The Useful Arts

Jeff Chang has a nice piece in The Nation about the role of art institutions in bringing about change we can believe in. Over the past decade or so arts and culture advocates have responded to attacks from conservatives by arguing that arts make good economic sense. Cultural venues create jobs, keep kids off the streets, and revitalize stressed towns and cities–in short, they were economically useful, but the arguments generally stopped there. Less often people made the well-meaning but still timid claim that the arts were consolation for everything that was alienating about the economy. The first claim–art is useful–dates back to the eighteenth century. The second–art consoles–is an early nineteenth-century Romantic idea. Both claims implicitly denied two other possible roles for art: as a source of pleasure and as the engine for transformation.

Chang’s argument rises out of the art-is-useful school of thought, but then moves to position that art can bring about personal and social change. “What we might call ‘the creativity stimulus’ goes far beyond job
creation and even economic development,” he writes. “Culture is not just something
conservatives wage war on. The arts are not just something liberals
dress up for on weekends. Creativity can be a powerful form of
organizing communities from the bottom up.” For instance, Obama got the idea for his green-jobs-for youth program from a program at the Ella
Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, where rappers joined forces with environmentalists.

So far the US still doesn’t have an arts czar and Congress grudgingly included a paltry $50 million for the arts in the humongous stimulus package, but connecting political activism and art is finally becoming government policy rather than just a theoretical position in university humanities departments.


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