Taking the Arts Seriously

Where do the arts fit in relation to other important parts of our society? Where are they situated in the consciousness of our time? I find myself thinking about this a lot, worrying that the fit is, in a word, bad. All too often in our society, the arts are shut out; they are left to stand alone, at an uncomfortable angle away from the experiences and events we otherwise share as citizens, as thinkers, as advocates and as agents of change.

Examples? There are many. Newspapers provide "arts" or "entertainment" or "leisure" pages, separating cultural coverage from the news. A great deal of art training takes place deep inside conservatories or art departments where young artists are isolated in studies of process. Art teachers in elementary and secondary schools have to work hard to make clear the important relationships between what they teach and other school subjects and goals, like math, social studies, and personal growth. Policy makers frequently ignore the arts when they develop issue areas; activists ignore them when they seek solutions to social problems; foundations leave them out of their guidelines. Examples like these yield my reluctant conclusion: Too often, artists are marginalized and seen as devoid of concern or ideas about the world we live in.

Yet, surveys and polls, research and evaluation, initiatives of the most imaginative kind demonstrate that the arts and artists can and do respond dynamically to current events. For example:

The arts and learning. A four-year study by cognitive neuroscientists from seven universities has released new data about the impact of arts study on the brain. Among other specifics, the research shows that music training extends working and long-term memory, and that it aids both reading and geometry skills in children. The research also shows that interest in the performing arts improves motivation and sustained attention. The entire study, funded by the Dana Foundation, demonstrates how arts education is associated with high academic performance.

The arts and healing. The first complete survey of the arts inside U.S. hospitals has been done by Americans for the Arts, the Society for Arts in Healthcare and the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Heathcare Organizations. Cultural programs are increasing in number and quality as hospitals find that the arts "comfort, console and sustain" patients and improve in-hospital results. Major artists are being solicited to do work specifically for hospitals; many of them are donating it through programs like New York-based RxArt. Much of this work is aimed at children in treatment.

The arts and community. At the University of Pennsylvania, Professors Mark Stern and Susan Seifert head the Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP). Their research focuses on U.S. social history and the role of culture in affirming the quality of life in urban neighborhoods. Through their policy briefs and in their evaluations of urban initiatives, their research demonstrates that neighborhood-based cultural investment improves prosperity and social integration. They have examined urban projects funded by the Rockefeller, Knight, William Penn and Pew philanthropies.

The arts and trauma. Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are suffering unusually deep post-service trauma. The Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury--military facilities devoted to research and programming that address the problem--are mounting a "Theater of War" for veterans, their families and care providers. Staged by theater professionals, Theatre of War performs plays by Sophocles which dramatize the devastations of war. General Loree Sutton says that the Theater of War is important for "sharing pain and the promise of learning and growing and healing." Professor Richard McNally of Harvard says that seeing these timeless pieces may reduce the stigma of suffering trauma and help veterans seek treatment.

These are some of the many studies, programs and findings that help to situate the arts where they rightly belong: In the center of the society we share. Individual artists also advance their own work to identify and reduce problems. Environmental artists, for instance, address the challenges of global change. Artist Agnes Denes says, "My work ranges between individual creation and social consciousness... I plant forests on abused land and grow fields of grain in the heart of megacities... to educate people ... to make them feel good about themselves and their surroundings ... and to give a site, building or neighborhood ... special identity." Denes' monumental pieces employ nature in order to preserve, strengthen and honor it. Environmental artists like Denes confront the issues of our day.

Political artists do so as well. Recently, at New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Opera, work by South African artist William Kentridge formed the shapes, the flickering realities, the erasures and absences of any society that is unfair. Kentridge's work focuses on the struggle of the individual to survive in inequality; to find strength despite oppression and uncertainty. A subtle political artist, Kentridge forces insight on his viewers, who can feel the fear of his singular, struggling, colorless figures.

Activist artists, like Ross Bleckner, work directly with victims of oppression. Bleckner, the celebrated New York artist, became the United Nations Good Will Ambassador a year ago. He was officially inducted at the UN opening of an exhibition he made possible--two hundred paintings by former child soldiers and child slaves who he worked with in the northern Uganda town of Gulu. For Bleckner, working with these children who have survived terror and torture was an effort to provide "a pathway out of their circumstances." One child's painting, crudely lettered, simply reads "Don't Forget Me." While these stories are horrendous, the children's hopefulness, according to Bleckner, is inspiring. He intends to enlist more artists, fashion designers, theater directors and photographers to work with young victims of trafficking to help them "find their pathways" and realize their hopes.

Through their contributions in the performing and the visual arts, artists and arts professionals cope with the issues of our day. They deepen our knowledge of local, national, and global issues and provide ways of addressing them. Pushing culture to the periphery of our consciousness limits our ability to deal with many of our world's problems. I especially wonder how our philanthropic institutions (in particular, the major national foundations) can build their lines of work without taking the arts into consideration. Is it even possible to produce vibrant, working programs in the environment, in social justice, in health and human welfare, in cross-global understanding, without the arts and artists?