“Art is greater than science. Art comes first, and then science.”
In the eccentric world of Miss Jean Brodie, the fictional character of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the above words may ring true. But in the real world of economic crises and budget cuts, these words could not appear further from the truth.
It seems to be a trend of hard economic times. We need to trim the fat, so the unnecessary expenditures in our society must be the first to go. And so go the arts. On the national level, in our local schools and now in our jails, we are cutting back on the teaching of and exposure to the arts. It’s almost as if, in our collective consciousness, art has become a frivolity, the essence of excess.
The idea of art as excess has a legitimate basis. Art fairs, like Art Basel, contribute to the perception that the arts world is an elite club, a playground for the wealthy. And the conventions of many art spaces — from art galleries to symphony halls — can serve as a barrier to entry for those unfamiliar with various art forms.
Yet, the arts should not be viewed as a frivolity for two reasons. First, an understanding of and participation in the arts has been strongly correlated with positive social outcomes. Second, the production of and interest in art are integral to our economic well-being.
Many studies have shown the strong correlation between arts education and positive social outcomes. A 1997 study found that at-risk students involved in the arts did better in reading than did a control group of similar students. Other studies have found that arts education increases self-esteem, creativity, and achievement in subject areas unrelated to the arts. Some studies even suggest that involvement in the arts helps to ease racial and cultural tensions, providing for a better sense of community and inclusivity within schools.
Economically, art is also important. Artists provide the creative energy behind much of the production in our nation’s economy. Modes of cultural production — from films to plays, designs to fashion — are everywhere and in nearly every industry. The nonprofit arts industry alone (which does not include for-profit arts or profits earned from art in industries such as the automotive and energy sectors) accounts for $166.2 billion in economic activity.
How ironic it is to argue for art to use scientific methods and economic rationales. Art certainly has meaning and beauty outside of its utility. However, policy choices often operate within a utilitarian framework, and it is necessary for those involved in the arts to highlight the utility of art in society. While it would be a stretch to assert that recent cuts in arts funding spell the downfall of the arts and cultural production, it would be foolish not to take such cuts seriously. Cutting back in the arts is becoming a trend, as art is increasingly viewed as unnecessary, something to be put aside when times are hard. This view of art as something extraneous to, rather than inherent in, who we are is a dangerous viewpoint.
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