Slow down with those numbers.

For the record:

  • I believe that going out can have a positive effect on a persons life.
  • I believe that going out to meaningful and delightful things should be part of peoples lives.
  • I believe a function of art might be ease alienation without denying complexity or difference.
  • I belive the simplifying tendancy of lobbying is part of what’s broken in democracy.
  • I would really like to have a semi-public conversation about this. Especially with researchers who can dissuade me.

Over the past few weeks the Canadian arts twitter and facebook-verse has been full of studies.

Despite agreeing with the broad goals of all this excitement, I have a compulsion to ask about the studies, and have doubts about the methodology of lobbying / cheerleading. Part of the blame should be on my listening to Thinking, Fast and Slow which I’d recommend to anyone who wants to reflect on how statistical thinking is not something we’re good at. (Other interesting things in the book too.)

Here are the flags that go up for me –

Definition of terms:
As an artist working on an edge of the mainstream, I don’t feel bouyed by the tourism numbers or the broad questions about supporting “arts” and “culture”. The 22% of overnight tourists who come to Ontario for “culture” are coming to already very large events (the marketing budget required to reach / appeal to out of towners pretty much gurantees that.) If funding priorities were to shift to maximize the Return On Investment, I don’t think the DIY/indie arts are going to do so well. I also have questionns about whether, when asking about support or participation in culture, how many people were thinking about the Rhubarb Festival and how many were thinking about the Strawberry Festival. Both of these things have value, both are culture but they are very different.

Seeing only what we want to:
There are a lot of stats – and framing of those stats – in these reports that don’t get tweeted or put in headlines. For example: 42% of people who attend arts events don’t think those events are good. (“In terms of arts and cultural events, just over half rated the number (53%) and quality (58%) positively” – Heritigage ) All lobbyists do this kind of thing, and when we agree with the position of the lobbyist, we let it slide.

Association is not causation:
Men who report going to more culture also report being less anxious and depressed. AND Men who report being less anxious and depressed also report going to more culture. Both of these can be taken from the Norwegian study. An arguement might then be – we should help men be less depressed, because then they’ll go to more culture. I know I go out more when I’m less depressed. Going out to ANYTHING may improve my mood. Canadian content or artistic excellence are less a concern – socializing and disruption of negative patterns are doing the heavy lifting. Given that for 42% the experience of culture isn’t good, perhaps this effect is happening despite the art, not because of it.

Biggest Flag

Impact of Priviledge:
Personal experience tells me that I feel less depressed and anxious when I have some extra money in the bank account. Also that I’m more likely to buy a ticket for something and go out. To not take the impact of social class and social capital into account seems like a desturbing blind spot, and yet I never see it talked about. I want break downs by reported income and education. I bet those numbers would make me feel pretty shitty about who culture is for.

My personal response to this is to think about ways to work as a citizen to decrease poverty and raise the standard of living and education for the most people. I support Guaranteed minimum income and free undergraduate education. I’m not great at being the activist I wish I was, and worry that by wanting lofty goals I don’t work the steps inbetween.

But I don’t think we should be left off the hook on this stuff because our goals are lofty.

More less sexy quotes:

Conclusion:This population-based study suggests gender-dependent associations between cultural participation and perceived health, anxiety, depression and satisfaction with life. The results support hypotheses on the effect of cultural activities in health promotion and healthcare, but further longitudinal and experimental studies are warranted to establish a reliable cause–effect relationship. – Norwegian Health Study

Turning to education and income, arts and heritage attendance as well as personal involvement in artistic activities increased with respondents’ level of educational attainment and their annual household income. In addition, university graduates and respondents from higher income households were more apt to hold positive attitudes toward arts and culture, attribute importance to the arts in terms of quality of life, and feel their local arts and heritage facilities contribute a lot to quality of life in their community. – Heritage Survey p iii.

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