What Is The Value Of Fire? How Do You Know?

Friend o’ the blog, Carter Gillies recently had a piece appear in the Arts Professional UK noting some of the problems with focusing on the instrumental value of the arts.

One of the issues he raises is the danger in making general claims about the value of the arts based on individual examples. One thing he cites that has been noted in other conversations on this topic is that if you tout the benefit of the arts to solve problems, you run the risk of something else coming along that does a better job and can be adopted as a replacement for the arts solution.

However, he points out that this also applies to employing problematic examples to make general statements about the lack of worth of arts and culture,

In fact, scepticism about the arts often does make exactly this type of argument: doubting their value in general, because there are obvious examples of offensive artistic work. They take these instances as being representative of the arts as a whole, when clearly they are not. And if we are combating such scepticism merely with the idea that some art actually does benefit society and individuals, then we have made the same mistake. The general case is not made or defeated with individual examples.

He also warns that an instrumental view of arts and culture can easily lead to the parsing of which forms of expression in particular are more effective at solving a particular ill. What is best at improving test scores? Does the same thing work for economic stimulus? (my emphasis)

Let’s think about what would follow if the point of art is its instrumentality. If it turns out that painting rainbows and unicorns is the most beneficial artistic practice, then we should start emptying museums right now. We have all the justification required to shed collections of Rembrandts, Picassos, and more.

My point is that the arts are valuable far and above their instrumental benefits. They weren’t invented to improve health and wellbeing outcomes. That they do is a happy coincidence. The arts aim at many things, and hardly ever directly at a particular cause. That is far too narrow a scope for understanding what the arts are, and why they matter.

As I have said many times, just because you can measure an effect doesn’t mean that measurement reflects the actual value of something. If there were more hot dogs and beer sold at the Super Bowl this week than the previous year, does that mean it was a better football game? Whether it is true or not is only a happy coincidence as Carter says, but it has no bearing on why people play or enjoy football to begin with.

Kids don’t organize games in their backyard or try out for local teams in the hopes of increasing hot dog sales in their community. Sure they had a winning season and exciting games before sold out crowds, but most people insisted on bringing potato salad from home instead of buying at the field, so sports are bad for the community by that measure.  You may laugh because it seems ludicrous to use the sales of picnic food as a measure of success, but it is easy to get confused when presented with a measurement that is very important in some instances that isn’t necessarily relevant in others.

Which is the worse forest fire? The one that totally burns 50000 acres where no one lives or 50 acres with 15 houses valued at $2 million each?  Which is more likely to cause people to denounce the value of fire in our lives?  There are so many factors that contribute to forest fires and the discussion of management and prevention is complicated and nuanced. Not only can’t you use a few examples to make general statements about forest fires, the use of fire is so integral and entwined with our lives and who we are that you can’t use forest fires as a measure of the value of fire.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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