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Social Impact of the Arts

In 2004, the Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies was awarded a three-year Research Fellowship, funded jointly by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Arts Council England, in order to develop rigorous procedures for a better understanding of the social impact of the arts. The project started in November 2004, with Dr Eleonora Belfiore as the Research Fellow and Professor Oliver Bennett as Director. The research has been conducted with particular reference to poetry, the novel and theatrical performance.

The first stage of the research has resulted in a critical analysis of the claims made over time for the ways in which the arts can affect individuals and society. Entitled The Social Impact of the Arts: An Intellectual History, this extended analysis has been published as a book by Palgrave/Macmillan in 2008. Drawing on a wide range of literary, philosophical and political texts, from Classical Greece to the present day, the book identifies and explores both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ traditions of thinking about the arts. With chapters on corruption, catharsis, education and ‘art for art’s sake’, as well as a number of other key themes, the book examines the many different ways in which the value of the arts have been articulated. It suggests that an understanding of how certain ideas have evolved over time into commonplace beliefs is essential to any serious investigation of the place of the arts in modern societies. At the same time, it attempts to reconnect contemporary policy debates with a complex intellectual history, from which it is argued that these debates have become detached. An introduction to this study can be found in 'Rethinking the Social Impact of the Arts' in The International Journal of Cultural Policy, vol 13, no 2, 2007, 135-151

The second stage of the project has focused on the cognitive, psychological and socio-cultural dynamics that govern the aesthetic experience. This resulted in an extended paper, 'Determinants of Impact: towards a better understanding of encounters with the arts', which was published in Cultural Trends, vol 16, no 3, 2007, 225-275. It postulates that a better grasp of the interaction between the individual and the work of art is the necessary foundation for a genuine understanding of how the arts can affect people. Through a critique of philosophical and empirical attempts to capture the main features of the aesthetic encounter, the paper draws attention to the gaps in our current understanding of the responses to art. It proposes a classification and exploration of the factors – social, cultural and psychological – that contribute to shaping the aesthetic experience, thus determining the possibility of impact. The ‘determinants of impact’ identified are distinguished into three groups: those that are inherent to the individual who interacts with the artwork; those that are inherent to the artwork; and ‘environmental factors’, which are extrinsic to both the individual and the artwork. The paper concludes that any meaningful attempt to assess the impact of the arts would need to take these ‘determinants of impact’ into account, in order to capture the multidimensional and subjective nature of the aesthetic experience.

Read more about the Social Impact of the Arts 


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 Listen to a podcast of Dr Belfiore and Prof. Bennett discussing the book and its relevance for contempory cultural policy debates here