In a lot of the arguments I have been coming across concerning advocacy for the arts and humanities, the primary case seems to be that the arts and humanities teach skills that are applicable across a range of seemingly unrelated disciplines. Arts education can encourage creativity in business, empathy in foreign policy, innovation in tech or medicine. Art therapy can help veterans, homeless youth, or traumatized children.
Yo Yo Ma framed much of his speech on Arts Advocacy Day in this way, as well as did the Commission on the Humanities’ The Heart of the Matter (Yo Yo Ma is in fact a member of the Commission on the Humanities, so it is certain that he is drawing from their language). They are trying to sell the arts and humanities to an audience that is increasingly skeptical of their relevance and applicability. Therefore their advocacy is for artistic activities that have a measurable impact in “real-world” arenas: arts education, forms of art therapy, art for life’s sake.
But what about art for art’s sake?
I wonder what path we are heading down if we are primarily making the case for the arts as utilitarian, as a means to an end. What will the ramifications be for the work itself? How will we evaluate the arts? Will it be based on data surrounding impact? Will we have room for the aesthetic evaluation? Can the arts not be a worthy end in and of themselves?
This is a tricky one for me. On the one hand, I believe deeply in the arts as a teaching tool, as a means to promote social justice, and for their therapeutic value. I think these efforts and possibilities are positively thrilling. I also understand the need to speak the language of Washington and to work within the big data zeitgeist. But we must also support our artists. Those who are making work for the sake of the work. Those whose goal is to find the perfect expression for something they know to be true. Those who wish to illuminate, disturb, or change the world. Surely the arts have value beyond the skills they can provide in unrelated disciplines.
I’d like to see the language of arts advocacy find a way to advocate for the art itself.