Gifts of the Muse - Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts

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Gifts of the Muse - Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts

Current arguments for private and public investment in the arts emphasize the potential of the arts for serving broad social and economic goals. This emphasis is a fairly recent phenomenon. As late as the 1960s and 1970s, the value of the arts was still a given for the American public. By the early 1990s, however, the social and political pressures that culminated in what became known as the "culture wars" put pressure on arts advocates to articulate the public value of the arts. Their response was to emphasize the instrumental benefits of the arts: They said the arts promote important, measurable benefits, such as economic growth and student learning, and thus are of value to all Americans, not just those involved in the arts.

Such benefits are instrumental in that the arts are viewed as a means of achieving broad social and economic goals that have nothing to do with art per se. Policy advocates acknowledge that these are not the sole benefits stemming from the arts, that the arts also "enrich people's lives." But the main argument downplays these other, intrinsic benefits in aligning itself with an increasingly output-oriented, quantitative approach to public sector management. And underlying the argument is the belief that there is a clear distinction between private benefits, which accrue to individuals, and public benefits, which accrue to society as a whole.

Some arts advocates and researchers have expressed skepticism about the validity of arguments for the arts' instrumental benefits, and there is a general awareness that these arguments ignore the intrinsic benefits the arts provide to individuals and the public. So far, however, little analysis has been conducted that would help inform public discourse about these issues.

Study Purpose and Approach

The goal of the study described here was to improve the current understanding of the arts' full range of effects in order to inform public debate and policy. The study entailed reviewing all benefits associated with the arts, analyzing how they may be created, and examining how they accrue to individuals and the public through different forms of arts participation.

The basis of our study was an extensive review of published sources of several kinds. First, we reviewed the evidence for the instrumental benefits of the arts. Second, we reviewed conceptual theories from multiple disciplines we thought might provide insights about how such effects are generated, a subject largely ignored by empirical studies of the arts' instrumental benefits. Third, we reviewed the literature on the intrinsic effects of the arts, including works of aesthetics, philosophy, and art criticism.And finally, we reviewed the literature on participation in the arts to help us identify factors that give individuals access to the arts and the benefits they provide.This report synthesizes the findings from these sources and proposes a new way of thinking about the benefits of the arts.

The view we propose is broader than the current view. It incorporates both intrinsic and instrumental benefits and distinguishes among the ways they affect the public welfare. This framework acknowledges that the arts can have both private and public value, but also draws distinctions between benefits on the basis of whether they are primarily of private benefit, primarily of public benefit, or a combination of the two.

Figure S.1 illustrates the framework, showing instrumental benefits on top and intrinsic benefits on the bottom, both arranged along a continuum from private to public. On the private end of the scale are benefits primarily of value to individuals. On the public end are benefits primarily of value to the public-that is, to communities of people or to society as a whole. And in the middle are benefits that both enhance individuals' personal lives and have a desirable spillover effect on the public sphere.

We used this framework to examine both instrumental and intrinsic benefits in more detail, and we use it in this report to present our findings. In the process, we argue for an understanding of the benefits of arts involvement that recognizes not only the contribution that both intrinsic and instrumental benefits make to the public welfare, but also the central role intrinsic benefits play in generating all benefits deriving from the arts, and the importance of developing policies to ensure that the benefits of the arts are realized by greater numbers of Americans.


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