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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 close-up shot of a person's hands weaving a basket
Could instrumental thinking lead to a stand-off between basket-weaving and painting?

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.

Alternative approaches

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.

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Photto of Carter Gillies


This article raises an important and provocative thought especially for those who conduct research on the benefits of the arts in health care. Very refreshing and potentially may change how researchers evaluate outcomes measuring the value of various art activities. Perhaps how and why we measure is the wrong approach all together. It may also cause granting agencies to re-evaluate their approach to the arts in health care. Understandably, the writer does not offer a different way for measuring, but sure provides an angle, us researchers may need to take into account.

Thank you so much, Dr. Gottl! I am encouraged you feel this way :) I actually do have a few ideas for alternative directions in how we understand and conduct research into the arts, but as you hint, we are probably not at the point where such options are pressing enough to be taken seriously. I have spent a few years formulating and arguing just such a path until only recently when it occurred to me that there is simply no urgency for rejecting a reductive instrumental account of the arts' value. Unless a sense of discomfort with that view can be instilled opposing ideas will likely fall on deaf ears..... Hence the essay I wrote here as a first foray into why it makes sense to start questioning the default stance on the value of art. It may make sense to let the discomfort with that default fester before unveiling my alternative, but if folks are willing to do a bit of digging I have weighed in in various corners of the internet with what I have in mind. And thankfully I am not alone in this resistance. A growing number of others are dissatisfied with the shabby treatment of the arts as mere instrumental fodder. No matter how delighted we ought to be that the arts do good things for society and ourselves, paying attention only to that both undersells and undercuts a more profound role the arts have in our lives. That too needs to be explored. Thanks for your comment! All the best!

The RAND Corporation conducted a study for the Wallace Foundation in 2005 that forcefully argues for the use of the intrinsic values of the arts (such as aesthetic pleasure), which they describe in opposition to the instrumental values, which too frequently depend on correlative findings rather than actual causality. You can find the study at https://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/pages/gifts-of-the-muse.aspx

To be honest, I lay the blame at least partly on the Rand study for the situation we are in. While I find it a worthy insight to place things like aesthetic pleasure on the table in considering the value of the arts, the Rand study gets too much else wrong. Crucial things, it seems to me. When those authors used the word 'intrinsic' they were using it not as a categorical distinction from 'instrumental', they were merely grouping things that have *personal* benefits from those that have *social* benefits. The shoddy correlative rather than causal relation of the arts to social benefits is one thing, definitely worth noting, but the authors bungled the idea of value *not* *necessarily* being a benefit at all. 'Value' does not simply mean 'benefit', it is not a synonym, so there must be values that do not involve benefits. What are they? Some values must be benefits and other must be otherwise. How so? To be instrumental is to have a benefit. Full stop. The fact that the Rand authors can say with a straight face that there are "intrinsic benefits" is all you need to know. Anything that is a benefit is simply one thing relating to another. That is, you can't have a benefit that ISN'T instrumental. 'Aesthetic pleasure' is not an *intrinsic* quality but a merely personal benefit. It is art/beauty being related to personal pleasure. 'Intrinsic' does not mean 'merely personal'. Intrinsic is that which depends on nothing else, is not beholden to something else, whereas instrumental or extrinsic things are those that *do* depend on something else. That is the distinction that has been used in centuries of philosophy and decades of psychology and somehow evaded the Rand authors. The Rand authors did not need to invent a new definition. They should have figured out the distinction that was actually being aimed at. Philosophy has made plenty of mistakes itself, and articulating 'intrinsic' as necessarily a metaphysical idea is one of them. It is not necessarily a property existing independently of human framing or contingency, that is, 'something about the world in itself'. Most philosophers working today get this. Fortunately we can also take our cue from psychology and understand 'intrinsic' to mean those things which have a 'non-extrinsic' role in our lives. A non-instrumental role. A role that is not tied to benefits or impacts. That is, the things for which we behave as if they did not depend on external sources for either justification or value. We act as though they mattered themselves, an end rather than a means. For those of us that care, the arts are one such thing.