News Flash: A National Endowment for the Arts study [PDF alert] has found a significant correlation between participation in the arts and academic achievement by kids of low socioeconomic status. That is, poor kids who sing in the choir or take art classes or act in the school play or go to museums and concerts do better in school than those who don’t.
For that matter, kids who come from more affluent homes tend to do better, too. And while the study cautions that “such results do not support a cause-and-effect relationship between arts involvement, on the one hand, and academic or civic achievements on the other” — in other words, correlation is not causation — it certainly makes a case that offering music and art programs in school pays off.
Triumphant Fanfare!!! Art is good for us. Academics have proved it. With any luck at all, this study will encourage schools to work harder at keeping their arts programs when they confront budget cuts.
So why am I not feeling thrilled?
Because I don’t understand why we need to keep justifying art as an important human endeavor.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s valuable to know that getting kids involved in art helps them in many different ways, just as it’s fascinating to find, as I reported a couple of weeks ago, that reading fiction makes positive changes in the human brain.
But we don’t need all these studies to know that art is important in life. Human beings have been telling stories, drawing pictures, and making music since time immemorial — perhaps going back to before we evolved into homo sapiens. (I heard on the radio the other day that there is evidence an earlier ancestor started cooking food, which explains changes in our teeth and stomachs, among other things. Makes me think the earlier ancestor might have done other things, like beating sticks together to make a rhythm and dancing.)
You know what else human beings do? Play games. All kinds of games: intellectual ones like chess, physical ones like baseball, psychological ones like poker. I don’t happen to play video games — I already spend too many hours staring at a computer screen — but I get tired of reading diatribes about them.
That sapiens got applied to us because we’ve got brains that have amazing capacity to come up with new things of all kinds. We create, we invent, we figure things out, we play.
All those things are important parts of life. Yet somehow we keep pushing them aside, as if they were less important than the things we’ve currently defined as paying work.When it comes to cutting budgets, we decide they aren’t important.
If we were really in a major humanitarian crisis — one where food and water and shelter were in short supply — it might make sense to stop funding art. But we’re not. And when we’re not reduced to the basics of survival, we need all those storytellers and inventors, all those musicians and painters to help us enjoy what we’ve got and to gives us ideas about what we can become.
(Actually, we probably need them when we’re reduced to the basics of survival, too. They’re probably the reason we’ve been able to move beyond that stage.)
I practiced law for years. I’m particularly proud of doing the legal work so that tenants could buy their apartment buildings and turn them into co-ops. But I don’t think that work was more important than some of the stories I’ve written (much less some of the ones I’m planning to write). Legal work can be valuable, but so can fiction.
Some years ago I saw Picasso’s painting “Guernica” in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. Now I’ve read history and news accounts about war, I’ve studied warriorship, and I’m familiar with legal work over war crimes, but I’d say “Guernica” tells us more about war than any of those things.
Art. It’s not just an extra; it’s an integral part of our lives.
Flashes of Illumination, a collection of my short-short fiction, is now available here from Book View Cafe. This 52-story ebook collects the flash fiction I published weekly during the first year of Book View Cafe, and adds in a few later stories as well.
My novella Changeling remains available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story.
Both books are $2.99 and available in four DRM-free formats: mobi, epub, prc, and pdf.