As our society is becoming increasingly driven by an emphasis on Big Data and STEM subjects, artists are left to wonder where they fit in. How do we justify ourselves in a world that is cutting us back—in funding, in programs, in seeming relevance?
We feel the work we are doing is important and useful and we hope for the betterment of society, but sometimes we aren’t sure. So much of creating art is a joy, so much feels like play time, why is it important that we pursue the arts, and why is it important that as a society we continue to foster them?
On Arts Advocacy Day this year in DC, Yo Yo Ma delivered a compelling speech entitled “Art for Life’s Sake: A Roadmap from One Citizen Musician.”
You can read the whole thing here.
Or better yet, watch it as it is intercut with some lovely performances.
The questions he addresses involve where the arts and arts education fit into our troubled world: a world facing issues of food and resource scarcity, an increasing capacity for violence, and environmental destruction. He asks:
“How are we going to share our planet among so many people with so many competing interests? And what role can the arts, culture, and humanities play in finding solutions to this dilemma?”
He argues that the solutions to many of these problems will be better found if we are equipped with the skills that the arts are uniquely positioned to develop.
These skills are:
He argues that these skills can be developed along with STEM skills to create an “Edge Effect”, a locus of intersection where diversity and creativity—and therefore innovation—thrive.
He maintains that society is powered by three engines: politics, economics, and culture.
“Now for each of these engines there is a fuel—let’s call it knowledge. Knowledge confers power and status in the political realm. The application of knowledge results in wealth creation in the economic sector. Knowledge in culture gives us perspective, and the capacity for empathy and humility.”
He argues that societies best thrive, not by keeping rigid distinctions between these engines, but by bringing them into Edge Effect with one another, thereby allowing them to influence and shape each other, and thus creating a responsive, dynamic, and creative society.
He cites examples of arts therapy as loci for the Edge Effect where two seemingly diverse disciplines are combined with the goal of healing. He argues for arts education, quoting James Caterall in “Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools”:
“arts-engaged low-income students are more likely than their non-arts engaged peers
to have attended and done well in college
obtained employment with a future
volunteered in their communities and
participated in the political process by voting”
There is a movement among arts advocates to shift the STEM paradigm to STEAM and thus includes the arts and humanities. Yo Yo Ma states:
“The arts, culture, and humanities give us perspective, and the capacity for empathy and humility. In a world of 7 billion people and more than 200 countries, our problems will not be solved when we have an empathy deficit.”
His speech made a stirring case for the arts, not only for those pursuing them professionally, but a society seeking to educate its citizens and equip them for success. Empathy and creativity are crucial, not only to solving problems on a macro scale, but also to our ability interact with each other as individuals and thus build the foundational structures of our existence—relationships. The skills fostered by the arts are the qualities that elevate our humanity, a humanity we must cultivate as we continue to shape our world.