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The Developmental Case for Art

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The Developmental Case for Art

Robbie Swale

I can remember where I was when, for the first time consciously, I realised why art matters. Not why it is great, not why it is fun, but why it is fundamental to the growth, prosperity and happiness of our society and our word.

It was in the Studio at York Theatre Royal in mid-2012, but we'll get to that.

That year, 2012, I had recently been listening to the amazing (and free) Waking Up the Workplace interview series. I was a year late to the series, despite the fact that one of the three people who created it was my brother. There are many inspiring interviews in the series, which challenged how I think about business and how I think about work, and the series was an early part of the path which led me to the work I do today.

In the middle of Waking Up the Workplace, amongst the more accessible interviews (check out Tony Schwarz and Derek Sivers for easy and inspiring ways in), is a mini-series about adult development. As a newcomer to even the idea of adult development, I got lost in the different academics who had researched it, their different theories and structures, and in the sometimes slightly monotonous delivery. But it stuck with me. I’ve noticed that often the most dense content I read or try to learn about is the content which stays with me the longest. The most difficult things to take in end up being the things which I check my understanding of the world against, and which I talk to others about. For those of you who already know a lot about adult development, forgive the following potted history which will be useful for those who don't. (And for everyone who can, please forgive simplification and any small errors!)

Until relatively recently – about 60 years ago – the widely-held view was that children were just little adults who had a lot to learn. Then Jean Piaget realised that children were more than just adults who didn’t know much, but in fact that as they grew they went through various stages: as children grew up their brains, minds and consciousness developed, and they made meaning out of the world in different ways. Their perceptions changed through various stages, and then reached a point, and were done. At the time, the theory was that the adult mind didn't change. Once you were in early adulthood, about 18-20, you were a full adult, your brain was finished, and you couldn't get any better than that; in fact, you went downhill from there! It was only in the 1980s that a different view began to emerge, and research began in earnest into the field of Adult Development: that in fact adults' minds continue to develop, through further series of stages that are – essentially – the same for everyone. And here's the biggest learning that came to me through those interviews on Waking up the Workplace: that the common thread through all these stages of development – child and adult – is the development of our sense of perspective.

An early shift, for a baby, is when it realises that the toe it puts in its mouth is a part of it. Another is that the large finger it sucks on (perhaps belonging to a parent) isn't a part of it. And later, that there is more than just it and not it, that there are a variety of others in the world. There's a famous experiment by Piaget where children are given a cube with different colours on each side. Children of a certain age can't understand that the person sitting opposite them isn't seeing the same colour they can see, despite having seen the all the different colours on the cube. And then, at a later age, children understand that the other person doesn't necessarily see the same thing they do: they can imagine themselves in that person's shoes, seeing the other side of the cube. Their sense of perspective has developed.

And, as time progresses as an adult, our continuing development gives us a greater and greater sense of perspective. And this isn't a theory which doesn't matter, which is academic and has no place in the real world. A sense of perspective – of what's happening for someone else – is what holds our societies together. While the people on the other side of the battle lines aren't people, while they're just other, then there is no moral question about what sort of war you fight. While the woman in the bar is just an object, then it doesn't matter how you look at her, or speak to her. When she's a person – perhaps a sister, like your sister, or a daughter, like your daughter – then how she is spoken to matters a great deal. While the politicians for the other party are evil bastards looking out for themselves, you can hold up banners about chopping their heads off. When you understand that they're people, doing their best, then even joking about beheading them for their political beliefs is really quite abhorrent.

The sense of perspective, of what it's like to be someone else, is where so many of the great ideas of our age come from. The desire to lift the last 10% of the world population out of extreme poverty and beyond comes because we can imagine what it must be like to live in those conditions. The idea of universal access to education comes from a sense of perspective: it's not about me or you, it's about 'that child over there deserves an education, even if that child is nothing to do with me'.

I've never been to war. I've never been near a war zone. And yet I know that the less war we have in the world the better. Because I can imagine it. I can imagine the trenches in the first world war, and the pain of your child never coming home. I can imagine the bombs going off, and put myself in the shoes of the person on the other side of the world, right now, hiding from explosions, or bullets. And it makes me shudder.

I don't remember the show that I was watching in the Studio in York in 2012. I went there a lot, and watched such a wide range of productions, professional and amateur, new, modern and classic. I remember where I was sitting, though, looking across from the middle row, in the corner, towards the exit, when I realised what was happening right in front of me as the actors spoke and the story unfolded: my sense of perspective was growing. I was seeing – so clearly – things from someone else's point of view. And then someone else's. And then someone else's. With my awareness of adult development raised, I could suddenly almost feel myself developing. And then I could feel the other people in the room, and I thought 'Wow, what a thing this is, where one hundred people sit in a room together, and have their perspectives expanded.' What a privilege to live in a world where this is what we do together.

We learnt in a report by the AHRC last year that art doesn't necessarily do what we say it does. It doesn't necessarily regenerate rundown inner-city areas, or increase attainment in standardised tests, or some of the other common ‘demonstrable outcomes’. But no one can deny that it is valuable. Anyone who loves an artform can tell you it is. People will give different suggestions of the value, for those creating and consuming the art. I have personally felt many of them: the sense of community, the increased self-confidence, the joy in watching or creating. The laughter, the tears.

But in all of these - in the increased confidence, and the sense of community, in the observation and creation, in the laughter and the tears – the underlying change is that our perspectives are growing. You can’t learn the lines for a play without putting yourself that bit more in someone else’s shows. You can’t dance a character, or paint a person, without thinking about them more than you normally would.

No one can listen to Creep without feeling the pain and loneliness of the outsider, the twisting anxiety of love, and whether it will be requited. No one can read Harry Potter without understanding the importance of family, whether biological or the other kinds of families - friendships, brotherhoods and sisterhoods - which are a part of our deepest needs. No one can watch The Wire without leaving with not only a deeper understanding of life in the projects and Baltimore PD, but above all a general sense that there are no 'goodies' or 'baddies', there are just people, living their lives.

We see every day the reasons why increased perspective is necessary. Why seeing things from more people's points of view is important. We see it in everything from the incredible polarisation in modern politics, to the twisting arguments in our intimate relationships, which leave those involved and those around them carrying all manner of scars.

There are many reasons why art is important. There is joy in it, the unbridled joy of dancing with abandon, of being part of a crowd of tens of thousands of people, all singing a sweeping chorus together. Of stepping out onto a stage, or into a recording studio, and letting things out of you.

The joy, the creativity, the relationships that can be built, the skills that are developed. These and many more are reasons why we love art and culture. But the modern imperative for us is that art develops the ability to see alternative perspectives in people like almost nothing else can. It is a fundamental part of the way people make sense of the perspectives of others. And it is the development of our collective consciousness, our collective ability to understand each other, and all that follows from that, which make art not just important, but vital. 

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This article first appeared on LinkedIn, on 19th April 2017.