Question of the Day: Does a Lack of Exposure to the Arts Lead to Disaster?

(Photo: Eric Parker)

A reader named Matt Radcliffe writes:

I’ve been working on a project concerning musical theater performance. I have a hypothesis which seems intuitive enough to me — that a lack of exposure to creative arts can lead to disastrous results for individuals (lack of education, poverty, etc).

I can find a plethora of research that proves the opposite (exposure to creative arts can lead to success), but I can’t find anything towards my hypothesis.

While I wish I knew where even to start to conduct the experiment myself. I am not an economist or mathematician (theater, remember?).

I was wondering if you could post this as a question to your readers on the blog.

What do you have to say to Matt? I am just as interested in the first part of his query — that a “plethora of research proves” that exposure to creative arts can lead to success. I haven’t ready too widely on that topic but I have to say that what I have read isn’t all that convincing. It seems to me a classic area in which correlation is mistaken for cause — i.e., highly productive societies have a lot of creative arts; ergo (some may claim), the arts are a contributor to that high productivity (as opposed to, say, a side benefit that’s generated because of that high productivity).


I suspect it's an even simpler correlation: anyone employed in purveying X is pretty sure that X is essential to human flourishing. It's so obvious that the plethora of research proving it doesn't even require a cite.

Mike B

I believe you have answered your own question. By exposing yourself to the creative arts you are now less able to find the answer to a complex analytical question. Try exposing yourself to some more math and you might reach a conclusion on your own.


wasn't this topic directly addressed in the freakonomics book? i thought i remembered them finding that exposure to the arts (museums, etc) was not a significant predictor of improved school performance, etc. i guess the other factor is, what is the effect on societies vs individuals.


Exactly, the mere fact that you have parents/live in a community that tries to expose you to such stimuli means you will likely be a high-achieving individual. Its not what your parents do, it is who they are that matters.


Step one: Get real friendly with someone comfortable with econometrics.
My first thought would be to look at how school districts responded to No Child Left Behind, if you can identify schools that moved funding from the arts to standardized test prep, and still control for any preexisting trends, you might find something, but it seems like a tough question to answer.

Amanda Gustin

I work in museums, and as you can imagine, this is a pressing question for us, too.

You may want to look at the work of Reach Advisors, who have collected a great deal of data on the subject:


Consider sociological research tactics.

Eric M. Jones

"I can find a plethora of research that proves...exposure to creative arts can lead to success...."

I don't believe it for a second....although a proper study might be impossible to design. There seems to be an attitude that RETRO-creative arts is good for you. Let's see what out grandparents thought of as entertainment.

In Los Angeles there is a tiny place called the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Let's agree for the moment that there WAS no technology in the Jurassic, and that the museum doesn't HAVE anything from the Jurassic in it. Yet that museum shows that museums are just collections of interesting stuff. Nothing more. They have no super-special meaning.

Neither does opera nor any "musical theater" nor any plays, historic or contemporary. They do teach something about the "culture", but that's about it.

When movies were invented, play and opera houses closed by the tens of thousands. This is as it should be. When Google digitizes everything in the NY Public Library, you can close the doors, sell the lions and turn off the lights.

Call me a savage.



Not a savage ... just a writer of a comment on some random topic not particularly relevant to the discussion.

Jonathan Baker

I would think it depends on what arts you are talking about. Plato in the Republic suggested that the flute and flute music should be banned because it softens a people and renders them vulnerable. On the other hand Germany's frolic with Wagner did not do them any good in the 40's. String quartets serenaded those who entered the death camps.

It can be argued that today's poets are largely in advertising. Some of the great visual artists are industrial designers. Then there are the movies. The public has a massive exposure to wonderful design produced by artists. Whether it leads to success or failure depends on what you want to buy or sell.

It is all in the message. To modify McLuhan, "The Message is the Message" and will determine whether exposure to the art form promoting it is good or bad.

Walter Wimberly

Robie - if memory serves correct, the direct issue in the first Freakonomics book was that successful students had books in the house. So they wanted to send books to all children so they would be smarter, but the books were not the cause. It was that the parents valuing education, so they bought the books (and made sure they were used).

"Fine Art" was never pushed in my house. I've never been to an art museum, or theater outside of grade school requirements. However most people would say I've had a successful life (Master's degree, decent salary, etc.) I know many in my situation as well, so I think it would be challenging to find this seemingly intuitive statement to be true.


An anecdote that comes to mind is the suppression of art in Afghanistan under al Qaeda. I recommend looking up Andrew Solomon on the NYT or the Moth to hear about his journey to find cultural expression in post-Taliban Afghanistan. It's by no means natural experiment, but it was the first thing that came to might upon reading Radcliffe's hypothesis. Solomon offers no quantitative insight into what happens when artistic expression is severely limited, his references might be a good starting example of different "treatments" - the generation that knew art and were forced to give it up, those that grew up without it and later gained the right to expression, and those currently growing up with art.

Enter your name...

Official artistic suppression sometimes leads to enormous creativity. Some of the Soviet-era artists were justly celebrated for their ability to express themselves so brilliantly despite the pervasive censorship. It's possible that some of them would have been less effective if they had been in a free society, where nobody much cared what they had to say.


I can offer myself as one (admittedly anecdotal) data point showing that lack of exposure doesn't inevitably lead to disaster, or forestall a certain degree of success.

For a larger statistical sample, I'd suggest comparing the lives of people who grew up in urban environments (which provide at least the opportunity for ready access to creative arts), and those from remote rural areas.

Griffin E

I hate to be the endogeneity police, but . . .

Is exposure to the arts making people rich, or do rich people expose themselves more to the arts?

To answer the question you'd need an exogenous shock to art exposure (to low income families, let's say), and even if you had that, I doubt you would find an effect.

Second, what counts as exposure to the arts? Will taking an low income school to the Met once all of the sudden increase success? I imagine that even the artsiest people wouldn't believe that. You probably would need prolonged, exogenous exposure which seems impossible.

Interesting question. Probably won't even get answered.


Who is NOT "exposed" to "the arts" these days? Everyone has a radio and everyone sees television shows and movies. There's also art on office walls and billboards everywhere.

Perhaps YOU mean "study/learn" instead of "exposed" . . . and by "the arts" you mean theatre and art history and you mean playing musical instruments. No, you don't have a case that it's disastrous to not do those. In fact, the OPPOSITE . . . people who study those (exclusively) tend to NOT find good jobs easily. You're more "successful" if you study finance, or computer programming, or accounting . . . or ECONOMICS! ;)

Now, if someone lives where they are NOT "exposed" to ANY arts . . . they live in the backwoods without electricity and they never travel to town . . . then YES, that would lead to disatrous results.


Someone didn't study engineering in college. The college experience for engineers does not usually require them to participate in the arts at all, yet engineers routinely dominate the list of highest paid fields of undergraduate study.

Lenny Timons

I would say, you cannot have the arts without success. But there is probably little evidence of the inverse.

I say that because, unless your basic needs are met, you have little time for artistic or intellectual pursuits. If all your time is spent looking for food, or securing shelter (read: working to pay the rent), you have no time left to rewrite Hamlet or paint the next Mona Lisa. Artistic pursuit is only possible if your subsistence needs are met, to some level.

Matt Radcliffe

Thanks for posting the question! And thanks for all of your opinions.

I guess the question is pretty impossible to answer, as answers are probably going to be very anecdotal (some people are going to say arts changed their life and some are going to say they had no influence).

I still think that fostering arts in education and the community helps. Maybe the arts don't lead to success or disaster, but i think exposure for people (particularly live performance arts) can help foster creativity. (it's also possible (probable) I'm falling victim to the narrative fallacy and trying to add a level of importance to my work that doesn't really exist).


This is basically post hoc, ergo propter hoc. A follows B, therefore A causes B. Matt is making the same mistake those who offer things such as degrees in Creative Industries make. The see Silicon Valley, the Mass tech corridor, or even Pittsburgh and say, "Hey they have a thriving arts sector and booming economies. Therefore..."

As a side note , as a social scientist, I have a problem with any argument that contains the phrase "research that proves."