The Benefits of Cultural Funding

In a reversal of the Bush years and later Clinton years, President Barack Obama has shown a firm commitment to the arts as a societal good.

He has brought musicians of all sorts to the White House for performances and educational sessions, as well as backing $100 million in new cultural funding. In addition, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities have received their largest allocations of federal money in 16 years.

Jim Leach, the former Iowa Republican representative and head of the humanities endowment has championed arts spending by arguing that public money spent on the arts and humanities helps “to bring perspective to issues of the day.” However, a new study from Norway of nearly 50,000 people suggests that cultural engagement may have a more direct positive impact on members of the public.

As summarized at ScienceDaily, according to researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology,

[i]f you paint, dance or play a musical instrument—or just enjoy going to the theatre or to concerts—it’s likely that you feel healthier and are less depressed than people who don’t . . . .

. . .

“There is a positive relationship between cultural participation and self-perceived health for both women and men,” says Professor Jostein Holmen, a . . . researcher who presented the findings, which have not yet been published . . . . “For men, there is also a positive relationship between cultural participation and depression, in that there is less depression among men who participate in cultural activities, although this is not true for women.”

In the study, the researchers controlled for socioeconomic status, social capital, chronic illness, and smoking and alcohol use, among other factors.

For lovers of the arts, all of this is promising. Still, the verdict is out on whether Obama will truly be a “culture” president. His administration ran into trouble earlier this year when an official at the arts endowment, Yosi Sergant, encouraged artists to focus their work on assisting Obama’s agenda on health care, education, and the environment. This led the White House to issue guidance to agencies to be firm in not allowing politics to play a part in public grants. (For those who are interested, in a previous op-ed in the Washington Post, I considered the dangers that powerful non-governmental entities—particularly corporations—pose to the independence of art.)

We shall see what 2010 brings.

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