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Art: why should society bother?

We talked last week about the benefits of art to us as individuals but what does art bring to society? You may recall reading that when Winston Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in favour of the World War II effort, he simply replied, “then what are we fighting for?.” So let’s talk about some of the ways art benefits society.

#1. Art unites us: Just like sport can bring us together as a nation, art also has a unifying effect. Art can transcend differences. Art speaks to our shared emotions and intellect allowing disparate communities to come together over common understandings. It doesn’t matter what language you speak or culture you belong to, art has the ability to talk to you across these boundaries. The Knight Foundation describes this unifier effect as art’s capacity “to inspire reflection, and form connections that transcend differences”.

#2. Art improves social indicators: Numerous studies have highlighted the powerful impact engaging in art can have on improving social indicators such as poverty and gender inequality. A 2012 report published by the US Committee on the Arts and Humanities showed that low-income students who were highly involved in the arts performed better and stayed in school longer. Tackling the issue from a different perspective, John Clammer, Visiting Professor at the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS), talks about projects such as one he is involved with in India. In remote areas of the state of Orissa, organisations have been stimulating local craft production as a means of alleviating poverty and as a way of addressing gender issues.

#3. Art changes opinions: Art can promote change by influencing people’s opinions. It can be controversial and shocking. It can support and consolidate. It can quietly subvert the norm. From the 1987 AIDS Memorial Quilt which brought recognition and social acceptance to those who have died from HIV and AIDS - to Indigenous Art bringing profile and understanding to the key issues facing Indigenous peoples around the world - art is a powerful social tool. More recently, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is also giving rise to a plethora of artworks advocating peace.

#4. Art provides historical context. Art is in itself a historical journal of its time. Sure, some art pushes the boundaries of its time but each piece provides a unique slice of the happenings of its day. The Studio Director team explain to us that “[w]hen we take the time to dive into art created in the past, we can learn about other generations and eras. We can study art to find out what those before us were facing and how they overcame it. In the same way, future generations will learn about our current events through the art we leave behind.”

William Strutt, On Route to the Diggings, 1852.

#5. Art celebrates cultures: this final benefit speaks to the inherent role art plays in each culture’s day-to-day life. The clothing worn for certain ceremonies, the music played, the floral decorations displayed and the tools or wares used during particular events. It imbues traditions with significance and shared understanding. Arts festivals are a key vehicle for celebrating cultures. WIPO notes that these events “offer a unique snapshot of a community’s identity, both providing an opportunity to revitalize and preserve cultural practices.”


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