It’s no secret that it’s hard being an artist. What we do requires study, practice, discipline, self-sacrifice, emotional engagement – all things which are often absent from our instant-gratification-loving, technology-driven, modern, American culture. In a time when our society seems to consume ever-increasing amounts of cheap, thoughtless entertainment, the fine arts and the artists who produce them are hardly ever given the respect or resources they deserve. School districts all over the country have cut funding for their arts programs; local theaters, symphonies, and opera houses struggle to stay afloat; and many free-lancing professional artists face misunderstanding about or opposition to their requests to be compensated fairly for their work.
The decline in appreciation for the fine arts is a multi-faceted issue. There are plenty of reasons for the state that we’re in, and there’s probably plenty of blame to go around. Lots of ink has been spilled about this already. So I’m not going to address any of those issues. Why?
Because the bottom line here is that the arts do matter.
I’m writing this because I know it, and chances are if you’re reading this, then you know it too. The arts are important. They are an indispensable part of the fabric of a well-functioning society.
But how do you explain this to someone who doesn’t see the value in the arts?
It’s important in this day and age that we artists know how to defend what we do. In a perfect world, this kind of justification would not be necessary, but here we are. What would you say to convince a skeptic that the arts are important? Have you ever thought about how you would explain yourself?
There have been lots of practical justifications for the arts in the past couple decades, particularly as they relate to the academic success and improved social skills of young students. Arts advocates in public school systems are, sadly, constantly having to defend the value of their programs to higher-ups who want to slash the budget. They point out all the studies showing that music makes kids better at math, or improves test scores, or helps with spatial reasoning; they say that involvement in the arts builds good teamwork and social skills, and also provides a safe community that helps keep kids out of trouble.
This kind of justification also exists in the more personal sphere. I’m sure you’ve been told by your parents/teachers/mentors that studying the arts is part of a complete education and thus looks good on a college resume; I’m sure you’ve also been told that the focus and discipline it takes to learn a musical instrument – even if you didn’t stick with it and/or hated it – are essential skills that will serve you well in life. If you’re an adult, you might have been told that taking up a new instrument helps to keep your mind fresh, which could help to prolong healthy brain function. If you’re a parent of young children, you’ve probably been told that exposing your children to music in the first months and years of their lives will give them a leg up in their various developmental processes.
All of these things are true. They are not, however – at least in my humble opinion – good justifications for studying the arts.
Don’t get me wrong – I think that the arts do play an important role in the cognitive development of young children. I do think that musical community fostered by ensembles is very important, especially for adolescents. I do think that the discipline and dedication required for studying an instrument are valuable skills that will serve you well in life, no matter what you choose to do.
But we shouldn’t have to justify the arts with all this extrinsic, quantifiable “evidence.” We should not have to talk about the arts constantly as if they are simply a means to an end. Because they aren’t. The arts do not exist to make us smarter. They do not exist to provide a wholesome activity for kids. They do not exist to give you a leg up in the college application process, or in the workforce. These things are all valuable by-products, to be sure, but they are not the reasons the arts exist. And continuing to frame the discussion of arts education in terms of these by-products, however valuable they might be, is completely missing the mark. It’s not going to get us anywhere, because we’re missing the biggest, most important point:
The arts have intrinsic value. They are important in and of themselves, regardless of whatever positive side effects might (or might not) result in our pursuit of them. They can, and do, stand on their own.
The arts exist because they are visual and/or aural representations of truth and beauty. They exist because we, as humans, were born to create things. They are an essential tool for expressing oneself, and communicating with one’s neighbor. Good art, whatever it is, has the power to effect real change in people. It increases an individual’s capacity for empathy. It transcends language, culture, and ideology. It has the power to unite us. It reflects the human condition.
If you have ever had an experience where a piece of art has really spoken to you, then you know what I am talking about. Maybe it was a piece of music, or maybe it was compelling acting, or maybe it was a beautiful painting or sculpture. But whatever it was made you feel something. Or made you realize something about yourself or the world around you. Or helped you to understand a new perspective. Or healed or fulfilled you in some way.
This is our job as artists. All of our reasons for pursuing art, whether amateur or professional, should boil down to the fact that we need art to be fully human. As artists, we have the responsibility to share truth and beauty with our neighbors, in whatever ways we can.
If you understand the value of the arts, it’s important that you keep doing what you can to support them. There are a lot of ways you can do this, but here are just a few suggestions:
1. Continue advocating for the arts in your schools and communities. Keep telling people why the arts are essential and why they have intrinsic value.
2. Take in any art that you can. Go to museums and performances. If possible, read about/research the art beforehand – this will enable you to enjoy it more fully. Bring your friends/family members with you. Discuss it with them. Educate them.
3. Support local artists. Go see their shows or exhibits. Spread the word about them. They are always grateful for new, enthusiastic audiences.
4. Help put a stop to the artists-should-work-for-free mindset. Professional artists deserve to be compensated for their work. Some artists may graciously choose to donate their time or work on occasion; others, however, may choose not to. Whatever the case, it is entirely the artist’s prerogative, and not for others to judge. When approaching an artist for work, it is one thing to ask her respectfully to consider donating her time or work to a good cause; it is not okay, however, to demand free work of an artist simply because you do not think you should have to pay him, or because you think that the “free exposure” you are supposedly providing is a valid form of compensation. Artists are trying to earn a living just like any other professional, and “exposure” does not pay the bills. Additionally, continually asking artists to work uncompensated undermines the work of all artists, and the value of art as a whole. It perpetuates the false mindset that the arts are a luxury, not a necessity. Do what you can to change this mindset.
5. Highlight the value of professional art. The next time you hear someone begrudge high ticket prices for the newest show that’s in town, or balk at the cost of admission to the local art museum, explain to them what they’re paying for, and what great value it has.
6. Keep making art, in whatever way(s) you can. Keep singing, or dancing, or painting, or whatever it is you do. Make the best, most imaginative art that you can, and don’t be afraid to share it with others.
The bottom line? The arts matter, and so does arts advocacy. So keep advocating, supporting, and educating. And most importantly, keep making art!