Why the Arts are Important

The C scale wafts through the house from the front room, my son warming up his piano fingers for “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  He provides the background melody for the fiddle piece his brother is working through for a recital.  Then joining in is my daughter, learning the first few measures of Bach’s “Minuet I” on her violin.  It’s a discordant masterpiece.  No dueling pianos here, but rather a solo piano fending off violins attacking from two separate fronts.

Whew.  Just another afternoon of music practice.

I have long been a lover of the arts, having sacrificed my slim chance of high school popularity in favor of playing classical trumpet and joining the cast of theatre productions.  My kids, without my prodding (honest), have inherited that affinity.  Recently they put on an original play about a granddaughter’s quest to save her grandfather.  I peed a little watching my older son’s portrayal of a wacky wizard with a wardrobe malfunction, applauded my younger son’s efforts at improvised violin music, and was relieved when my daughter’s boat didn’t sink in the sea of “waves” made from a billowing quilt.  They used imagination and rare collaboration to make something original they were proud to share.

When we think of art, often the first that comes to mind is a higher form like a Broadway production or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.  But these works are only one end of the art appreciation spectrum.  Slipping under the radar is the art that surrounds us in everyday life.  With barely a thought, we enjoy much smaller artistic moments and objects within our homes and throughout our daily routine.  Art is life. 

Art matters.

Steve Jobs was first an artist and then an innovator. We benefit from his work every day when we text or answer email.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is on the federal government’s budgetary chopping block.  And the NEA can’t lobby against this.  They can publicize their grants, give speeches and hold town hall meetings, but it is against the law for them to officially lobby in their own favor.  So how can we the people help?  We can start by educating ourselves about the importance of the arts and making phone calls to Senate Budget Committee members letting them know we oppose the elimination of the NEA.

So why is art important?

For one, through creation and contemplation the arts teach life lessons and skills which help us navigate our work, our study and even sort out the world around us.  In Elliot Eisner’s book The Arts and the Creation of Mind (2002), Chapter 4, What the Arts Teach and How It Shows, he describes the lifelong benefits from studying, or simply appreciating, the arts.  He are some of his thoughts:

  1.  The arts embody possibility.  A task at hand can have more than one solution; questions can be answered in more than one way.  The arts encourage the exploration of multiple strategies.
  2. The arts teach open-mindedness.  The world is not a uniform, static entity, and neither are the viewpoints within it.  As art can be interpreted in many ways, so can the world.   And our work, whether it be research, a writing project or art itself can take us in a direction we didn’t anticipate; the arts train minds to be open to a change of tack.
  3.  A little je ne sais quoi goes a long way.  A tweak here and a tweak there can make all the difference; small details have a large impact.
  4. The arts embrace individual opinion and judgement.  There is a time and place for hard-and-fast-rules and right-and-wrong answers.  But art allows free-thinking to flow and drive the process.
  5. The arts emphasize that actions speak louder than words.  Self-expression doesn’t have to be verbal.  In fact, the nonverbal expression of emotion and thought is a powerful entity.

Someone’s been thinking outside the book: the written word is certainly art, but here the books are the art. (Boston Public Library)


And while my kids chose music of their own volition, there are many reasons for kids to learn an instrument or join choir, beyond simply “the experience.”  And becoming a virtuoso is strictly optional:

  1.  Kids who play in band and orchestra have the lowest risk of drug and alcohol abuse over their lifetimes, as compared to other groups of individuals.  (U.S. House of Representatives, Concurrent Res. 266, June 13, 2000)
  2. High-schoolers who participate in music programs collectively have higher grade point averages than students who aren’t involved in choir or band.  (National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988)  And furthermore:
  3. The study of music provides a leg-up to kids who struggle academically.  A study in the 1990’s showed that when given music instruction for 7 months, students with scholastic difficulties bypassed their peers in math ability and caught up to them in reading.  (Nature, May 23, 1996)
  4. A study of 7,500 college students demonstrated that music majors topped all other majors (including the hard sciences and English) in reading ability and test scores.  (The Case for Music in Schools, Phi Delta Kappa, 1994)

And a way to improve our schools?  Invest in music programs.  According to a Harris Interactive poll (2006) in which high school principals were polled, schools with music programs not only had better attendance rates than those without (93.3% and 84.9%, respectively), these schools had higher graduation rates as well (90.2% of the student body commenced, as compared to 72.9% in schools without music education).  School systems have tough decisions to make these days in order to balance an ever-shrinking budget, but whether to maintain band and choir programs shouldn’t be one of them.

And lastly, Eisner tells us this:

The arts’ position in the school curriculum symbolizes to the young what adults believe is important.

The future of our nation, of the world, lies in innovation.  The arts train young minds how to think outside the box.  If art, music and shop class are axed from school programs, kids learn that these endeavors are a waste of time.  The lose opportunity and are less likely to take the opportunity later when it presents itself.  We need the National Endowment of the Arts to help fund school artistic programs and we need to be a local voice in our communities.

Because art is life.

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