What Substantive Value Do the Arts Bring?
That art, in and of itself, may be a good thing is, well, not much of a concern either way these days.
Moving past the notion of intrinsic value, professionals are pursuing a different question: What substantive value do the arts bring?
From an evaluation standpoint, this one is easy. All that is required is to add the arts to the list of independent variables that are tested as means for improving outcomes on any number of fashionable dependent variables, such as math and science achievement.
Work over the past century has revealed a set of mechanisms evaluators routinely use to assess the relative value of these independent variables. Whether arts inputs yield as much value as, say, extra hours of tutoring, will be left to standardized beta coefficients.
With these mechanisms, evaluators imagine variables as gears in life’s assembly line. This frees evaluators to take up life’s issues as an engineer would assess operations at a manufacturing plant.
While the methods are elegant, they are also blunt. As a result, we miss out on the uncertainties, nuances, and grand questions that are part of complexity.
It is here, in complexity, where another opportunity is hanging out there for the arts, one where both the risk and potential reward are higher.
Even if the evaluation models work out, there is only so much to be gained by pitting the arts against other independent variables on tests of short-term metrics. There is something bigger out there: We can identify the situations where arts contribute to sweeping social change.
Watch this trailer from a documentary, Inocente, and you’ll see what I mean:
Here’s how the producers describe the film:
"INOCENTE is an intensely personal and vibrant coming of age documentary about a young artist’s fierce determination to never surrender to the bleakness of her surroundings.
At 15, Inocente refuses to let her dream of becoming an artist be caged by her life as an undocumented immigrant forced to live homeless for the last nine years. Color is her personal revolution and its extraordinary sweep on her canvases creates a world that looks nothing like her own dark past—a past punctuated by a father deported for domestic abuse, an alcoholic and defeated mother of four who once took her daughter by the hand to jump off a bridge together, an endless shuffle year after year through the city’s overcrowded homeless shelters, and the constant threat of deportation.
Let us count the issues: domestic abuse, alcoholism, immigration, homelessness, youth development.
Unlike evaluation models that target narrowly crafted remedies to tightly drawn problem statements, Inocente’s life is a stew of problems that defies any single-shot remedy. There is no “what works” solution for her.
Yet against all that negative weight, art is the powerful thread to which Inocente clings. It’s an easy case to make that art saves her life.
Believe me. If any other sector could stake a claim to arts-like power, there wouldn’t be much hand wringing about how its variables stack up in the regression equation.