CHICAGO — If you are involved in the arts, either as a practitioner or a consumer (or both), you know that there are two competing images of yourself: the vicious backstabber, hungry for success at any cost (see Gallery Girls) and the basically nice person who believes in that old-fashioned idea that art makes you a better person. If you thought that the second picture was under threat, then you’ll be relieved to hear the good news from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where according to the results from a recent study, art really does make you nicer.
Kelly LeRoux, principal investigator on the study and assistant professor of public administration at UIC, based her conclusions on data from the General Social Survey. This is the study for the National Data Program for the Sciences that has tracked the social attitudes of 2,765 adults since the early 1970s.
LeRoux concentrated specifically on responses in the survey to arts-related questions, and matched them to the respondents’ attitude to civic engagement. Specifically, engagement in the arts was defined as taking part in any artistic activity, either as maker or as spectator. These were correlated to responses on socially-beneficial actions, such as participation in neighborhood, religious, social, professional, sports organizations and so on; and tolerance for things like gay-themed books in local libraries and racial tolerance. It turns out that you are more likely to do these altruistic things if you’re the sort of person who goes to concerts and art museums. Yay for the arts community!
“Even after controlling for age, race and education, we found that participation in the arts, especially as audience, predicted civic engagement, tolerance and altruism,” said LeRoux.
“If policymakers are concerned about a decline in community life, the arts shouldn’t be disregarded as a means to promote an active citizenry,” LeRoux said. “Our positive findings could strengthen the case for government support for the arts.” (Are you listening, Mr. Romney?) The data she worked with came from 2002, the most recent study containing arts-related responses. She intends to do the same thing when the 2012 data becomes available.