Arts Funding and the Question of Cultural Values

Several weeks ago I wrote briefly about the planned closing of a program called Arts Connect that provides artistic and educational outreach to juvenile offenders in Pierce County.  This month Bond Huberman wrote a feature article on the program for the Tacoma edition of City Arts Magazine.  A former guest instructor at Arts Connect with inside knowledge, Huberman touches on the troubling heart of the problem:

The “other you” [the personality and self esteem shift brought about by the process of making art together in a supportive environment] is the unquantifiable element of AC, impossible to chart in grant proposals.  How to quantify creativity’s gains?  In the same way, I guess, you graph the trends of calm a child experiences while coloring.  That is, you don’t.  The connections at AC are real, and we should not cut them off on account of some abstract prediction that says we can’t afford them.

Hm.  What Huberman says of Arts Connect could be said of arts programs in general:  they tend to be deeply valued by those who experience them firsthand, and either ignored or devalued by everyone else.  The former psychology major and shrink’s kid in me assumes that there are probably plenty of observable changes in behavior and attitude among program participants which may be demonstrated empirically (that is, if the already cash-strapped program decided to shell out funds to have an expert devise an index capable of “proving” to the purse-holding Powers That Be that the program is indeed of quantifiable social merit.)  In fact, Arts Connect has been around long enough that one could simply document the five-year recidivism and quite likely demonstrate that the program saves the county and state all kinds of money processing repeat offenders.

Self Portrait of Arts Connect participant. Via City Arts Magazine.

Self Portrait of Arts Connect participant. Via City Arts Magazine,

But at this point the right-brained artist and woo-woo mystic in me (the one who convinced that logical positivist to change her major all those years ago) says, quite simply, “So what?”  My left brain tries to argue with her reasonably, but she won’t have it.  She has less than no use for the illusion of reason.

Last week, Evan Thomas‘s cover story in Newsweek discussed the recent criticism Nobel prizewinning  economist and liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has directed at the Obama administration for building too many of the failed assumptions of capitalism into its plans for the future.  Krugman would have us believe that it isn’t just the system that is broken.  The system is merely a reflection of our cultural values which are, by all accounts, either dead or currently on life support.

As ominous as I find the implications, I’m with Krugman on this one, and I think there are parallels with his position when it comes to a whole host of public issues.  Unfortunately we have all been conditioned to take for granted that the individuals and organizations most responsible for the creative richness of our society must sell the notion that they are somehow “useful” or “beneficial” to agencies and institutions run by the same investor class that has given us our current  pseudo-capitalist greed-based corporate economy (and its corollary, the current global economic crisis).

You see, one reason why creative individuals wield the magic that we do is that we are capable of measuring value in a way that is completely independent of financial, and even social benefit.  In fact, to ask us to define or justify what we do in terms of  any dimension outside the self-fulfilling requirement of human creativity itself  is to miss the point entirely.  And so to me, the question isn’t whether Arts Connector any other program aimed at investing in the holistic health of communities and individuals through creative outreachis paying off.  It is whether there can be any part worth salvaging of a cultural hierarchy that finds in itself the need to ask.

~ by emilypothast on April 6, 2009.

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