In my travels over the last few weeks, I’ve encountered quite a few arts advocates in the grip of a singular and persistent obsession, conveying art’s value through “hard evidence” such as numbers, graphs and charts intended to convince funders and policy makers to invest in cultural programs.
The dean of an arts college confided to one audience that his university’s president “doesn’t care about” the arts. The president demanded evidence, specifying it not be the anecdotal kind. What could the dean offer, he asked, to prove the arts were “important”?
Later, the sincere and dedicated research director of a national arts group trotted out pie charts illustrating the economic multiplier effect of arts participation (i.e., people who buy theater tickets generally also spend money on transportation, food and drink). Then he graphed the nonprofit arts’ economic activity, showing that billions are spent by such groups producing films, recordings, theater, dance, visual art, literature, and so on. “Legislators love these charts,” he said. “Gotta speak their language.”
Then an inventive, hard-working arts lobbyist detailed her tireless efforts to convince legislators and their aides that art benefits education and attracts business, helping the economy. For instance, a study shows that higher test scores and lower dropout rates are achieved by kids who participate in “the arts.” (Like virtually all such studies, this one was biased toward elite arts: include garage-band players, spray-can artists and hip-hop dancers and the results aren’t necessarily the same.)
This conviction of the persuasive power of “hard evidence,” with its worship of charts and graphs, seems increasingly bizarre and disconnected from reality, like some modern-day cargo cult. (In the classic case of this phenomenon, Melanesians built airstrips out of coconuts and straw, hopefully staging drills and stationing themselves nearby, in the belief that supernatural forces would deliver to them the richly stocked cargo planes that Europeans seemed to attract to their own airstrips.)
The devotees of this contemporary cargo cult evidently fail to notice what is glaringly obvious: after more than three decades of commitment to their strategy, there is not a shred of evidence that it works.
To the contrary, university presidents and other gate-keepers apply their calls for hard evidence differentially: citing the lack of evidence is an easy way to frame a rejection you want to make anyway. In contrast, money is wonderfully effective at papering over the need for evidence of any type. When a corporate donor or private philanthropist offers a check to endow a new school of international business, for instance, you can be sure the answer will be, “Thank you very much; what name would you like over the door?” Neither were the mega-billions spent for our blunders in Iraq subjected to evidence tests, or they would never have been appropriated in the first place.
What’s more, most of the studies that have purported to produce hard evidence may appear sturdy at first glance, but their centers are soft. Theater patrons may put money into local economies, but so do sports fans and just about any category of admission-payer, so arts participation has no special claim to the multiplier effect. Similarly, if kids who take violin lessons do better in school, are music lessons a cause or an effect? Arguably, household income or parental educational attainment are better indicators of performance on standardized tests and drop-out rates, because they link kids to better schools.
Contrary to providing hard evidence, most such studies can’t withstand even a gentle breeze of questioning.
To this very day, many arts advocates insist that test scores, cost-benefit analysis and pie charts are the lingua franca of policy persuasion, but despite their love of hard evidence, they seem to feel no need to provide any for this assertion. Here’s how my dialogue with the aforementioned research director and lobbyist went:
Arlene to research director: Looking back at the last 26 years of this approach [i.e., since Reagan's election triggered a spate of secondary arguments for arts support to stave off budget cuts], your own figures show a steep drop in the real value of federal arts budgets as well as a major decline in arts support as a percentage of private giving.
Research director: Well, umm, that’s true.
Arlene to lobbyist: You seem very creative and diligent in pursuing these strategies. What’s been the impact on funding in your state?
Lobbyist: Well, we were cut like a lot of state arts agencies, but…
Arlene: So since this approach hasn’t succeeded in attracting new funds, and since the best you can speculate is that it might have cut losses a little, what convinces you that this is the way to go?
Research director and lobbyist, gazing desperately about the room: Next question, please.
Lately, some of these advocates have more or less given up on arts funding, saying instead that the way to go is to redirect their pie charts and test scores at other resource providers, such as healthcare or community development agencies. The same orthodoxy is simply transferred to new sectors: you have to muster the “hard evidence,” showing that crime rates drop or school graduation rates rise with arts involvement.
But here in the U.S., trying a different airstrip hasn’t changed the results. While a few enterprising groups have gotten grants for community development programs using art, examples of legislators or funders becoming committed advocates for health promotion or community development through the arts are rare, exceptional and generally short-lived. Instead, every attempt to sell creativity by the numbers triggers a new demand for even harder evidence, like Rumpelstiltskin demanding the miller’s daughter spin straw into gold.
Beyond the obvious waste of effort on delusional and reductive thinking, here’s what’s especially absurd about this: the advocates of this cargo cult believe themselves to be forward thinkers, rising to the challenge of the times, which they see as using the dominant vocabulary of business to sell practices situated in a very different way of understanding the world.
But the opposite is true. In reality, they are performing rituals of obeisance to a failed order, jumping through hoops that by now barely hold together. The fact that they continue to do this despite decades of almost nothing to show for it boggles my mind.
I don’t see how any sentient being can survey our image-saturated, story-filled, perpetually musical society and need numbers to justify the importance of culture and creativity. From time to time, my work brings me into contact with stories and direct experiences of people under extreme conditions of deprivation: prisons, refugee camps, concentration camps. What do they do to sustain body and soul? They write poetry, scratch drawings onto available surfaces with burnt matches, sing, dance, shape mud into figures. Herbert Zipper, the founding director of the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts, where I spoke a couple of weeks ago, started a clandestine orchestra in Dachau.
I have never heard of concentration camp inmates risking their lives to gather clandestinely and create a balance sheet. Have you?
The demand for “hard evidence” of economic or other measurable benefit to justify cultural support is as absurd as the expensive scientific studies some years back that demonstrated mother’s milk is good for babies—and just as much an artifact of the old paradigm, which privileges quantifiable ways of knowing above all others.
Enough! The emergent paradigm acknowledges many coexisting truths, including the observable fact that being human, we make meaning through stories and songs, the movement of our bodies, the images and objects that resonate with our experience.
To live we must breathe. We need wholesome air, even if corporations’ profit margins are reduced by the cost of cleaning their emissions. It is our collective responsibility to support the means by which successive generations receive the breath of life. All the rest is nonsense. Just so, it is our collective responsibility to support the means by which successive generations receive and remake culture. All the rest is cargo cult: polishing the old paradigm’s idols, the pie chart and cost-benefit analysis, carrying them to the airstrip and waiting in utter futility for false gods to deliver the goods.
Too many good people have wasted their energy serving this cargo cult. Don’t be cowed. Call it what it is—a baseless superstition of the old paradigm—and let’s move on.