The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
Two distinct perspectives regularly surface within the public discourse of arts nonprofits, and they are sometimes pitted against one another.
1. At one extreme end of the spectrum, it is argued that art doesn’t need to make a case for itself. If the arts need to be advocated for at all, advocacy takes the form of promoting their intrinsic value, which can be immediately apparent to those willing to partake. Art stands on its own and doesn’t need to be heavily interpreted to be appreciated; it can be almost directly absorbed and contemplated. Art is positioned as an end in itself, and maintaining high standards of quality in the arts is the central value.
2. At the opposite end of the spectrum, it is argued that the power of the arts can and should be harnessed to make the world a better place. The arts have the power to heal, and this healing can take the form of bringing communities together or rebuilding our nation’s economic power by creating a more innovative workforce. (The arts can also heal in the more literal sense, as in art-based hospital or elder-care programs.) The arts need to be made accessible—and should be interpreted—to all, including those who are not arts-literate. Art is positioned as a means to an end, and the central value is the social good.
These arguments, made with varying degrees of subtlety or intensity, have been around for a long time. Argument 1 has fallen out of favor with many innovative, influential practitioners, funders, and artists; it may even be perceived to be miserly or elitist. Argument 2 is seen as democratic and socially responsible; for many it is the only “correct” argument. So we are presently seeing an historic shift from the dominance of the first conception of the arts and the marginalization of the second, to the reverse. But does the second perspective have just as much potential for arrogance as the first?
The art for art’s sake argument was born in the nineteenth century as a reaction against a prevalent belief that art’s value lay in its moralistic and utilitarian (and religious) functions. John Ruskin’s critical writings serve as an example of this kind of extrinsic value argument. He believed that both generative engagement with art (art-making) and receptive engagement with art (art-viewing and participation) hit us at an emotional, intellectual, and even moral level. Art has the power to unite people around truths and encourage civil behavior—a power which should be exploited by artists.
Numerous theorists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries condemned this idea that art must serve a purpose greater than itself. For example, Oscar Wilde asserted that an art object should have no use. Many of them also contended that the artist should not aim to manipulate an effect on the recipient/viewer in order to serve his or her intentions (and the morals behind those intentions). Rather, any effect should issue naturally from the quality of the work, with the recipient/viewer treated as an autonomous agent. Boris Eichenbaum of the Russian Formalist movement, for example, elevated language that carried “independent value,” which needed to be distinguished from “practical language”; he argued the arts must be liberated from moralism and ideologies and freed to “dictate its own position on things.”
There are certainly problems with the art for art’s sake argument, such as its strong ties to a Eurocentric superiority that diminishes the social and functional aspects of art. But taking an empathetic eye toward the movement for a moment, we see that it sprang from a backlash against a moralistic vision of aesthetics most of us would consider dictatorial. In other words, those who first touted the idea of art for art’s sake were, in a sense, reacting against an arrogance that presumed an objective truth which artists were charged with communicating.
There is certainly a critical difference between arguing that the arts should be used to impart a specific morality and encouraging the use of the arts to achieve broadly-accepted social goods; but the similarities between the extrinsic arguments for art over time can be instructive. Perhaps the field is swinging a little too far back to a view of art as a moralistic vehicle—only minus the organized religion this time around. When we make assertions about the power of art to heal our communities, are we—like those of the nineteenth century—claiming a direct access to an objective truth about what is “good for” the masses?
To be fair, a lot of great advocacy work for the arts has been done by demonstrating how the arts contribute to other outcomes, such as creativity or general education. (Elliot Eisner, who passed from us just a few days ago, did a lot of good work in this area.) I personally often find myself making some variation of the extrinsic argument, and I admittedly tend to be more enthusiastic about working on projects that are built around its assumptions.
But we should be careful to avoid taking a paternalistic tone with respect to arts audiences. Doug Borwick wrote in a recent blog about the “temptation to label what we want [the public] to need as needs,” and suggested that we in the world of arts nonprofits could use a nice dose of humility. I couldn’t agree more. However, Borwick also argued that we need to recognize “that the arts are not an end but a means.” I’d like to propose a “both-and” approach: art has intrinsic value in and of itself; this value can be powerful in bringing about positive change; we should work toward universal access to the arts; and we can’t always know what the positive change will look like and shouldn’t try to dictate it. In my career as a researcher in this field, I hope to help arts organizations deeply understand what their audiences’ and communities’ needs are from their own perspectives, and what role the arts can play in addressing those needs—while at the same time not reducing the arts to a mere tool for addressing societal problems.
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