If we defend the arts based on evidence of positive outcomes in specific cases, we may find the very same logic turned against us, warns Carter Gillies.
A recent Arts Council England report found that current research approaches have been undervaluing the impact of the arts. But something has gone unchallenged in the discussions arising from these findings. Namely, that people are prepared to make general statements about the arts based on the evidence of individual cases.
If the point of art is its instrumentality, then we have all the justification required to shed collections of Rembrandts, Picassos, and more
This approach is logically dubious at best. The fact that some artistic work is shown to have beneficial outcomes is not evidence that all of it is equally beneficial. Some art may have no benefits, or even be harmful.
The dangers of generalisation
The arts are too diverse to make any general claims. What holds for one artform does not universally hold for others. And each artform has infinite variety within it.
There are more fundamental issues to consider, too. Researching the instrumental uses of the arts suggests they are a tool used to achieve results. But if they are valued merely as a solution to a problem, then they may turn out to be a lesser solution than others (sport, maths or science, for example). What is invoked as a reason to support the arts could, by the same logic, then get turned against them as a reason to remove funding and drop support.
In fact, scepticism about the arts often does make exactly this type of argument: doubting their value in general, because there are obvious examples of offensive artistic work. They take these instances as being representative of the arts as a whole, when clearly they are not. And if we are combating such scepticism merely with the idea that some art actually does benefit society and individuals, then we have made the same mistake. The general case is not made or defeated with individual examples.
And making arguments based on individual cases also might have damaging consequences for some fields of the arts - if it turned out that singing opera was demonstrably less beneficial than singing pop songs, for example.
Unless we are willing to say that all artistic work is equal, which is clearly absurd, we end up pitting the benefits of one artform against another. We would have to conclude that there is good art and bad art, just as one hammer may be better than another, or a hammer better than a screwdriver for doing specific things. I foresee a stand-off between basket-weaving and painting, pottery and theatre, song and dance...
A narrow focus
Either we say that improving health, wellbeing and social outcomes is our proper motivation, or we admit that the value of the arts is different to this. If instrumental benefits are what truly matters, then it may be necessary to sacrifice some art that doesn't meet these criteria. We can hold on to the ideal of instrumentality, or to art that does not show evidence of instrumental benefits. But we can't have it both ways.
Instrumentality asks us to measure, and measuring asks us to find the difference between better and worse options. The arts in general will not get a clean bill of health as long as there are instrumentally ineffective or dangerous artistic options. In fact, we are given reasons to potentially undercut specific fields of the arts as inefficient or inferior.
Let's think about what would follow if the point of art is its instrumentality. If it turns out that painting rainbows and unicorns is the most beneficial artistic practice, then we should start emptying museums right now. We have all the justification required to shed collections of Rembrandts, Picassos, and more.
My point is that the arts are valuable far and above their instrumental benefits. They weren't invented to improve health and wellbeing outcomes. That they do is a happy coincidence. The arts aim at many things, and hardly ever directly at a particular cause. That is far too narrow a scope for understanding what the arts are, and why they matter.
As long as we are committed only to investigating instrumental benefits, we are steering the ship into perilous waters. And we have simply not understood the consequences of this short-sighted and demeaning attitude.
The arts are neither generally good nor generally bad for this or that outcome. The arts in general do not have instrumental value - only specific instances of art do. And the range of benefits they lead to correspond to the wide variety of what we count as art.
Talking as though the arts perform a specific function is not only misleading – it undermines their true value. If defending the arts as a whole is important to us, we must find other grounds to do so.
Carter Gillies is a potter, teacher and philosopher, working in the US.