The Larger Impact of Art: How Artists Can Change the Narrative

by: Jason Wyman

Photo Credit: Andy Warhol. (Please don’t sue us, Warhol Foundation.)

On June 11, SOMArts Cultural Center, an arts organization whose mission is “to promote and nurture art on the community level, and to foster an appreciation of and respect for all cultures” in San Francisco, posted the following quote on the Facebook Fan Page:

“The language of economics is the logic of government: if the cultural sector does not speak in these terms it will suffer.” – Claire Donovan. Do you think the value of arts and cultural programming is beyond measurement?

It included a link to Claire Donovan’s article “Art for art’s sake?” on the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport. I read the article, and then reread SOMArts post. As someone who has produced cultural events, facilitated arts education, and inspired community responses to wellness all with little to no budget for almost 20 years, I was inspired to tackle the simple yes/no question posed by SOMArts and the bigger question posited by Claire Donovan’s post.

This is my response: Simply put, yes.

It is hard for me to even begin thinking differently about the answer to this question because of the significant role arts and culture have played and continue to play in my life and its development. It literally saved me; it pulled me from the edge of suicide when I was in high school.

Sure, one could create some complicated algorithm that would extrapolate the economic value of saving my life at the age of 16. The algorithm would have to include complex formulas that would put an economic value on the deeds of my life over the last 20 years. Some of those deeds would be a positive value; some negative.

It would also need to account for the ripple effect of those deeds and their impact on society. Again, some would have a positive value; some negative. This piece of the equation would be cumbersome as some of the negative-valued deeds might result in positive-value ripples, and vice versa.

The equation would need to also take into account the amplification of those ripples over time. There would also need to be a part of the equation that factors in the economic impact of the quality of my life, which is beyond a simple equation of earnings/wages and would have to monetize personal fulfillment. There would need to be a portion of the algorithm that deals with potential economic impact of more years lived, too.

This algorithm only deals with economic impact, which in this day and age seems to be the only measurement that matters.

I am sure it could be done, but the more important question is why? Why reinforce the dominant, capitalistic mind-set of the “value” of arts and culture especially in an age when “value” and “return on investment” is only viewed through a short-term lens? Why not create an entirely new narrative and narratives, ones that actually honor and *value* the myriad ways in which art and culture impact lives, communities, histories? And not just the dominant, privileged lives.

I am reminded of the San Francisco Supervisorial Candidate Arts Forum at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts sponsored by the San Francisco Arts Commission, Grants for the Arts and others. Arts and culture were basically lumped into two categories: arts/culture as revenue generator/creator and arts/culture education. Rarely did those two perspectives meet, and yet there is a dynamic interplay between both. It was all “develop this cultural corridor,” “make us a destination” and “let’s educate the youth.”

A topic not even addressed was the role of arts and culture as problem solver to societal issues, ways in which arts and culture help foster perspective shift and critical thought. Also not addressed was how to leverage this role/view of arts and culture to find solutions to things like gentrification, affordable housing, education reform, budget problems.

To me, focusing solely on the economic impact is why policy makers cannot even see the larger impact arts and culture make. Lumping all of these impacts into the moniker “arts education” minimizes our understanding of its much deeper and longer lasting impacts. Especially given that education is continually being cut, and even more so now that arts education is seen mostly as superficial.

I am also reminded of a forum I attended at Southern Exposure, a non-profit art gallery in San Francisco, last December (or at least I believe it was last December) on the Occupy movement. At one point, we broke into small groups. There was a former employee of the San Francisco Arts Commission in my group. I posed the question, “Never have I seen the San Francisco Arts Commission Board actually use arts and culture practices to address issuesbrought up through their department (i.e. budget cuts, organizational restructuring, etc.). It is all reports and charts. If the people who help guide and set arts and culture policy for the city of San Francisco cannot even see how arts and culture can be used to help them solve their own budgetary  or organizational problems, what hope do we have of any other city department (or state or federal department for that matter) valuing arts and culture, especially economically?”

The person who previously had worked for the Arts Commission concurred and even stated that that is why s/he left working for the department.

To me, this all stems from only looking at the economic valuation of arts and culture, which is driven by a capitalistic system where growth is only ever measured by money. We conflate value for values. This is damaging, and it is ultimately what has lead to a very strong and dominant narrative of austerity,

which reinforces economic impact at the expense of everything else. It is a vicious cycle.The only way out of this singular narrative is to continue creating, distributing, and valuing the multiple narratives of arts and cultures impact, to not reduce the conversation into a single topic and short sound bites. It is about the cultivation of critical thought, which has been lost in an age of rapid reaction of 140 characters.
It can be done. We can change the narrative. It will take time. And, ultimately, it will take a lot of courage and faith, which are the essence of arts and culture and which are the two things that saved my life.

Jason Wyman is a life-long educator, writer, learner and performer. He finds spaces between things and then creates supports between them. He has helped professionalize youth development, created original theater, developed learning models based on peer exchange and shared expertise, written fables inspired by the darkness of fairy tales and fostered community rooted in social justice, creativity, and laughter. He lives in San Francisco with his beautiful husband and precocious cat. You can read more at  (Photo by Andreea Cănăvoiu)

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One response to “The Larger Impact of Art: How Artists Can Change the Narrative

  1. Pingback: In the Mist: A Foggy Reflection « In Our Words·

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