudly condemned by those who saw them as offensive. The so-called culture wars made arts supporters realize that they needed to build a case for the value of the arts that would effectively appeal to the American public and its legislative representatives.
So, here we are, telling people that we need to produce Endgame because it will convince yuppies with kids to move into the new million dollar condos on Main St.
But, there are massive problems with the research that proves all of the above claims. The largest being that we don't need any research to know that if education and economic development are your goals, there are hundreds of WAAAAAAAAAY more efficient means to get them.
But, art does other things too. It "enriches our lives". And, that's true. Intrinsic values.
If you'd like to read a very technical explanation of how art "enriches our lives" then check out Gifts of the Muse. Seriously, it's brilliant and inspiring. For now, let's shorthand it with this diagram -
- and the knowledge that we all already share that art does something very special to us and with us that nothing else on earth can do. Unfortunately, it's also something that cannot be empirically proven or demonstrated very well, and so it's become increasingly difficult to sell it to C.E.O.s who might otherwise be inclined to sign-off on an endowment.
So, basically we're fucked.
Gifts goes on to argue, though, that the Intrinsic, personally enriching benefits of the arts have great value for society as well because of "expanded capacity for empathy," "cognitive growth," "creation of social bonds," and "expression of communal meanings". It's an idea that I find rather beautiful, actually, that personal growth leads to societal growth. Hundreds and thousands of individuals changing themselves and their own behaviors is how societies as a whole can change for the better. Art does make that happen, I've seen it. But again, it's difficult to prove it.
The last bit of studying and clarification before the study moves on to making recommendations for future action is a look at how individuals come to be involved with art. Most of the personal-to-societal growth the study talks about relies on sustained involvement with art to be effective. So, why do some people choose to make art a part of their lives when others don't?
It's a 3-step process, see?
1) Gateway experience.
Do you remember yours? It's that first aesthetic experience that opens your mind and excites you down to your soul. Without this, there's no hope for getting someone into the theatre.
2) Continued high-quality experiences.
An individual must continue to have exciting, fulfilling arts experiences in order to establish ...
3) The Value of the arts to the individual.
Eventually, with enough positive arts experiences as they mature, an individual will come to view their involvement with the arts as an important part of their identity. Those who do, will come back time and time again. Those who don't, won't even bother to check that section of the newspaper when they're looking for something to do on a Friday night. (This, I believe, is the main reason our audiences are diminishing. It's not simply competition from other sources of entertainment, it's a diminishing number of people who are inclined to check their local paper's arts listings in the first place. The non-commercial theatres are all marketing to a smaller and smaller pool.)
Of course, there are other, more specific factors as well.
Okay, that said ... what's to be done?