Does Art Matter?

One way to measure the value of an arts organization is to measure its economic impact. How many people attended a performance? How are businesses doing in the area? How much money does an exhibition make? These "butts in seats" questions measure extrinsic value but they miss the intrinsic value of how we actually experience art and how it moves us.

The intellectual, social, emotional, and empathetic value of a piece of art may be hard to measure but are undeniable. A recent study found that students who visited an art museum demonstrated greater knowledge, critical thinking and empathy than those who didn't. Research also shows there are major benefits of attending live theatre. In a study, participants who attended a live performance of Hamlet demonstrated greater understanding of the play than those who saw the film. On a test, they were also better able to recognize and appreciate what other people were thinking and feeling.

Exploring the intrinsic impact of the arts is the subject of the book, Counting New Beans by Alan Brown and Rebecca Ratzkin. It includes a fascinating two-year study that set out to measure the seeming "immeasurable" power of the impact of art. They surveyed theatregoers, inquiring about emotional resonance, aesthetic enrichment and intellectual stimulation, among other metrics. They asked questions about anticipation, meaning, and memory. Did you talk about the show on the way home? Did you gain in learning or insight? Did you feel closer to someone afterwards? As a result of seeing this show, do you see the world in a different way?

A few nights ago I had the privilege of seeing Sting's musical, The Last Ship. It's an old-fashioned moving tale about shipbuilders in an English seafaring town in decline. The shipbuilders are on the brink of losing their livelihood and selfhood and the characters grapple with decisions they have made and must make. While the story itself may be removed from most people's immediate experience, the deeper narrative about emotions, relationships, meaning and purpose is told with grace, poetry and emotional resonance. In an age of distraction and immediate gratification, it provides an honest look at how our actions define our lives.

The Last Ship conjures "a strange kind of beauty," as one of the song goes. Though it may not be one of those chewing gum, gee whiz, walk-out-dancing, feel good for 20 minutes and then forget productions, this "strange beauty" will linger with me for years to come.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said:

In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.

There is so much majesty in the Last Ship. It is at once foreign and familiar, de-fanged and piercing, far away and close to home.

Sometimes we need someone else's story to remind us of who we are.