Art and wellbeing: towards a capability account of the arts

Jansen, Erik (2018). 'Art and wellbeing: Towards a capability account of the arts' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


The debate on the essence and benefits of the arts knows a long tradition. This contribution starts from the question: Should we develop a capability account of the arts? In answering this question, we need to develop a notion whether the arts are relevant to human wellbeing, and in this particular case, to human capabilities and/or functionings. A useful and influential perspective is grounded in Dewey’s (1934) notion that the essence of art is the experience of artistic form by the human subject, rather than the artistic form itself. In capability terminology: the essence of art should be conceived as the specific beings and doings resulting from a person’s experience with artistic form. This strand links to an evolving body of research in the humanities and the social sciences.

Many scholars do believe there is a link between the arts and wellbeing (for a useful overview, see Sherman & Morrissey, 2017). For instance, there are many empirical studies showing the beneficial influence of the arts on human wellbeing or health ranging from their social benefits to neurological effects. Furthermore, the arts are generally acknowledged as valuable for people in their cultures and therefore warrant public policy support. At large, the various discourses indicate that art as a phenomenon can be approached from a multitude of angles and with many different purposes, yielding a whole range of context-dependent potential benefits.

Nevertheless, it is mostly unclear how this influence functions, let alone whether these beneficial effects are rightly appreciated in the public discourse. One such discourse in the first decade of the century was the focus on the utility of music listening for the cognitive development and intelligence of children, the so-called Mozart effect (Rauscher, Shaw & Ky, 1993). Studies on this effect could either not be replicated or showed only small and temporary effects, but sparked a popular belief and an implicit political rationale that music (and music education) should be instrumentally useful. However, this completely surpassed the idea that music and music education have value in their own right, as expressions of culture. In a similar vein, in her book Not for profit Nussbaum discusses how the Chicago Children’s choir contributes to the social mobility and empathy skills of children from deprived neighborhoods (Nussbaum, 2010). She presents this example, among others, to argue that art and art education are necessary to develop democratic citizenship. Here as well there is a distinct focus on one particular type of value of the arts, namely the social effects. However, the essence of the arts should be viewed as plural by nature, which makes it a rich domain of human functioning: art is all of the above and more.

These examples are symptomatic for how confusion on different valuable qualities of the arts cloud the discussion on how to appreciate the arts in the lives of human beings. To address this in a more integrated fashion, I distinguish three types of value. First, the arts have intrinsic or ultimate value, as they provide expressions or situated manifestations of themes regarding what it means to be a human being, for instance in terms of cultural identity. This resonates the phrase: art for art’s sake. Second, the arts construct (new) meanings of being in the world and therefore spark reflection, deliberation and social change regarding what it means to be a human being among human beings. This is sometimes also referred to as the socio-epistemic value of the arts (Sherman & Morrissey, 2017). Third, the arts function as instrumental means to obtain something that human beings regard valuable, e.g. cognitive development, creative problem-solving, enjoyment or pleasure, or even, for that matter, economic gains. For instance, in social work it is common practice to apply art-based methods to enhance collaborative qualities in a group. Debates on high and low art in policy notwithstanding, I do not regard these benefits as normatively hierarchical. However, regardless the nature of the benefits we refer to, they represent valuable and desirable aspects.

It should be noted, however, that even in a highly urbanized cultural context, opportunities for these specific art-induced beings and doings are not equally distributed: although art objects and artistic manifestations may physically be available in populous areas, there are many personal and contextual factors that influence whether people have the capabilities to experience art (e.g. availability of the art products or manifestations, art education) and whether they are indeed able to convert these capabilities into valued beings and doings. Therefore, if the arts contribute to living a life one values but access to the arts is unequally distributed, there is scope for social action and thus a capability account of the arts may provide a useful framework to engage that issue. The purpose of this paper is to explore how far we can get if we apply capabilitarian thinking to the arts as a manifestation of the lives of human beings.

In this presentation, I will first flesh out the rationale for a capability account of the arts as sketched above. Following that I will develop and specify these ideas further, using the modular framework proposed by Robeyns (2017) to systematically construct a capability account of the arts. Finally, based on this account I will outline the scope for social action by discussing its relevance for social work in urban contexts, arts education and arts therapies in particular and public policy on the arts in general.

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