Posted by: Liz Massey | November 11, 2007

Spinach, cupcakes and good medicine: what is art’s true value?

The University of Southern California’s alumni magazine recently ran two short articles that ask really important questions about the value of the arts, indeed of any creative endeavor, focusing on two key areas: one, are works of art inherently uplifting for both the creator and the audience of the works?; and two, what is the place of arts/humanities assignments in the education of professionals in medicine, engineering and other sciences?

In “Is art really good for you?” writer Diane Krieger asks in her introduction:

Is it (art) like spinach? Wholesome, if not always appetizing? Or like cupcakes? Sinful empty calories? Then again, perhaps art is more like embroidery – eye-pleasing embellishment for the dull fabric of our lives.
If the arts were these things alone, there wouldn’t be much reason either to promote them or to ban them. But, as we know, they can be much more. They can be heat-seeking missiles that wreak death and destruction.

Despite looking at how art’s long history as the plaything of the cultural elite, and its “failure” after being being “democratized” in the 19th Century to prevent a citizenry from being created that was capable of atrocities such as the Holocaust, she ends on a more upbeat note. While acknowledging that creativity provides no inoculation against evil, and can actually promote malevolent values under the right circumstances, she quotes USC English Professor Hilary Schor as saying, “The Greeks were right: There is terror at the heart of great art; It makes you doubt the world. But in daily life, do I still believe in it? Absolutely.”


The second article, “Art for science’s sake,” gives a brief look inside several programs that are weaving arts and humanities based assignments into the curriculum for students at the university’s Keck School of Medicine. Some of the programs are more along the typical exposure-and-discussion route with plays, poetry and other works of art, but the Program in Medical Humanities, Arts and Ethics requires students to produce a creative project during their third year of medical school related to their Family Medicine clerkship.

“They write stories and reflections,” says Pamela Schaff, a Keck faculty member and facilitator of the program, who in her spare time is working on a Ph.D. in English and creative writing. “They paint paintings. Some have written songs. They’ve baked cakes.”

I found both these articles, which are sidebars for a longer article on USC’s attempts to bring more arts experiences to its student body, thought-provoking on a personal level.

As a creative person, I feel as if my attitude toward the value of art and creativity does influence both my motivation and the strength of my output. If I am either overly optimistic or pessimistic about my art’s ability to change my audience (and the world), I may encounter a host of roadblocks to its completion. Art can never be regarded as a panacea, but art-making involves meaning-making, and to deny oneself that because of the possible ill-consequences of the finished product is often the seed for a long period of feeling blocked.

Similarly, the medical school program demonstrates the value in “non-professionals” using creativity to integrate life experiences and evaluate their personal meaning. Creativity coaches work with a range of clients, from working artists to hobbyists just starting out, for this very reason.




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