I’m realizing that, by making my Gifts of the Muse write-up so long, I might have gotten a bit in the way of the Arts Policy Library concept. (They won’t all be like that, I promise!) So, out of deference to those of you who didn’t make it all the way though and perhaps never will, here’s the Cliffs Notes version:

  • The main purpose of Gifts of the Muse is to articulate the (real) benefits of the arts to society.
  • The authors make a distinction between instrumental benefits (the arts as a means for accomplishing some other end) and intrinsic benefits (art for its own sake).
  • By and large, the authors claim the case for instrumental benefits (i.e., positive cognitive, attitudinal, behavioral, health, community, and economic outcomes) is shaky, weakened by poor methodology and basic flaws in approach common to many studies.
  • Nevertheless, the few strong studies cited tend to show positive instrumental impacts for the arts, especially in the areas of cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioral benefits. Hands-on training seems to be more effective in producing these benefits than other kinds of arts involvement for youth.
  • Problems common to the instrumental literature in general include a failure to consider alternative approaches or investments that could produce the same (or better) result, and DiMaggio’s three fallacies: the fallacy of treatment (not all arts activities are the same); the fallacy of homogeneity (different people will have different reactions to the same treatment); and the fallacy of the linearity of effects (patterns are not always that simple). Furthermore, the cultural economics literature often fails to consider substitution effects – the idea that people would spend their money on something else if not for the arts.
  • While not discounting the possibility that instrumental benefits are real, the authors advocate for more of an emphasis on intrinsic benefits, which they describe as the pleasure, captivation, and individual growth that participants experience from art, as well as the social bonds created from enjoying it with other people. They also point out that these intrinsic benefits provide the motivation for people to participate in the arts in the first place, and thus make the instrumental benefits possible.
  • Gifts of the Muse concludes that more investment is needed in cultivating demand for the arts (as opposed to the supply), since people need gateway experiences at a young age to reap their benefits.
  • While the public reception of Gifts has focused predominantly on the schism between instrumental and intrinsic benefits, the authors see them as part of an integrated whole. They argue for more and better research on both sides.
  • Two key benefits of the arts are not mentioned: their role in creating a space in society where creativity and innovation is valued for its own sake and not a means to an end; and their role in cultivating an aesthetic dialogue between artists in the same and across generations.
  • I question whether the intrinsic benefits are actually that different from instrumental benefits. Just as the instrumental benefits can be generated through other means, I argue, so can almost all of the intrinsic benefits.
  • Since almost all of the benefits of the arts can be created through other means, then, I wonder if the point isn’t actually that the arts create benefits for certain people that can’t come from anywhere else. In other words, maybe we should stop trying to universalize the impacts of the arts and instead recognize that they will always matter to some people much more than others.
    • If that’s the case, then focusing on cultivating demand might not be the answer. Everybody should have the opportunity to participate in the arts if they want to, but if they don’t want to, that’s okay too.
  • The policy justification for subsidizing the arts, then, has to do with (a) making it possible for people to experience the arts (including artists) who otherwise could not afford to do so; and (b) promoting arts for their instrumental benefits as part of an integrated strategy that also includes other interventions.
  • Anonymous

    There was a particular point in your first "Gifts" post which struck me:
    "It’s important to reiterate that a lack of strong methodology is not the same thing as an absence of impact. It is quite possible that these effects really do exist, and that the research has simply not, to date, done a very good job of demonstrating it."

    Realistically, might this breakdown at the core of arts impact research be addressed? Identifying the potential this disconnect has to undermine the data, as you have done, certainly seems like an important start. My fear is that data that cannot withstand rigorous scrutiny would be widely dismissed; or that impact which vividly differentiates arts experiences from other hands-on experiential activities would be lost.

    Kira Campo

    • Hi Kira,
      I just realized that I never responded to this. I think that the breakdown you mentioned can be addressed, but it’s going to require both smarter research and smarter reception of the research. I’m trying to help on the reception end of things, as you point out; as for the research itself, I think the RAND authors’ point about DiMaggio’s three fallacies is really powerful and important. In my experience so far, way too many of the mathematical and statistical systems we’ve set up to understand and contextualize raw data assume or rely upon linear effects, and privilege the normal over the exceptional. (The exceptional cases are dismissed as outliers, of course.) It may well be the case that arts education has negligible effects on most people, but for certain people, it’s absolutely transformative. If so, then we need to find ways to take advantage of the power of the arts to help those people, not dismiss them because for the majority they don’t produce the effects we’re looking for.