Art & Education
I was recently asked to write a reference for a barbershop chorus that was applying for charitable status, in response to the following question they had been asked:
Please provide independent expert evidence to show the performances are of sufficient educational merit to raise aesthetic taste.
As it happens, it’s quite a good chorus, so I could happily write in their support, and it’s quite easy to point to reasonably objective level indicators with barbershop, because the contest system is so effectively standardised internationally. The criteria are so explicit and the training regimens so thorough, that you can look at a collection of scores and articulate in some detail what they say about performance quality.
But what I found interesting was the set of assumptions built into the question.
It’s a funny combination of utilitarianism and idealistic aesthetics. On one hand, the value of the performances is required to be educational: you have to be doing something through your performances that will do the audiences good if you are to get the tax breaks of a charity. It’s no good just entertaining people, the performances should have some kind of nutritional value. But on the other hand, the good expected is to increase the audience’s capacity for artistic discrimination, to give them greater powers of appreciation. This value sits in the ‘art for art’s sake’ tradition – that the purpose of art is inherent rather than instrumental.
Now, it’s a standard dilemma in the defence of arts funding and the place of arts in the curriculum whether to go for the utilitarian or the aesthetic line. If the attack is, ‘well it’s all airy-fairy nonsense that doesn’t add anything to the country, so don’t waste time and money teaching it to kids,’ the temptation is to point out all the ways that the arts can add value: social cohesion, cognitive fluency, enhanced motor skills, yada yada. But then the danger is that the arts are expected to exist merely in the service of other agendas, and their own specific value is lost.
The Charities Commission seems to be taking a position that quite neatly refuses to engage in that argument. The are simply assuming that raising aesthetic taste is a Good Thing To Do, and then taking the capacity to do that as a definition of educational merit. And I find that I simultaneously admire the manoeuvre and feel rather uncomfortable about it.
At one level it looks like a cunningly strategic position, hammered out from between the competing imperatives of artistic idealism and public accountability. But you can’t help worrying that there may be people in positions to make decisions who take it at face value. And someone who believes their own rhetoric is as narcissistic as someone who likes the sound of their own vibrato, only more dangerous.