Saturday, April 17, 2010

Intrinsic Value and the Arts

According to, intrinsic is an adjective that means: "belonging to a thing by its very nature..." According to Wikipedia, intrinsic value "is an ethical and philosophic property. It is the ethical or philosophic value that an object has "in itself" or "for its own sake", as an intrinsic property. An object with intrinsic value may be regarded as an end or end-in-itself."

Many people talk about the Arts as having intrinsic value, but what does this really mean? To me, and many I have discussed this with, it means that the Arts are a part of life, and should not be viewed as a separate thing to be enjoyed (or not) as an "add on." It means that once a society gets beyond dealing with its very basic survival (i.e. food, shelter and clothing), it will engage in some kind of creative act that we now refer to as "Art."

There is substantial historical evidence for this. You don't have to look very far to discover that one of the main ways historians, anthropologists, and archeologists learn about various cultures is through the artifacts they find, and through the art these cultures created - the stories, myths, dances, theatre pieces, paintings and sculpture, to name a few examples. We can also see how these examples infused everyday life - in fact they portray aspects of everyday life and this is how we learn about the past now. Therefore we can feasibly conclude that what we refer to today as "the Arts" formed an intrinsic part of the lives of past societies, and by extension, our society today. In my view, we can then refer to art as a "public good", or something vital to our society that everyone needs, and that is therefore more than worthy of public support through government funding. Art then assumes the same stature of health, education, infrastructure, agricultural and even industry funding available from many governments around the world, to various degrees.

And yet, many in North America do not see it this way. To some, the Arts are a frill, an entertainment, an option. Some even see the Arts as a commercial enterprise that should fund itself. How can the Arts rise above these arguments and assume their place in our society? How can we prove what many of us who work in the Arts already know?

There are a couple of approaches we can take: the first is to create a grass-roots awareness of the intrinsic role the Arts play in everyone's daily lives, the second would be to re-frame this debate in terms that those who live by "deliverables" and "measurables" can easily latch onto. I'll return to the first approach in another entry, and continue with the second approach.

Can the intrinsic value of the Arts really be measured? While it is difficult to even conceive of measuring something so subjective and seemingly intangible, there are at least two studies done in the United States that have tried (and I would be happy to hear about more in the US or anywhere else if anyone knows of them).

The Wolf Brown Study "Assessing the Intrinsic Impacts of a Live Performance", was published in 2007 and conducted primarily with six presenters over 19 performances. In very brief terms, it measures the intrinsic impact on audience members of various types of live performance. This study is very illuminating in that it successfully proves that it is potentially possible to use some other tangible measure of the success of a performance than the amount of ticket sales, and may help those who produce and present art to make a measurable case in favour of what we feel needs to be seen by our audiences. The study's Summary version also refers to a similar study subsequently conducted by some of its Associate Partners, one of whom is the Ontario Presenters' Network, so there may be a Canadian example of this type of measurement as well.

So far, I'm not aware that any funding agency has used this form of measurement to assess grants, probably partly because engaging in this type of activity is extremely time consuming (and potentially costly) to the organizations involved. However, the fact that it is possible to measure the impact of a live performance in some other way than ticket sales (ie. raw demand), is encouraging. As we all know, good art doesn't always sell well. Nevertheless, it's impacts can often be felt beyond its immediate audiences. But I digress...

The other study, commissioned by the Conneticut Division on Culture and Tourism - Arts Division and published by Alan S. Brown and Associates LLC in 2004 is called The Values Study. Among many other things, this study points out not only that the people interviewed for the study felt that the Arts were a very valuable part of their lives, but why they felt that way, and what kind of participation in the Arts heightened their value. It also defines more than one way of participating in the Arts and refers to the fact that people have an "aesthetic awareness", which they recognize adds value to their lives. However, people don't always recognize this is the case, as the summary points out, and that this awareness is an indication that the Arts are an intrinsic part of their lives.

However, it can be pointed out that both studies surveyed and interviewed "the converted." In other words, they studied individuals who are already participating in the Arts in some way. This may be interpreted to mean that these studies don't say much about the way that individuals who don't regularly participate in the Arts value this activity, but there is a moment in Max Wyman's book The Defiant Imagination: Why Culture Matters (Douglas & McIntyre , 2004) that does. In Chapter 6, on page 135, he writes in reference to the outreach programs conducted by the Vancouver Opera in that city's Downtown Eastside, one of the poorest and most challenged neighbourhoods in the country, that "Jim Green, at that time the president of the Four Corners Bank [and a prominent anti-poverty activist and later member of Vancouver's City Council], said, 'Cliches suggest that opera is screaming and yelling and has nothing to do with ordinary people...Opera seems to move Downtown Eastsiders more than anything else I've ever seen...It's transforming them.' " This statement illustrates that when the Arts are available to people, even those whose days are spent striving to get to the next meal or to find a roof under which to spend the night, they can still become an intrinsic and transformative part of their lives - something that is incredibly positive and indeed beneficial to society as a whole.

The two studies mentioned here, as well as the example from Max Wyman's book, point out that participation and engagement are important factors in the way that people value the Arts as intrinsic to their lives, and this becomes a huge influence on the way we as arts administrators need to look at the programming our organizations produce. I'm not suggesting that we fundamentally change what we do, quite the opposite. I'm suggesting that the research highlights and supports that audience engagement activities we undertake both on and off the stage (or in and out of the gallery, as it were) are the key to our future survival and perhaps also one of the keys to achieving the true aim of Art itself: that of transforming societies for the better.

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