Art in the Abstract: a Concern

This semester I’m taking (and really enjoying) a class for my degree called Art and Public Policy, which focuses on the ways in which the public and private sectors fund, legislate, support, appreciate, and mobilize art in America.

Our articles and discussions are always interesting and complex, but one thing I’m already struggling with is how to approach the idea of “art” as an abstract concept.

This seems easier for non-artists to cope with. “Art” to a non-artist is probably more of a product, an object or thing to contend with, rather than a process, like it is for me. And naturally, my bias when thinking about “art” is to substitute the word with “writing”—by and large the least common genre associated with concepts of “art” by the masses. After all, isn’t literature something different?

There are definitely kinds of art. People think often of the performing arts (music, drama, etc) and the studio arts (painting, sculpture, etc). Film and literature are frequently lost in this dichotomy, a difficult thing for me to contend with since both are so valuable to me as a person and as an artist.

An article I recently read from the Wallace Foundation (“Gifts of the Muse”—it’s available for free download if you’re interested) focused on a study that isolated the “intrinsic” (internal/personal) and “instrumental” (public/social) benefits.

But what concerned me as I read was thinking about the vastly different kinds of art that exist in the world and the kinds of people who experience it. Is it really so easy to determine that “art” in the abstract encourages higher test scores, greater self-confidence, and steady attendance in students K-12? And if so, how do the study of painting or the act of painting differ in their impact on students and on the community?

I probably think of the arts as so discrete because while I think I can probably write well, I can’t paint, sculpt, carve, compose, or act with any competence at all, so those arts are something I appreciate differently than I do literature.

What is the most effective and fair way to think about the impact and value of art? Is it enough to lump the arts together into a group of like-minded endeavors, or do the discrete arts each offer varying benefits?

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