12/04/2012 02:00 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2013

The Aesthetics of Civil Society

University of Illinois Chicago political scientist Kelly LeRoux (who got her PhD at Wayne State University here in the D) and co-author Anna Bernadska recently published a study, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, that shows a positive correlation between participation in the arts and engagement with civil society. They analyzed more than 2,700 respondents to the 2002 General Social Survey, conducted biannually by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and generally considered one of the primary sources of data on American social trends. Their analysis found that people who have direct or indirect involvement with the arts are more likely to also have direct participation in three dimensions of civil society: engagement in civic activities, social tolerance and other-regarding (i.e., altruistic) behavior. These results hold true even when factoring in demographic variables for age, race and education.

Most studies on the social impact of the arts address economics and related externalities such as improved educational outcomes and general community well-being. (See, for example, the work of Ann Markusen of the Project on Regional and Industrial Economics at the University of Minnesota summarized in my blog post here.) The study by LeRoux and Bernadska is different in that it empiricially investigates ties between the arts and citizenship. Instead of seeking a market rationale for arts patronage, the authors stress the benefits for civic virtue. The study is also noteworthy because rather than looking at the direct impact of community and other arts projects, it takes an audience-studies approach more typically associated with media and communications analysis.

It's important to note that the authors demonstrate correlation, not causation. In statistics, correlation establishes the dependence of certain variables on one another, which is useful in predictive modeling. But the relationship, either positive (the more of one variable, the more of the other) or negative (the more of one variable, the less of the other), doesn't necessarily mean that the one is necessarily the cause of the other. There may be other factors (called intervening variables) at work not measured in the analysis. While that may be the case, the study is still useful in suggesting additional ways in which the arts benefit society.

Not the least of these is the development of the critical function, which is fundamental to the development of discourse and consensus on matters of common concern within in the public sphere, which civil society theorists see as key to a viable, participatory democracy. Indeed, German social scientist and political philosopher Jurgen Habermas in his important study, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (MIT: 1991 [1962]), cites the development of the field of literary criticism and aesthetics over the roughly 150-year period in Europe starting in the late 17th century as laying the groundwork for citizens to think independently and thus reflect upon their role in society and ultimately act as political agents. More recently, French philospher Jacques Ranciere in books such as The Future of the Image (Verso: 2009) Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (Continuum: 2010), The Emancipated Spectator (Verso: 2011), and has established the link between aesthetic practice and political action.

This also explains why anti-democratic forces in American society have worked so hard, starting with the so-called Culture Wars of the 1980s, to eliminate public funding for the arts. It turns out, that apparently Big Bird really is a subversive.