The Social Impact of the Arts

Eleanora Belfiore and Oliver Bennett

The book describes the context of the research as constituted of: the orthodoxy amongst arts advocates that art can transform lives; the large scale of government investment in the arts and arts education; recent political commentary on the utility of the arts for the economy and national identity formation; the tainting of research on impacts by advocacy; and the recent “intrinsic versus instrumentalist” debate on the role of the arts in the UK. This is followed, in the first chapter, by an account of the epistemological foundation on which the authors base their exploration of the topic. They address the dangers of anachronism and Eurocentrism and, by adopting a “one past, many (true) histories” approach, aim to “demonstrate” that “accepted notions of the impacts … are based on dubious principles and beliefs”. They repeatedly emphasize the need for brevity and the impossibility of comprehensiveness.

The heart of the book is a series of chapters summarizing a “representative” sample of views about the impacts of the arts. These are arranged thematically: “corruption and distraction”; “catharsis”; “personal well-being”; “education and self-development”; “moral improvement and civilisation”; “political instrument”; “social stratification and identity construction”; and “autonomy of the arts and the rejection of instrumentality”. This “taxonomy of claims” is a rollercoaster ride through 2500 years of polemic, speculation and dispute in western cultural history, starting with Plato and Aristotle, on the origins of the positive and negative impact traditions.

Source: Book Review Text