I just finished Neal Stephenson’s The Confusion wherein a group sails from the Philippines to California around the start of the 18th century. Not quite knowing how to get there, the crew is stricken by scurvy on the long voyage. I got to thinking about how these days you never really worry about how you are going to obtain vitamin C, but the lack of it could eventually result in your death.
It struck me that this was actually a good metaphor for the place artistic and cultural expression plays in society. We often talk about the power of the arts in a prescriptive sense. While it won’t really cure all ills, it does play an important part in our health as humans. Yet because we don’t experience a distinct sense of the benefits at every encounter, it is easy to discount its value in our lives.
I had some orange juice this weekend and while the cool tangy flavor was a nice counterpoint to the savory flavor of the sausage I was eating, I didn’t necessarily recognize any redemptive qualities. If not for the orange juice and health care lobbies which tout the healthy benefits of drinking orange juice, the idea that it might be bolstering my health wouldn’t enter my mind. Right now I am investing no thought about seeking more sources of vitamin C.
The same is likely true for most of people. Their opportunities for artistic and cultural expression and experiences are probably frequent enough that they don’t take much note of it. As the NEA has recently noted, these experiences are varied and often informal. Even if they enjoyed their last experience, they may not be actively seeking their next one. Because the arts lobby has weaker market penetration than the citrus growers, people may be unaware of the benefits the arts bring to their lives.
While a month without vitamin C begins to result in severe deterioration in health, the symptoms related to insufficient artistic and cultural experiences aren’t as clear as malaise and lethargy, formation of spots on the skin, spongy gums and loss of teeth. (Well I mean, those are my symptoms of arts withdrawal, but I am assuming not everyone has that experience.)
A year ago, Newsweek printed an article about how creativity was in decline. While the researchers who conducted the study discussed in the piece say the arts have no special claim to instilling creativity, they note there will be repercussions if the decline continues.
University of Chicago Professor Martha Nussbaum recently warned that neglecting the arts and humanities in favor of technical skills may threaten democracy. Whether you subscribe to that view or not, we often hear about how businesses value creativity as well as technical skill in their employees and are concerned with any potential declines.
The arts are important on an even more basic level than that. In the aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake when people were surrounded by devastation, they came together and sang songs. The songs didn’t clear the rubble and rebuild what had fallen. The songs didn’t set bones and stop bleeding. But it did dull the physical, mental and emotional pain people felt until aid could arrive. The arts are not a cure all, but their expression brings people together and binds them in a common story that helps them relate and provide comfort as a group in a way they can’t as individuals.
Society may discount the value of the arts in their lives, but they weren’t asking the accountants to rally the public to raise funds to provide relief to Haiti or even Japan in the wake of their recent earthquake. It was the artists they looked to. Artists of various disciplines helped provide a focus for soliciting and delivering aid to people in need.
The accountants were no less important to the task of directing aid to disaster areas. Most of the artists who helped raise the money probably personally lack the skills to effectively process the proceeds. Neither the accountant or the artists are likely to be as adept as the Red Cross at delivering the services that are needed. Different groups contribute to the eventual success of the whole endeavor.
It is pretty much unthinkable that artists would refuse to perform. (In fact, recent article on the BBC reveals some musicians feel emotionally blackmailed into participating.) No one is ever faced with the full consequences of no artists supporting a cause. While I could speculate, I don’t think anyone can really fully predict the results of devaluing and diminishing the presence of artistic and cultural expressions.
In fact, for as much as we talk about them, I am not sure those of us in the arts completely understand the benefits people derive.