Failing, Resilience and the Intangible Benefits of an Arts Education

Tomorrow marks the end of Arts Education Week, and we are reminded to celebrate the contributions art makes to American culture. Passed by Congress in 2010, House Resolution 275 is intended to ally elected officials and educational policymakers with those pursuing equitable access to the arts for American students.

At a macro level there continues to be a problem with American society perceiving artists as non-essential. This is partially evidenced by continued debate over national funding for the arts. After the Trump administration threatened to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, a House appropriations committee voted to fund the agency with bi-partisan support, although the Senate has yet to weigh in. Funding challenges exist at the state level as well. In Illinois, a state notoriously plagued until recently by a crippling budget impasse, Arts Alliance Illinois held a public Gubernatorial Arts Forum with lawmakers on Sept. 11th to discuss the role of the arts, culture, and creativity in the state.

In this political climate, many supporters feel pressured to justify the importance of providing quality arts-rich education for children and creating a pipeline for the development of diverse professional artists through institutions of higher education.

Within the context of funding debates, the power of art as an economic driver is often invoked because in America we consistently equate value with dollars. According to a recent NEA report, in 2014 the arts and culture industry contributed nearly $730 billion to the U.S. economy.

Arts education proponents can also point to concrete data showing a connection between the study of art and academic achievement.

A 2014 report suggests that arts students are 29% more likely to apply to college than were non-arts students and arts students were 21% more likely than non-arts students to continue higher education two years past high school graduation.

These are all concrete and relatable benefits of quality arts programming, but as a dance educator with over twenty years experience in performance and education fields, I would warn that there is a danger in emphasizing the economic or academic achievement value of the arts over their intrinsic value. It can be argued that some of the skills and attributes developed through the study of art are even more valuable in today’s society than improvement in math and reading scores.

One aspect of an arts education that is often overlooked is in the area of risk and resilience. Of note, a recent New York Times article highlights a Smith College program called “Failing Well” as one of several university initiatives that attempts to reframe the concept of failure for high achievers. Artists are trained to fail well since many disciplines demand immediate responsiveness to direct feedback. For example, dancers are familiar with instructors or choreographers watching their performance and barking commands or corrections. Dancers are expected to process and manifest criticism physically within seconds. This requires intellectual and emotional agility as much as physical agility. For this reason, I often tell my dance students that one of the best things that they can develop (along with technical proficiency and their own voice) is a “thick skin”. Developing resilience is also useful when collaborating with others whose views differ from your own.

In a Harvard Business Review article, Harvard professor Amy Edmondson argues that within a business’ unsuccessful trials, there are rich opportunities for creative learning if leaders can overcome deep-seated norms that stigmatize failure and inhibit experimentation. Artists’ very willingness to be vulnerable and to take emotional, psychological, and sometimes-physical risks should set an example for those pursuing innovation and growth in any industry.

Risk and resilience also play into our ability to address social ills. Those who derive knowledge from art-making develop a positive sense of self as well as awareness of and empathy for others. Creating symbolism within a work of art can highlight our collective experiences as humans and inspire us to become agents of change in our society. The training of artists is a necessity in a healthy society because artists are often a disruptive force challenging authoritarianism and defying oppressive structures of power. The giving and receiving that occurs between artist and audience is a transformative process. When art produces strong emotional responses we are perhaps more receptive to confronting the ways racism, sexism, ableism, and xenophobia shape our world.

As a dance artist I have performed pieces that forced me, along with the audience, to confront underlying myths, values, and traditions in our culture. Those kinds of confrontations can inspire action and that is where art-making is most valuable.

The intangible benefits of an arts education can be difficult to articulate in a data driven environment, but if we can cultivate vulnerability and empathy, we can find trust and common ground. If we can find common ground, we can work together. If we can work together, we can solve problems.