What is Art Good For (Even Now)?

It’s been a rough week y’all.

A couple weeks ago, one of my classes was having a discussion about the role of art in society, and we wrote statements about what it means to be an artist and citizen. Now, as I see other artists are trying to figure out their position and purpose in America moving forward, I thought I would post what I came up with.

(I’ll have more to say about politics and elections later…once I get my life slightly more together.)

What is art good for?

Sometimes, I wonder how I can justify spending hours in a dance studio instead of trying to cure cancer or negotiate a peace treaty. After all, most standard economic frameworks would consider the arts a luxury to engage in once the more practical concerns are taken care of–a pleasant way to blow an excess of resources and energy–but not a worthwhile focus in a society which still has issues of poverty and disease and violence to deal with.

But if this were the case, we would expect that art only emerges from great economic conditions and positions of social privilege. Historically, that doesn’t seem to be true: music and dance and drawing and poetry have been created and consumed in palaces and cushy ivory towers, but also in war zones and prisons and plantations and deathbeds. Somehow, our hierarchy of values must have got something wrong: issues of surviving don’t always take priority over living and creating and communicating.

Art, especially dance, doesn’t always fit so well into modern capitalist society, which encourages us to value our lives according to productivity and efficiency. Perhaps that mismatch of values is what makes it particularly needed, offering a form of resistance, or at least a bit of balance. Dancing is by nature unproductive. We can refer to pieces and performances as “products,” but only in the metaphorical sense: dance rarely results in more “stuff.” To take time for dance (moving, creating, or watching) demands that we value being and doing in itself, apart from producing. It demands that we value the moments of our lives, apart from the stuff we leave behind.

Dance also has the unique ability to challenge the artificial mind/body dualism (with an assumed inferiority of the body) which is so ingrained in our culture. Dance asserts that the body is meaningful. It’s not dirty or shameful or a source of evil. It’s not an irrelevant sack of meat whose only purpose is to carry around a brain or a soul. It’s not something that needs to be ignored, rejected, or overcome to become an intelligent or worthy being. It’s not exclusively an object of sexual desirability. Instead, it can be an impressive and versatile mechanical system, a means of communication, a tool for active thinking and problem solving, a site for sensations and emotions of all sorts, and a sight that can be publicly observed and appreciated with respect for it’s owner.

But as much as I like to see the liberatory potential in dance, it would be naive to assume that all dance or all art is inherently revolutionary, or even socially positive. Art can be a powerful medium, but the direction and scope of its impact depend on how we use it. The impact of art can easily become limited and circular when it stays within a small circle of elite, educated, art people making work to impress each other according to an inaccessible school of aesthetic and philosophical values. And of course, the assumptions and representations that we bring into our art can just as frequently help to reinforce social hierarchies as subvert them: dance, for instance, can often uncritically reproduce restricted gender roles, exclusive standards of beauty, and racial/ethnic caricatures.

Thus, recognizing the power of art must mean that artists should take responsibility for the impact of their work. This isn’t doesn’t necessarily mean creating “activist” art–with a deliberate social goal at the center–but simply being a responsible citizen who considers and cares who might be affected by the images they put out into the world.

Finally, in line with the principle that the method is the message, I believe that artists cannot genuinely and confidently claim that their work offers a positive social impact, unless principles of ethics and social justice are applied in the practice of its creation. In dance, this includes prioritizing livable pay for dancers, ending the tacit acceptance of abuse in training and work environments, increasing the economic accessibility of dance education and performance, and developing more environmentally sustainable performance and touring practices. These are not easy fixes, but it is inconsistent to offer our art as a solution to problems in the larger world without tackling these issues in our own field.

So rather than argue that art is good for society, it might be more appropriate to identify the ways in which it can be good for society–and take responsibility for making this the case.

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