The Intrinsic Value of the Arts
When I was in graduate school, I was very intrigued by the work of the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and, specifically, his theory of flow. His theory posits that there are moments in our lives when we are so totally absorbed in the activity in which we are engaged, that we lose all sense of all else that surrounds us. We become one with what we are doing. Csikszentmihalyi described flow in an interview as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost.” This state is, to my mind, what happiness is about.
I thought often of flow when we were writing our report on the arts in expanded-time schools, Advancing Arts Education. In that study, we explain that there are two basic reasons why all children deserve to be engaged in quality arts education. The first is what is referred to as the instrumental aims. Rehearsing for a play or painting a picture or making a documentary film have the opportunity to teach children the value of hard work, of persisting to a job well done, and collaborating with colleagues. That is, “doing art” teaches certain habits of mind that are essential for a productive life.
But it is the second reason for arts participation that calls to mind the notion of flow—the intrinsic value. For many children (and adults, for that matter), engaging in the arts lifts spirits and deepens emotional lives. And, as we argue in the report, all children deserve to experience that sense of total absorption, that pure joy that painting or playing an instrument or acting can bring. Our education system would not be complete without opening up these opportunities for flow experiences to happen.
A similar theme emerges from The Wallace Foundation’s new report, Something to Say: Success Principles for Afterschool Arts Programs From Urban Youth and Other Experts. In this thorough and insightful report, researchers conducted hundreds of interviews with middle-school age children to learn what it is they sought from afterschool arts programs and, in turn, how providers can best develop programs to serve children’s needs. Among the findings, youth expressed interest in working with artists directly, in engaging in hands-on projects, and having a space that is physically and emotionally safe. To my mind, then, young people are expressing a yearning, even if they would not articulate in such terms, of having the opportunity for flow—for experiencing the arts as an emotionally satisfying activity, and one which draws its meaning by having no greater purpose than the activity itself.
The Wallace Foundation report highlights the fact, too, that the context in which these flow experiences happen is somewhat immaterial. They might happen in afterschool programs just as easily as they might in schools or in no formal program. What matters more is that all children—especially children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who, almost by definition, suffer more limited access to key resources and opportunities—deserve the chance to discover those moments, those settings, where they lose themselves to the pure joy of doing. As our nation’s founders understood, we have a fundamental right to “the pursuit of happiness.”