Ten Pounds of Arts Funding Doesn’t Yield 20 Pounds of Peace

So like me, you may have been driving home Monday night and heard an interview on NPR conducted by host Mary Louise Kelly with poet Tess Taylor discussing art as civic repair.  Taylor talks about how a plethora of festivals in Belfast have helped people to come together peacefully since the Good Friday Agreement brought about a general cessation of violence in Northern Ireland.  She draws some parallels to political division in the United States.

She tells a story about being assigned to write a travel story about Virginia shortly after the 2016 election. She arrives in Floyd, VA, a mecca of bluegrass and is torn between being upset at the election results and wanting to square dance.

KELLY: You write, (reading) I realized I could either be mad or I could dance, but I can’t do both, so I’m going to dance.

TAYLOR: There might have been so many people right then at that square dance with whom I really had nothing to say about politics. But while we’re doing this dance, we’re actually partaking in a community action that takes place with an old pattern, and people swing around, they have to change partners, nobody can be left out, everybody is called in, and I understood the square dance is a ritual meant to build community and meant also to be sure that people had some relationship with one another so that they were kind of agreeing, perhaps, in a rural, small community to care for each other in some way. But I also felt very amazed by the ability of the dance itself to make me feel more able to work with people around me and to feel as if somehow, in that moment, we had put aside our differences and come together into something bigger.

As the interview closed, it was mentioned that Taylor had written a longer piece on this subject for Harper’s this month so I sought the article out.

There was a great deal of nuance in Taylor’s piece which was careful to say while there were similarities between the friction in the U.S. and Northern Ireland, there were differences that made them, and thus the solutions, distinct.

What I really appreciated was just how much Taylor’s article paralleled my post yesterday about viewing the arts as a prescriptive solution for problems. While Taylor cited research that showed how arts activities can create bonds of friendship, empathy and cooperation, she also noted arts weren’t, and will likely never be, the totality of the solution for Belfast in and of themselves. (my emphasis)

…Artists knew that arts programming was an effective means of weaving people together; they had written many grants justifying projects in these terms, and some were tired of the process. Some expressed concern about instrumentalizing art. “It’s not as if you put in ten pounds of arts funding and get out twenty pounds of peace,” said Glenn Patterson.

…But Durrer is the first to say that investments in reconciliation are naturally hard to quantify: “It’s not as if you can count the number of Protestants and Catholics who sat next to one another in a theater and know anything about how well people are actually reconciling.” My friend Stephen Connolly, a poet, warned me that the festivalization of Belfast can at times feel like a “manufactured peace.” Others felt uneasy about looking to anything in Northern Ireland as a model. Everyone stressed that what had been achieved in the north of Ireland has since frayed and grown tender.

But FitzGibbon, who has collaborated with Boyd on outdoor performances and directed the Belfast Children’s Festival for thirteen years, also emphasized the giddy feeling of making interventions that seemed to result in collective delight.

There is a lot of thoughtful reflection in the Harper’s story and it bears looking at regardless of whether you are considering connecting the arts with social change.

The Arts Aren’t A Band-Aid

Links to a study examining the validity of claims about the efficacy of the arts in solving issues of health and well-being came across my Twitter feed today.  The study authors, Stephen Clift, Kate Phillips, and Stephen Pritchard, examined research conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and found there were problems with the methodology and relevance of previous studies that made claims about arts solving physical and mental health issues for different populations.

The authors cited earlier work by Munira Mirza and Eleonora Belfiore who in 2006 were skeptical about making claims about the instrumental benefits of the arts on health outcomes.

Among Belfiore’s concerns that the authors quote are:

Any form of participatory activity could have “an empowering effect, whether arts-based or not”.

Existing reviews have ignored details which suggest “negative” impacts from arts and cultural engagement. Lessons from experiences of “culture-led regeneration” suggest that “the arts can actually be socially divisive”.

Little attention given to whether cultural and arts initiatives “provide the most cost-effective means to tackling social exclusion, health problems” compared with “established practices within social and health services”.

Little attention to longer-term outcomes as opposed to short-term effects.

Little attention to the artistic or aesthetic quality of cultural and arts engagements in assessing outcomes.

A focus on the role of the arts and culture my serve “as a convenient means to divert attention from the real causes of today’s social problems and the tough solutions that might be needed to solve them”.

While these were criticisms of arts policy in the UK in 2006, the fact that the authors found nearly identical concerns in more recent research conducted both in the UK for DCMS and internationally by WHO, indicate that the problems are shared across borders.

I was particularly drawn to the discussion of the use of art as a band-aid to obfuscate the existence of larger problems. The authors cite businesses use of “art washing” projects to create goodwill and draw attention away from the business practices which create harm in the world. They also note that studies often credit arts programs for reducing anxiety and behavioral difficulties in children without fully recognizing the poverty, domestic abuse and violence in their lives. They suggest that by positioning arts programs as a fix for children’s behavior, the studies accept and normalize the terrible conditions responsible for these problems.

While it wasn’t a central topic of their research, the authors made reference to two studies from 2020, one which states Culture is bad for you, based on the way current practices and manifestations reinforce social inequities; and another that asks, “Can Music Make You Sick,” examining the price musicians pay to pursue their careers. This was actually a theme Drew McManus pursued across a number of podcast discussions with various stakeholders in music organizations.

Long time readers will know that for years now I have been concerned about various claims being made about the instrumental benefits/value of the arts to rectify every ill – health, social, economic, education, etc., as more research occurs debunking these claims, the arts community will be in a difficult place trying to justify their existence in these terms. Which is why it is important to change the narrative away from the arts as prescriptions for whatever ails you.

Creativity Arrives Late To Meetings

Daniel Pink posted a link on Twitter about a study performed by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University which revealed people have a misperception about when they are most creative.  Most people feel they are most creative at the beginning of a brainstorming session but in fact they tend to produce the highest quality ideas after spending a fair bit of time working on the task.

…participants incorrectly judged their later ideas as less creative—because, the researchers reasoned, those ideas were harder to access. Yet, as in the first study, the opposite was true: ideas that took longer to excavate were more likely to be truly innovative.

In another study, Nordgren and Lucas put the creative-cliff illusion to the test in a real-world setting. They recruited students and alumni of The Second City’s training program to participate in a New Yorker–style cartoon-caption contest …The online competition was judged by three professional comedians, who rated the 91 submissions for novelty and funniness (a proxy for creativity).


Those who believed good ideas come early submitted fewer jokes overall, the researchers found—and fewer of the jokes they submitted were rated as highly creative by the judges. In other words, the more people believed their funniness would fade over the 15-minute task, the less productive and funny they actually were.

People who did a lot of creative work were less apt to think that the best ideas came early because they perceived their creative level remained consistent throughout. However, that perception is only slightly better than the belief that creativity peaks early.

But participants with lots of creative experience didn’t make the same mistake. They predicted that creativity would remain relatively constant—a belief that is still overly pessimistic, but closer to correct than most other participants’ predictions. Experience helped them see the power of continuing to chip away at the problem.

“It’s really people who are in the trenches doing creative work that learn this lesson,” Nordgren says.

The researchers provide some important advice–don’t let your creative sessions be bound by your meeting schedule. (my emphasis)

“If you’re struggling, keep going,” he says. This and his earlier research on creativity reveal that “our intuitions about how this process works are wrong, and that our best ideas are there. They just require more digging.”

This may mean resisting the temptation to select an idea just because a meeting is ending—a temptation rooted in the false belief that future ideas will be worse. Instead, “maybe you say, ‘I think there are still some better ideas we haven’t explored. Let’s all commit individually to putting another hour into this and come back next week.’”

Creativity Is Not The Last Thing People Need

When I mentioned organizations addressing issues of health and safety in my post yesterday, I was thinking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Between high school and my first couple years of college, I felt like every class except for foreign language and mathematics brought Maslow’s hierarchy up as a way to open up a conversation about what motivates humans. If you aren’t familiar with the pyramid below, Maslow’s theory said that the lower needs on the pyramid below had to be satisfied before people could move on to higher concerns. So you need to be secure in physiological and safety needs before you can work on intimate relationships.

It should be noted that despite the popularity of this model, there is no scientific data to back it and studies have found that different cultures prioritize needs differently.


Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

I mention these criticisms of Maslow’s hierarchy because it is easy to look at this pyramid and get the impression that creativity has to wait until all these other needs are met. This reinforces the idea that arts and culture are a luxury that should yield before all the necessities have been addressed. I think we all know there will always be something else that needs to be solved if you subscribe to that thinking.

I will confess that I engaged in that mode of thought at one time. I was elated by the idea that being able to engage in creativity was a sign that you were approaching your fullest self, but depressed when I realized you pretty much had to be independently wealthy if you were going to check-off all the lower levels in order to get to the peak.

I think the case can easily be made that creativity has an important role at lower levels of the pyramid. Shared creative activities contributes to belongingness. Social groups or clubs whether oriented around religion, service, sports or creative activities all create a sense of belonging.

So too does creativity contribute to the next level up, esteem. Feeling that you have mastered a technique or have enough of a grasp of the fundamentals to metaphorically start drawing outside the lines with confidence can bolster self-esteem.

Continuing to develop all your skills, be it creative, personal, emotional, professional, etc eventually leads you to self-actualization as defined by Maslow and others. However, creativity for its own sake, (as opposed in pursuit of securing safety and physiological needs), begins to factor in much earlier.

So don’t be fooled by this popular image into thinking that creative activities are the last thing that people need in their lives.

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