Art is a Measure of Society’s Success

The School of Athens.

The School of Athens.

As an advocate of the arts I often look in to academic studies that champion their cause. Recently I came across a compelling case in Harvard’s Project Zero for valuing art for art’s sake in educational systems, particularly because linking art in the classroom to the success of other subjects is not keeping art in the classrooms during hard times. Rather than tying the value of the arts to other subjects, such as suggesting that an education in music will benefit math skills, the authors of Harvard’s Project Zero claim that we should focus on art’s unique and intrinsic value. Art is necessary for its own contributions as stated by Project Zero’s authors:

The arts have been around longer than the sciences; cultures are judged on the basis of their arts; and most cultures and most historical eras have not doubted the importance of studying the arts. … The reason is simple. The arts are a fundamentally important part of culture, and an education without them is an impoverished education leading to an impoverished society. Studying the arts should not have to be justified in terms of anything else. The arts are as important as the sciences: they are time-honored ways of learning, knowing, and expressing. (p. 3)

A lack of culture and an impoverished society; a big claim to make for the arts but a claim that is not without merit. In order to see what Project Zero might be referring to, let’s turn back the clock to 1943 when the motivational theory of aspirational psychologist Abraham Maslow first went to print.

Hierarchy Of Needs

Hierarchy Of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a pretty familiar term in the circles of human developmental psychology, but for those of us not well versed in psychology it boils down to this: Maslow classified five levels of human needs that determine how successful an individual or a society is. These levels start with physiological needs, move to safety, love and belonging, and then expressions of esteem, before capping it all off with self-actualization. Self-actualization is a psychological term for the need within us all to express ourselves purely as individuals. Maslow’s work also documented trends in humans. They tend to organize their needs into a hierarchy, in which, as one level is satisfied enough an urge to move to another level begins to form on its own.

So what does all this have to do with the value of art? Maslow’s case states that when all other needs are adequately met, then the need to self-actualize begins to burn. It’s unavoidable, in fact. “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be.” In which case a society or a culture that is capable of placing focus on the need to express themselves creatively is more than just a crowning achievement, it is an inevitability.

Healthy societies are often overflowing with examples of artistic capability because of this basic human need. Maslow has some more to say:

Another important point is that there is a basic difference between expressive behavior and coping behavior (functional striving, purposive goal seeking). An expressive behavior does not try to do anything; it is simply a reflection of the personality. A stupid man behaves stupidly, not because he wants to, or tries to, or is motivated to, but simply because he is what he is. The same is true when I speak in a bass voice rather than tenor or soprano. The random movements of a healthy child, the smile on the face of a happy man even when he is alone, the springiness of the healthy man’s walk, and the erectness of his carriage are other examples of expressive, non-functional behavior.

In other words, these levels of functioning are not something people fake or just get by with. A truly creative individual, or a society for that matter, is what it is. It’s imperative that a healthy society gets to a point where it’s citizens concern themselves with debates over rose gardens. Some of us flippantly call this ‘first world problems’ but Maslow would argue that such problems define the highest aspirational levels of a flourishing society full of creative individuals. Those individuals are functioning at their highest octave.

So based on many of Maslow’s observations, there may be a case for art’s intrinsic value made in Project Zero. Maslow comments, “It is quite true that man lives by bread alone — when there is no bread. But what happens to man’s desires when there is plenty of bread and when his belly is chronically filled?”

The average human begins to fill new hungers that transcend the hunger for bread. People then start thinking of where to go next rather than focusing on what is necessary and in front of them.

The value of the arts is reflected in the top of the pyramid. If the pyramid reflects the aspirational success of a society then art is the gilded capstone; art is the proof that we have found success, transcended basic needs and finally have a capacity to give in many forms.