Are the Arts good for us???

The assumption underlying public funding of the arts is that we all benefit from a thriving arts industry, because our lives are so profoundly – and, we hope, positively – affected by exposure to art in all its forms.

Perhaps the most obvious example of the effect of ‘art’ on our lives comes from architecture, urban and industrial design: architects and designers don’t only create structures, spaces and objects that we see as ‘beautiful’ or ‘ugly’; they also create the places where we conduct our lives.

It’s a safe assumption that beautiful architecture and design will have a positive effect on us; perhaps it’s even true that provocative architecture and design can expand our horizons and challenge us to see the world in new ways – a process we don’t always enjoy, but which creative artists are sure is ‘good for us’.

Because most architecture and design is created in a commercial context, we don’t always think of it as ‘art’ and we don’t see the need to devote public money to funding it. Many other art forms may have a profound effect on our lives, for good or ill, but are similarly commercial and not always thought of as art – and certainly not as art that requires government support. Pop music, TV soaps, political cartoons, blockbuster movies, pulp fiction … they all add to the creative ambience, but they don’t attract government subsidies, presumably because they feed off their own commercial success.

What about so-called ‘public art’: sculptures in parks and city squares, murals, fountains – even music amplified in public places? The story might be apocryphal, but it was reported a few years ago that the music of Barry Manilow had been used by the British police to drive gangs out of trouble-spots: amplifying the music of Manilow was evidently enough to send thugs running, hands clapped over their ears. But is Manilow’s work uniquely suitable for crime prevention? Would Mahler, equally, repel miscreants (or perhaps encourage them)? Might any kind of amplified music deter acts of violence and other crime? Is this why music is played in lifts – to calm the savage breasts of would-be assailants? If it’s so effective, should public money therefore be used to create ‘musical neighbourhoods’? (Heaven forbid!)

Throughout history, many creative artists have relied on the patronage of benefactors to support them – the church, monarchs and their aristocracies, wealthy traders and, more recently, the state. So how should we decide when to apply public money to the arts? It’s easy to defend public funding of initiatives for bringing entertaining, inspiring and educational art, music and theatre to small regional and rural communities who would otherwise not experience them. And public money is necessary to fund the creation of ‘public art’ designed to enrich public spaces (though much of that is funded by private philanthropy). It’s probably also defensible to use taxpayers’ money to support artists, writers, composers, actors, singers, directors who need time to undertake groundbreaking work with the potential to deepen our understanding and appreciation of the human condition.

Similarly, many people (including me) see virtue in supporting producers and performers committed to maintaining and reinterpreting the musical and theatrical canon that has shaped our culture, just as the literary canon must always be accessible to everyone in public libraries.
The heavy emphasis in government arts funding is, naturally, on art-forms, artists and activities that aren’t likely to be commercially viable, but that we see as somehow ‘civilising’ us. (Even charging seat prices of up to $288, Opera Australia must rely on a combination of commercial sponsorships and government grants to survive.) But there’s an implicit assumption in the arts world that the funding of ‘highbrow’/elite arts (The Ring Cycle) is inherently worthwhile, or even virtuous, because exposure to it can make us better people in a way that ‘lowbrow’/popular arts (We Will Rock You) can’t – not just by giving its patrons pleasure, but by actually improving them in some moral or spiritual or even mystical way.
Is that assumption justified?

In a remarkable book called Everyday Ecstasy, the British writer Marghanita Laski examined whether the ecstatic response to art is normally – or ever – translated into ‘moral uplift’, resulting in increased enthusiasm for, say, charitable works designed to alleviate the suffering of those who may never experience such ecstasy. Is that how ‘the arts’ benefit society, she wondered, by making us more altruistic, more compassionate, more sensitive citizens? Her reluctant answer was ‘no’ (and she didn’t even quote the infamous example of the 20th century’s greatest art lover, Adolf Hitler).

In his 2006 book, What good are the arts? the Oxford scholar and critic John Carey echoed Laski, musing upon the strangeness of the fact that ‘this farrago of superstition and unsubstantiated assertion [about the value of the arts] should have achieved a position of dominance in Western thought’. Carey, like Laski, contends that the arts do not ‘improve’ us any differently or any more than other forms of entertainment or recreation – including exposure to nature or, indeed, sporting contests – that give us pleasure.

Both Laski and Carey were talking about exposure to the arts, rather than participation in them. To that extent, they may have missed a crucial point I want to raise in a moment.

In any case, we don’t have to believe in the moral superiority of the arts to decide they are worth funding. We could simply say that audiences who enjoy that kind of entertainment are as entitled to their pleasure as those who like going to commercially viable art-forms like mainstream movies or football. There’s nothing wrong with subsidising art, music or drama that will only ever appeal to audiences too small for commercial viability, as long as the wider community is happy with that arrangement.

Or perhaps we believe that if we put enough money into the promotion of ‘high’ art it would become more accessible to people at large, who might then find they appreciated it. Some arts funding does seem to encourage the process of bringing highbrow music, opera, paintings and theatre to people who might not otherwise think of ‘the arts’ as being intended for them and for whom such exposure might unlock a new source of pleasure.

In thinking about government’s role in stimulating and supporting the arts, we are in danger of overlooking a simple yet crucial point: the greatest value of the arts – to individuals and to local communities – is through participation in them, rather than merely being exposed to them as spectators. If the most intense public benefits of the arts flow from engagement with the arts through creating and performing, an obvious question arises: why aren’t we using public money to extend those benefits more widely?

Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from sport. The way to build a sporting culture is not only to pay top players a fortune and give promising youngsters special attention, but also to foster grass-roots participation across the nation. Personal participation, whether in sport or art, is also likely to enhance our interest and enthusiasm as spectators, though that isn’t the main point.

The more you look at the ills of contemporary society – alienation, fragmentation, isolation, depression – the more compelling the need for community participation in the arts seems. What better way of fostering a sense of community, promoting mental health and wellbeing, and reducing the pressures of a competitive, materialistic society than by encouraging widespread participation in the arts?

Learning to paint or write (in a class that creates its own sense of belonging), staging plays and musicals, organising festivals, making movies, taking up photography, puppetry or tapestry, singing in choirs, dancing, playing in bands … these are well-defined pathways to mental health for people whose daily lives are mostly spent in non-creative pursuits.

We talk endlessly about the need for ‘balance’, by which we usually mean the balance between work, family and leisure. But there’s another quite magical possibility: balancing the stresses, disappointments and tedium of life with the therapeutic release of tension through some form of regular creative outlet.

Many people recall with intense pleasure their participation in school plays, orchestras, choirs and art classes. Sometimes they look back wistfully and wonder where all that pleasure (and all that talent) went. Why did it stop when they left school? And why couldn’t it be recaptured?

A former Australian prime minister once dreamed of a nation of shareholders, enriched by their participation in the adventure of capitalism. Another goal of governments could be to create a nation of individuals and communities enriched through their participation in the arts adventure. Perhaps it’s time to dust off all those abandoned Schools of Arts across the nation, and put them to the use for which they were originally intended.

Hugh Mackay |

Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and founder of the Ipsos Mackay Report.

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