Mon | Feb 20, 2017

Art a powerful force in society

Published:Tuesday | March 5, 2013 | 12:00 AM


There has been some recent discussion about the contribution which the arts can make to national development. But it should be borne in mind that the relation between art and society is a very complicated question and one which, in my view, has not been sufficiently studied. There are, however, a number of perspectives which I think can help to focus the discussion.

On the one hand, there is the view that the flourishing of the arts is a consequence of economic development. This view is close to the Marxist argument that it is the economic base of society that determines social relations and superstructural features such as art, morality, religion, and so on.

On the other hand, there is the view that changes in the arts create new feelings in a society, and that these new feelings influence social, economic and political developments.


On the surface, it seems obvious that works of art can be seen as commodities which can be produced, traded and exported, and so add to the wealth of individuals and societies. On this view, it is market forces that determine their value.

If the concept of art is widened to include not only traditional forms such as literature, film, music, visual art and theatre, but also all forms of design, media, architecture and so on, and if the increasing importance of intellectual property in the wealth of modern nations is borne in mind, it becomes clear that art can be a powerful force in the social and economic life.

At the same time, it is extremely important not to lose sight of those older, and perhaps even more fundamental, values which are shared by virtually all societies on earth, and which cannot be easily translated into obvious social and economic value.

Anthropologists have never found a society without art. They have concluded that man has an innate aesthetic sense which is biologically determined. It is by the exercise of this sense that he creates works of art which symbolise social meanings and values which help to give the community its sense of identity, and which contribute enormously to its self-respect.

Artist's creative power

The creative power of the artist becomes a metaphor for national development. In short, art becomes a spiritual asset to a nation. By 'spiritual', I mean not only the religious - although it may include this - but of the things of the mind, and all forms of self-transcendence towards whatever values one perceives as bigger than oneself.

In the case of countries like Jamaica and many other colonial societies, the normal exercise and flourishing of the aesthetic sense were blunted and distorted by the experiences of dislocation, enslavement and colonial domination.

So it is not at all surprising that the flourishing of the arts coincided with the national movement here. It was, and continues to be, a way of reclaiming a part of our humanity which was historically distorted and suppressed.

C.L.R. James once argued that art and sport are overlapping concepts, for sportcan be seen as one of the performing arts. So we need to see the achievements of Bob Marley and Usain Bolt, and all our artists and sporting heroes, not only as economic but also as spiritual assets.