“The human soul needs actual beauty more than bread.” ~ D. H. Lawrence


It makes me crazy at Art Sanctuary to have to justify arts in the inner city by showing how it helps raise other indicators of community health.  But I do it.  We all do it. Thank goodness for data from places such as UPenn’s Social Impact of the Arts (SIAP), that quantify what they call “links between cultural engagement and community well-being.”

A U.S. Department of Ed/National Endowment of the Arts study claims that a majority of Americans believe that children need to study and practice the arts, and lays out some documented correspondences: drama improves literacy; music helps math; dance improves reading readiness. Performance of music or dance, as opposed to study of the content area, helps children overcome fear and gives them opportunities to succeed.  Arts practice gives them social skills, makes them better students, better workers.

Last week, I was fortunate to meet folks brought to Philadelphia to share best practices in this area.  The A+ Schools Program uses arts centrally in every subject area to make the school more interactive, with richer assessment, more professional development as teachers innovate to reach kids who learn differently, and with test score improvement without sacrificing balanced curriculum. The MacPhail Center for the Arts in Minneapolis serves more than 4,000 students and clients through specially tailored partnerships. Beauty-fulI. Kept thinking that we should rename it McSucess.

As a small arts organization used to figuring out how to have the largest and deepest impact we can, Art Sanctuary will study these and other great models for using art as core learning practice and set of subjects.  Just thinking about them, however, has given me leave to think about how much our children need beauty.

They need it.  We do.  Not only because it will help us count better, but because we hunger for it from our deepest psyche to our grumbling gut to our loftiest mind. Given a chance to choose the beads for their hair, little girls will contemplate shape and color all week.  We sing over and over a musical phrase because it reaches down and dips out another tablespoon of grief after a loved one’s death.  We pierce and tattoo and dance and read and write and spit and draw and videotape and edit and tell stories, and build buildings, and prune shrubs and Puli pups.

We lie because it seems artful, and then we beg for truth, because it is so beautiful that we ache for it.

For most of my life, I’ve been justifying living in writing and the arts, even to myself.  It’s why it was so hard for me to leave sciences to major in English. But each time some radio talk show host asks my why I wrote this or that book, and what I want people to get from it, I know it again.  I wrote it because I needed to create something beautiful.  I want people to take in the prose, the story, the characters, the structure, the punctuation, the sex, the jokes, the rage, the hope—as beauty. Does it help me run an organization better?  Of course.

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