This is not true. The arts are in inert thing, in some ways just a tool (God, I can hear every great thinker and maker spinning in their grave while I type!). They have no inherent positive value. We tend to talk about them the way you talk about multivitamins or the odd detox – just in general accepted to be good idea and good for you, so dabble every now and again.
Firstly, it’s not the fact that it’s the arts that makes a young person’s experience positive, enriching and educational – it’s the fact that it’s high quality. There is a huge difference between an expertly led experience in an artform, (one that pushes, stretches and encourages you, one that allows you find new meaning and new parts of yourself and is positive, joyous and changes you in the process) and filling in colour by numbers photocopies. They are not the same thing and to consider both as arts access for young people is like saying reading the Argos Catalogue and reading To Kill a Mockingbird are the same thing because both provide an engagement with text.
Secondly, they take on the values we ascribe to them. We can bend them for our purpose. So we should be really, really clear and careful in our purpose. I am thinking about how different artforms have been used by ruling powers to promote a particular agenda for as long as we’ve been organising in communities. We use the arts to communicate the values of our chosing to young people. Those values can be really positive – teamwork, goal setting, resilience, lifeskills… but they are still our values, we decided they were positive and we impose them. This is not necessarily a negative thing, but we should be aware that we’re doing this.
When people talk about how young people deserve to access and to participate in the arts in their families, schools and communities (and they do), we should be a little bit clearer what we mean. For me, this means we agree that one type of engagement is not the same as another, and that what children and young people deserve is high quality access and participation, and that we realise that in the transaction we have our own agenda, this access does not come without strings attached. We are the gatekeepers. We need to think about sharing power better.
Image Credit: Young performers from Errigal Groove Orchestra (Donegal) at the National Youth Arts Showcase 2013