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

This report categorizes and summarizes the instrumental benefits claimed in the empirical studies:

  • Cognitive. Studies of cognitive benefits focus on the development of learning skills and academic performance in school-aged youth. These benefits fall into three major categories: improved academic performance and test scores; improved basic skills, such as reading and mathematical skills and the capacity for creative thinking; and improved attitudes and skills that promote the learning process itself, particularly the ability to learn how to learn.
  • Attitudinal and behavioral. The literature on attitudinal and behavioral benefits also focuses on the young. Three types of benefits are discussed in this literature: development of attitudes and behaviors that promote school performance (e.g., motivation to do well in school, self-discipline, self-efficacy) and specific behaviors (e.g., school attendance, reduced dropout rates); development of moregeneral life skills (e.g., critical thinking, self-discipline, understanding of the consequences of one's behavior, self-efficacy, self-criticism, teamwork); and development of pro-social attitudes and behaviors among "at risk" youth (e.g., building of social bonds and improvement of self-image, self-regulation, and tolerance).
  • Health. The literature on the therapeutic effects of the arts can be classified by types of effects and populations studied. These include improved mental and physical health, particularly among the elderly and those who exhibit signs of dementia from Alzheimer's disease; improved health for patients with specific health problems (e.g., premature babies, the mentally and physically handicapped, patients with Parkinson's disease, those suffering from acute pain and depression); reduced stress and improved performance for caregivers; and reduced anxiety for patients facing surgery, childbirth, or dental procedures.
  • Social. The literature on community-level social benefits focuses on two general categories: those benefits that promote social interaction among community members, create a sense of community identity, and help build social capital; and those that build a community's organizational capacity through both the development of skills, infrastructures, leaders and other assets, and the more general process of people organizing and getting involved in civic institutions and volunteer associations.
  • Economic. There are three principal categories of economic benefits: direct benefits (i.e., those that result from the arts as an economic activity and thus are a source of employment, tax revenue, and spending); indirect benefits (e.g., attraction of individuals and firms to locations where the arts are available); and a variety of "public-good"; benefits (e.g., the availability of the arts, the ability to have the arts available for the next generation, and the contribution the arts make to a community's quality of life).

The report also provides an assessment of the quality of this body of research. We found that a small number of studies provide strong evidence for cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioral benefits, but the available studies of health and social benefits were limited in terms of data and methodology, particularly the lack of longitudinal data. We found the research on economic effects to be the most advanced, but more analysis of the relative effects of spending on the arts versus other forms of spending is needed.

Overall, we found that most of the empirical research on instrumental benefits suffers from a number of conceptual and methodological limitations:

  • Weaknesses in empirical methods. Many studies are based on weak methodological and analytical techniques and, as a result, have been subject to considerable criticism. For example, many of these studies do no more than establish correlations between arts involvement and the presence of certain effects in the study subjects. They do not demonstrate that arts experiences caused the effects.
  • Absence of specificity. There is a lack of critical specifics about such issues as how the claimed benefits are produced, how they relate to different types of arts experiences, and under what circumstances and for which populations they are most likely to occur. Without these specifics, it is difficult to judge how much confidence to place in the findings and how to generalize from the empirical results.
  • Failure to consider opportunity costs. The fact that the benefits claimed can all be produced in other ways is ignored. Cognitive benefits can be produced by better education (such as providing more-effective reading and mathematics courses), just as economic benefits can be generated by other types of social investment (such as a new sports stadium or transportation infrastructure). An argument based entirely on the instrumental effects of the arts runs the risk of being discredited if other activities are more effective at generating the same effects or if policy priorities shift. Because the literature on instrumental benefits fails to consider the comparative advantages of the arts in producing instrumental effects, it is vulnerable to challenge on these grounds.

To address the second weakness-lack of specificity-we explored how effective different types of arts experiences may be in creating specific benefits. For example, we broke arts education into four types of arts experiences: an arts-rich school environment, art used as a learning tool, art incorporated into non-arts classes (such as history), and direct instruction in the arts. This approach highlights the special advantages that hands-on involvement in the arts can bring; it also suggests the types of effects that might be expected from the different forms of exposure, as well as why some of these effects may be more significant and long-lasting than others. One of the key insights from this analysis is that the most important instrumental benefits require sustained involvement in the arts.

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