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

People are drawn to the arts not for their instrumental effects, but because the arts can provide them with meaning and with a distinctive type of pleasure and emotional stimulation. We contend not only that these intrinsic effects are satisfying in themselves, but that many of them can lead to the development of individual capacities and community cohesiveness that are of benefit to the public sphere.

We think that art can best be understood as a communicative cycle in which the artist draws upon two unusual gifts-a capacity for vivid personal experience of the world, and a capacity to express that experience through a particular artistic medium. A work of art is "a bit of 'frozen' potential communication" (Taylor, 1989, p. 526) that can be received only through direct personal experience of it. Unlike most communication, which takes place through discourse, art communicates through felt experience, and it is the personal, subjective response to a work of art that imparts intrinsic benefits.

We challenge the widely held view that intrinsic benefits are purely of value to the individual, however. We contend that some intrinsic benefits are largely of private value, others are of value to the individual and have valuable public spillover effects, and still others are largely of value to society as a whole (see Figure S.1, above). We place the following intrinsic benefits at the primarily private end of the value range:

  • Captivation. The initial response of rapt absorption, or captivation, to a work of art can briefly but powerfully move the individual away from habitual, everyday reality and into a state of focused attention. This reaction to a work of art can connect people more deeply to the world and open them to new ways of seeing and experiencing the world.
  • Pleasure. The artist provides individuals with an imaginative experience that is often a more intense, revealing, and meaningful version of actual experience. Such an experience can produce pleasure in the sense of deep satisfaction, a category that includes the satisfaction associated with works of art the individual finds deeply unsettling, disorienting, or tragic.

Intrinsic benefits in the middle range of private-to-public value have to do with the individual's capacity to perceive, feel, and interpret the world. The result of recurrent experiences, these benefits spill over into the public realm in the form of individuals who are more empathetic and more discriminating in their judgments of the world around them:

  • Expanded capacity for empathy. The arts expand individuals' capacities for empathy by drawing them into the experiences of people vastly different from them and cultures vastly different from their own. These experiences give individuals new references that can make them more receptive to unfamiliar people, attitudes, and cultures.
  • Cognitive growth. The intrinsic benefits described above all have cognitive dimensions. When individuals focus their attention on a work of art, they are "invited" to make sense of what is before them. Because meanings are embedded in the experience rather than explicitly stated, the individual can gain an entirely new perspective on the world and how he or she perceives it.

Finally, some intrinsic benefits fall at the public end of the scale. In this case, the benefits to the public arise from the collective effects that the arts have on individuals:

  • Creation of social bonds. When people share the experience of works of art, either by discussing them or by communally experiencing them, one of the intrinsic benefits is the social bonds that are created. This benefit is different from the instrumental social benefits that the arts offer.
  • Expression of communal meanings. Intrinsic benefits accrue to the public sphere when works of art convey what whole communities of people yearn to express. Examples of what can produce these benefits are art that commemorates events significant to a nation's history or a community's identity, art that provides a voice to communities the culture at large has largely ignored, and art that critiques the culture for the express purpose of changing people's views.

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