Hearts and Minds: The Arts and Civic Engagement

November 20, 2018

Art has always drawn people together. Humans have made useful objects with aesthetic features for as long as 50,000 years. They evoked the animals they hunted 40,000 years ago in large, sophisticated paintings in cave locations that were special sites where the whole community gathered. Renaissance artists made images that inspired belief and told vital religious stories. Scientists are now probing how the arts may have offered evolutionary advantages to early humans and how the arts help us find meaning in the world by developing capacities to see and create patterns, solve problems, and invent and understand symbols and metaphors. The arts have played powerful utilitarian roles for individuals and for the societies in which they live for millennia.

For the last 250 years, though, “art for art’s sake” — the notion that commercial, utilitarian, moral, or didactic functions are distractions from art’s ineffable, intrinsic value as an expression of the artists’ vision — has been a prevailing philosophy in the world of culture. Does that suggest that the social benefits of art have diminished and eroded? Do the arts still play powerful utilitarian roles?

This report is an inquiry into one utilitarian role: the relationship between the arts and what social scientists generally refer to as civic or community engagement.

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