Understanding the value of the arts

The common misconception around art is that its value is reserved entirely for the wealthy and elite. This because, over the years, there has been a stronger emphasis on the intrinsic value of art that is consumed by few in private spaces, making it exclusive and out of reach for ordinary individuals to enjoy and even relate to. But art, when made accessible and located in the broader context of public culture, also has an instrumental value in that it has the potential to stimulate broad growth.

In a country such as ours where there are many competing interests, whether social, political, economic or cultural, it is important to appreciate the instrumental role art can play in creating platforms for understanding and mutuality. In essence, the underlying instrumental value of art is its ability to educate, and promote tolerance and innovation in the most profound ways. This instrumental role, of course, is when art, with its intrinsic value, enters the public realm and opens channels of discourse for broader social benefit.

It is for this reason the National Arts Council (NAC) takes a view of the arts in a multifaceted way, where we recognise and support the arts in terms of disciplines ranging from craft, dance and literature to theatre, visual arts and music. We believe that in order for the arts to take their rightful place in stimulating socioeconomic development, not only in South Africa but across the continent, their intrinsic and instrumental value must be articulated simultaneously, and supported and promoted effectively to realise their true potential to inspire innovation. Once this is achieved, we will notice the far-reaching implications for positive and sustainable growth.

When we view culture as the bedrock of national economic development, we open a world of possibilities for identifying opportunities and linkages that would, in fact, transcend national borders and allow us to fully capture the essence of what it means to be living in a “global village”. This is vital for the youth – especially since Africa is seen as a “young continent” with a growing population – in that recognising the importance of culture and locating artistic expression within it, not just for the sake of expression but for socioeconomic growth and development, would enable them to think more acutely about leadership through creativity and innovation.

Art promotes grit and perseverance, two key ingredients for effective leadership. In addition, the platform for critical thinking and interrogation provided by art encourages robust, considered and constructive responses to the many challenges faced by leaders. In this sense, participants in the arts gain confidence to lead as they present their ideas and concepts for interrogation and constructive criticism, while tacitly agreeing to be active and engaged listeners. In this mix, participants in the arts learn the very important lesson that achieving anything is only possible through working together and integrating thought and action for positive outcomes.

Once art is understood as a means of enhancing value chains, not only economic but political, social and developmental, we’ll realise its potential to forge a platform for unity and, in turn, regional and global integration that leads to widespread social coherence and a deepened understanding of our needs and aspirations. Hence, the returns of supporting the arts are immeasurable, not only in terms of financial or economic gain, but in the many intangible benefits they have for the present and the future.

In more practical and immediate terms, there is also a need to diversify African economies through the continent’s vast pool of artistic and cultural talent. In this regard, multidisciplinary art festivals such as the NAC-supported National Arts Festival in Grahamstown provide platforms for artists to showcase their talent to broad audiences and engage in the crucial mix of art as a multidimensional enabler for change and growth in the economies of commerce, ideas and innovation.

The NAC, through its mandate and enabling legislation as well as guidance from ground-breaking documents such as the National Development Plan and the African Union’s Agenda 2063, aims to enhance the intrinsic and instrumental value of art in a manner that promotes harmony and tolerance. A salient feature of our mandate and guiding principles is the creation of regional synergies and greater coordination between the creative and cultural sectors.

An integrated Africa, where there is a freer flow of ideas, information, knowledge, commerce and attractive investment opportunities, is the outcome of harmonised policy whereby the arts are mainstreamed as part and parcel of economic growth.

Rosemary Mangope, CEO, National Arts Council