Since early human history, art has been at the center of almost every culture, religion, and community. Whether that art takes the form of music, literature, illustration – it enriches the lives of people around the world. But in today’s society, little emphasis is placed on providing access to the arts for all. Instead, hobbies and careers like playing an instrument or painting are seen as activities of a higher class rather than something anyone can or could do. So much equipment, time, and effort is required and when art is increasingly unaffordable, fewer and fewer people endeavor to even attempt to take up most art forms. Granted, there are many work-arounds and alternatives to many art forms, but very few people receive their ideal or desired artistic expression. There needs to be a greater effort across the nation and the world to provide children and adults alike access to the arts in order for them to be able to reach their true artistic potential.
Before continuing, it is important to define art. The short answer would be any sort of expression of human imagination, emotions, and creativity. The conventional definition most individuals bring to mind when thinking of art is illustrations and paintings. However this definition is confining and invalidates so many other important forms of art. Art, to me, includes so much more, such as music, illustrations and painting, craftwork, film, television, and even programming. To recontextualize Justice Potter Stewart’s famous quote – “I know it when I see it.”
Art creation and engagement is important for a number of reasons. Studies have shown that art creation can aid with mental health issues. In 2017, the UK based charity Arts and Minds conducted weekly art workshops for those struggling with mental health problems like anxiety and depression. After these workshops, 71% and 73% of participants stated that they had decreased feelings of anxiety and depression respectively, and 76% felt as though their overall wellbeing had improved. Not only is artistic expression beneficial mentally, but so too is it socially. Art provides comfortable social settings for people to connect with each other in meaningful ways. It allows people to feel included and part of something larger than themselves.
Art consumption is a cultural touchstone in every society. In the United States, popular culture dominates much of the news cycle and public psyche. With the Internet and social media, artistic consumption, discussion, and criticism has never been more alive. According to a 2017 study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts, 74% of American adults said that they consumed art through online media. However, far fewer in the survey created or performed an art form, with only 54% engaging in their own artistic expression themselves. The most troubling statistic comes from the amount who claimed to have learned/engaged in a new art form. Only 17% stated that they informally learned a new art form, and only 9.5% stated that they took formal art lessons.
However, the most troubling statistic comes from a racial/ethnic breakdown in the survey. When participants were asked if they felt as though they had opportunities to engage with the arts, far less black and Hispanic people surveyed answered yes (see right figure).
These statistics are not only discouraging to aspiring artists, but also emblematic of a larger societal issue. Systematically, the United States does not provide easy outlets for minority voices to be heard and expressed, especially through art.
There is also the issue of artistic erasure. Throughout history, many cultures have seen much of their artistic traditions and customs destroyed by war and colonization. Many Native American tribes saw their craftwork exploited and disrupted by colonial settlers from European powers like England, France, and Spain. Their tribal land was either destroyed or taken over to make way for imperialism. With so many Native American cultures revolving around worshiping land, when entire Native cultures were destroyed, their ways of life and their art were lost to history.
Furthermore, modern day streaming services like Warner Brothers owned HBO Max have been slowly and quietly erasing much of their original content. Popular shows like Minx and Westworld have been canceled and removed from the platform without any explanation, the former of which having just wrapped filming its second season. Other Warner Brother’s productions like Batgirl, which would have featured popular and iconic characters in one the world’s largest franchises (DC) had the rug pulled out from under them after being fully shot and edited, simply because the company did not project major profit margins for the film’s planned release in December of 2022.
While it is easy to scoff at Batgirl’s cancellation – after all so much of popular culture is dominated by superhero productions – that isn’t the point. Countless people poured their time, hearts, minds, and souls into this project, only for it to never see the light of day. Regardless of the quality of the end result, it is shameful for a large corporation with an almost endless income to not release these completed productions and have them never be seen by anyone.
In our modern nation, art is not only a privilege to engage in and create for oneself, but is seen as less important than traditional societal expectations and norms like raising a family or finding a job or house. While none of these norms are mutually exclusive to art, they are seen as a priority, and those who fail to meet these expectations and instead pivot to other endeavors are seen as failures or outcasts. Furthermore, the work that goes into making a completed artistic production is simply not appreciated in our capitalist society where cash is king. Without access to the arts, people are being denied ways to express themselves in their own meaningful ways, and as such people will suffer mentally and socially. Providing and allowing space for artistic expression is critical to human life, and without it, we would be far worse off.