Why do we have to defend the value of the arts? Why do I constantly feel as though I have to convince people the arts are valuable? Why is art seen by many as a luxury; merely a form of entertainment void of any greater intrinsic value? These are the questions that kept popping up in my mind the other night as I sat arguing with my father over the value of having public arts funding. Yes, I realize not everyone has the same level of appreciation for art as I do. To each his own. However, I feel we as a society have lost our “cultural direction” when the majority of people don’t see the intrinsic value the arts hold. When value is measured in terms of how much “it” costs, as opposed to what “it” does or accomplishes, then something is amiss. Okay, maybe I’m just a little worked-up right now… just a little. However, this kind of attitude isn’t only towards the arts. It is also the attitude towards education and teachers, more specifically arts education and arts teachers.
Of course everyone touts the importance of a good education, quality teachers, above standard schools, but not very many people seem willing to put their money where their mouth is. A similar situation is true for the arts in this country, albeit to a lesser degree of enthusiasm. Just like teachers, artists barely eek out a living providing a service highly valuable to every civilized society. What is wrong with this picture? How is it that we value the skills of a professional athlete, someone who more often than not gives nothing back to their community, by rewarding them with outrageously high salaries? The answer lies in what our society values most. And clearly, in the case of athletes vs artists and educators, the value is placed on the income, and more importantly the amount of commercialism, created by each respective profession; in other words, the profession that gets the best (ROI): return on investment. For an interesting commentary on value from the perspective of someone well versed and passionate in the area of non-profit/philanthropy, see this blog post by Ian David Moss and his blog “Createquity”.
Whenever I think about these issues of which profession is more important or more valuable, I think of a line from the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus. In the movie, there is a scene where Richard Dryfus, playing the high school music teacher, is arguing with the school principal over the proposed budget cuts taking out the music program. The principal asserts the precedence that math, english and science classes must take over extra-curricular activities such as music. The response from Mr. Holland essentially goes, and I am paraphrasing, ‘sir, with all due respect, without the arts and music it won’t matter if the kids can read or write, because they won’t have anything to read or write about.’ I love this line because it speaks to the heart of why artistic expression and creativity are so vital to a well-rounded education.
Focusing all our energy on testing, scoring and numbers is a game of meeting quotas and not about education. I have a strong inckling that the arts are not important to schools right now simply BECAUSE they cannot be tested the way writing, reading, and math can be. I understand we have a huge education issue in this country, and that our youth are falling far behind world standards. I don’t pretend to be an educator, but I do have friends who are, and they don’t like the way our schools are operating these days. If we keep going down this road, our children will be very good at taking tests, but will be fat, inarticulate and uncreative due to cuts in physical fitness and arts classes. Slippery slope you may ask? Look at the rising rates of child obesity, early onset of diabetes and lack of interest in anything other than what can be texted to a friend, and ask yourself that question again. Our future as a society depends on being creative and innovative. How will we ever achieve that when the youth of today, who will be the adults of tomorrow, have never learned how to think creatively? I have managed to go off on a tangent, and yet interestingly enough, I’m right on topic when it comes to how we as a society value these two areas of society.
Bottom line: art is, for the most part, not a product that can be valued in terms of its physicality or substance. Yes you can talk in terms of jobs created by it and tourist dollars brought in, but it doesn’t fix the over-arching question of why it is valuable in and of itself. It is something that creates spiritual and emotional value in humanity. It helps build community. It fosters self-understanding and awareness, both with oneself, and with one’s fellow man. If that isn’t an example of intrinsinc value, then I don’t know what is. Now the challenge comes for us as arts advocates and administrators to MARKET MARKET MARKET our little butts off, all the while using this general premise of intrinsic value as our underlying guide.