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  • Writer's pictureGill Nicol

Some thoughts on why the arts matter

A while back I was invited to be part of a professional development day for high school teachers covering the International Baccalaurate. The subject was ‘why the arts matter’. Revisiting this, I can see we continue to have to articulate the value of culture.

Venice Biennale, June 2022: Image Gill Nicol

It seems very obvious to me that the arts matter. They are an essential part of living a life, and making sense of the world. But the arts increasingly have to continually justify their value. Parts of the text below are informed by a key document that came out in 2016 from the UK: Understanding the Value of Arts and Culture: the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Cultural Value Project. (Click on the text below to download the full report.)

When we talk about the value of arts and culture to society, we always start with its intrinsic value: how arts and culture can illuminate our inner lives and enrich our emotional world.

This is what we cherish.

Arrow of Time by artist Tatsuo Miyajima, 2016 at MCA: Image Gill Nicol

However, we also understand that arts and culture have a wider, more measurable impact on our economy, health and well-being, society and education. It’s important for many – artists, arts organisations, funders - that we also recognise and evidence this impact to help people think of arts and culture for what they are: a strategic national resource.

Much of the debate about the value of culture has focused on one or more of these: the positive and negative traditions, arts for art’s sake and art for social function, intrinsic and instrumental benefits, high and popular culture, audience and participants. Let's understand that culture is everywhere – it is in Sydney Opera House, in the MCA, at the cinema, on the internet, in your home. The home frames most of our engagement with film, music, television and radio, literature, video games, and various forms of digital, online activities - ‘everyday participation’.

The arts and cultural experience have the ability to help shape reflective individuals. The enlarged experiences associated with cultural engagement can be unpacked in various ways: an improved understanding of oneself, an ability to reflect on different aspects of one’s own life, an enhanced sense of empathy, and a sense of the diversity of human experience and cultures.

I’ve spent the last 30 years seeing this happen with my own eyes in many different cultural spaces. At the MCA, especially when working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artworks, sometimes in a class, there were indigenous children there that do not get the opportunity to find cultural affirmation at home. Looking at contemporary artworks by artists such as Brook Andrew allows them to reconnect back to their history and recognise the status of contemporary indigenous artists - and for others in the class to increase their empathic understanding of another culture.

Experiences of culture can change how we perceive ourselves, relate to others, and make sense of our place in the world. They might be seen as a response to Brecht’s observation that ‘every art contributes to the greatest art of all, the art of living’ (Brecht, 1964).

The ways in which cultural engagement can lead to enhanced reflectiveness and understanding of oneself as both a cognitive and affective agent are central to its importance. It can influence the way we think about issues such as growing up, illness and ageing; it can provoke reflection and challenge for those working in disciplined modes of thinking, such as doctors and scientists.

Cultural engagement might serve as a platform for what philosopher and historian Hannah Arendt called ‘going visiting’, training one’s imagination to see the world from the perspective of others (Arendt, 1982).

And so, for so many reasons we must make the arts a key part of life – at school, in our downtime, built into our diaries.

To learn new skills, to think creatively; to be curious, and not take things for granted. Children and young people are the future - they are our artists, writers, playwrights, designers of the future.

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