What are the Arts Good For?

Vanessa Whang

These remarks are edited from a speech given on April 27, 2003 to the Washington State Cultural Congress. Whang offers them now to GIA Readers.

I was asked recently to think about the value of art in society, that is, what are the arts good for? I'm sure we all have many answers to that question – some very personal, some more general. It often seems that there is unspoken agreement about what the value of art is. In fact, I believe that often we don't agree. So I thought I would take a stab at coming up with a list of values or purposes that makes sense, at least to me. Obviously by saying I have a list, I have already admitted that I don't believe there is only one true purpose of art. And, in fact, I have two lists.

Actually, I believe it is a mistake to look for the one and only true purpose of art. This can lead to wrong-headed discussions about “art for art's sake” versus art's “instrumental” value, to complaints about resources being allocated to arts education instead of arts production, and to accusations that arts activities focused on community participation necessarily entail the lowering of standards of excellence, and to many other reductionist approaches to the arts. Setting up such dichotomies and oppositions is unnecessary and, I think, counterproductive.

In any case, at the risk of not coming up with a comprehensive list (all-inclusive taxonomies are tempting, but sometimes misguided) or with one that claims originality (many have trod this path and reached similar conclusions), I will lay out purposes of the arts that occur to me from my own experience and from my reading over the years.

The purposes are not, by the way, presented in order of importance or priority. They also are not necessarily totally distinct from one another, but have a kind of interrelatedness or what linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called “family resemblances.”

So here is my list of what one might call “central” or “intrinsic” purposes of the arts.

One purpose is to create a sense of belonging.

There are moments in witnessing and, even better, participating in artistic activities that give us a sense of shared understanding or shared values, that make us feel like a part of something. In witnessing a work of art and experiencing a collective enjoyment or appreciation of it we can have a bonding experience with fellow audience members or participants.

We've all had the experience of heaving a collective sigh in a performance or laughing when art holds up a mirror to our common foibles. That momentary sense of belonging can be even stronger in participatory arts experiences – whether a community dance or sing-along, or a collaboration to make a piece of art, such as a mural or a quilt. The experience could be part of a specific cultural tradition, or not. It could be led by a professional artist, or not. The important thing is feeling the connectedness, the sense of sharing something with others.

A second purpose of art is to reveal or reinforce a sense of identity.

This can be related to feeling a sense of belonging, but has an additional dimension. Sometimes we go to a festival, take a class, or participate in a social ritual because we want to be among people with whom we relate, in circumstances that are familiar and comfortable, where we understand what is expected and know how to respond. These experiences reinforce a sense of cultural identity, of tradition, of particular ways of being. They can also come from participation in artistic practices with a social function like singing a lullaby or a hymn, a courtship dance, or passing on traditional knowledge through storytelling.

Certain practices make you realize you are part of a culture and society that have shaped who you are and your way of being. And this is not necessarily just about ethnicity or nationality. They could be practices you've learned from being a Westerner or a Southerner, or from being a part of any number of communities or groups with which you have an affinity.

In addition to activities that manifest our cultural identities as social beings, some arts experiences reveal a deeper understanding of who we are as individuals – not only how we are similar to other people, but also how we are different, how we are unique, like writers finding their own voice or composers creating a signature sound.

Third, art can open new ways of seeing or perceiving.

Have you ever seen a piece of art that just made you stop in your tracks and consider something that normally would never have occurred to you? For example, looking at an ephemeral work of art might make you question the commodification of visual art within the gallery system, or it might make you wonder if art that lasts is necessarily better than art that disappears, or it could simply remind you of the impermanence and fragility of life.

This art poses questions, moves us outside our normal sphere of being or thinking – it wakes us up, that makes us sit up and pay attention. One could also say that this is art's “truth telling” function. It draws on an artist's ability to expose, to reveal. It could be something that makes us uncomfortable or shocks us out of our usual state or trains of thought. It can lead us into new understandings or realities, so we suddenly see that what we thought was necessary or fixed is in fact contingent and fluid. This, I think, is one of the deepest realizations we can have about the world – that things are not necessarily the way we have always believed them to be.

A fourth purpose is to offer us a transcendent experience – or something that might be called “spiritual.”

We can behold (or, if we are lucky, make) art of striking beauty or pathos – a sculpture that makes us apprehend grace in the world, a poem that evokes compassion, a piece of music that makes us sense something larger than ourselves. This notion derives from a “classic” conception of art or definition of beauty, what Aquinas referred to as integritas, consonantia, claritas – that is, wholeness, harmony, radiance – the human intellect's “similitude with divine intellect.” This art can serve as a reminder of our place in the cosmos, our connectedness to all that exists.

A fifth purpose is to move us to act.

This art is a means for social or individual transformation. Much of what is often referred to as “community arts” fits in this category – art that is meant to empower people to act for themselves and their community, to engage with their own creativity, to find their own voice.

Some forms of religious art fall into this category as well – morality plays, for example, from which we can draw lessons and act accordingly. Religious art, however, is not as concerned with your “finding your own voice” as with your finding your place in a collective voice.

Sometimes this art is didactic, or dialectical, and breaks down the “fourth wall.” It pushes us to not be content as passive audience members, but rather to be active creators or animators. Examples include the plays of Bertolt Brecht or Dario Fo, the agiprop of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the community projects of Liz Lerman's Dance Exchange, or the original roots and purposes of hip hop.

Last, but not least, art can engage our wholeness as human beings.

I think this purpose speaks most powerfully to our active participation in an artistic practice – playing piano, working in clay, studying dance. Through pursuing an artistic skill, we engage a multiplicity of our capacities ("intelligences,” Gardner would say) as human beings. We can develop our physical dexterity, strength, and agility. We can cultivate a sense of discipline, tenacity, and patience. Making art allows us to tap into our ingenuity and problem-solving skills. It refines our abilities to discern and perceive. It provides us a vehicle, an outlet to express ourselves in ways that are not literal, but rather metaphorical, representational, or abstract. It can enhance our empathy for and sensitivity to the human condition. In short, participating in artistic endeavors can give us the opportunity to be more whole, and dare I say, more sane and integrated human beings.

This list of central or intrinsic purposes points to the range and variety of valid purposes that art can have. Of course, not all art serves each and every one of these functions – a work of art might serve only one or any combination of them.

Let's move on now to another list of functions or purposes that the arts can have. This new list is one that I will call “adjunct” or “extrinsic” functions of the arts – or perhaps better, they are the results of participation in arts activities. Many of us have become increasingly familiar with this list since the ability to identify measurable community and social benefits of artistic pursuits has become more and more critical.

The list doesn't even pretend to be comprehensive. In fact, the nature of the arts is such that we will always be able to come up with new things to add – and that is the good news. Again, these are in no particular order of priority or importance.

First, the arts can improve student learning in schools.

We've seen studies of children and youth who participate consistently in the arts and who score higher on standardized tests than those who don't, are more likely to continue education after high school, read more, and watch television less. We know that integrating the arts into other subject areas can help students learn their non-arts lessons. We know that arts activities can be models for school reform strategies – such as project-based learning and the development of cross-disciplinary curricula.

Second, arts activities can be aligned with the theories of resilience in the area of youth development.

In creating their own art, young people can engage in activities that are meaningful to them. It can give them real opportunities to make decisions and critical judgments. After-school public arts projects can give young people a way of giving back to their communities and learning something about civic responsibility. Such projects can build in them an appreciation for assets in their own neighborhoods, and also recognize strengths within themselves.

Third, the arts contribute to community development and revitalization.

There are heartening stories of artists joining with community members to reclaim parts of their neighborhood that seemed hopelessly neglected or rife with crime. For example, 509 Cultural Center in San Francisco's Tenderloin District has reclaimed a drug-ridden alley as a free performance space. Visual artist Lily Yeh, founder of the Village of Art & Humanities in Philadelphia, spurred on the creation of community gardens and murals in an abandoned part of the city.

Fourth, the arts can have a demonstrated positive economic impact on communities.

This past decade we have seen study after study of the economic benefits that accrue to cities with vibrant arts communities – the arts can create job opportunities and enhance property values. They can generate income for related businesses – such as restaurants and hotels, music and book stores. A culturally-rich area is a magnet for tourism and for those whom Richard Florida of Carnegie Mellon University has defined as “the creative class” – that is, well-educated, well-paid workers with a creative and independent spirit whom corporations are increasingly looking for and depending on. (Artists, or at least some of them, are included in this class – along with people in technology, journalism, and finance.)

And fifth, the arts can help people become more accepting of cultural differences and encourage tolerance in communities.

No doubt all of us know how transforming it can be to witness a performance of an art form we never knew about – something that opens a door inside us and transports us. We realize we share something with people we previously had not identified with. Suddenly they're “on our radar screen,” visible instead of invisible. The arts can be a very non-threatening entry point into a culture (though maybe food is the best!).

This list could be as long as there are benefits to participating in the arts, but the question I want to close with is this: Given that art can have many functions or purposes – intrinsic and extrinsic, primary or derivative – shouldn't we assess the quality or value of a work of art or arts activity based on what we believe its purpose to be?

An arts experience meant to empower us should not necessarily be judged on the same grounds as one meant to be transcendent. Something meant to evoke a transcendent experience would not have the same criteria for success as would something meant to have a positive impact on community development. Our “standards of excellence” in different cases might legitimately look quite distinct.

In some circumstances it is more appropriate to look at skill level or adherence to form than it is to look for innovation. If a project is concerned with community engagement, it may be more important to look more closely at creative process than at end product. When the point is to foster a sense of belonging among participants in an arts activity, then bringing in an artist who may be a superb technician but not a good communicator would probably be a mistake.

Not being clear about the different purposes of art is, I think, at the root of some of the false dichotomies and oppositions I mentioned at the start. If the arts do indeed have different purposes, then we must try to clearly articulate those purposes so that the assessment of arts can be aligned, relevant, and fair.