What does Art have to do with Altruism?

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The Art Student by Norman Rockwell

It’s always a wonder why some people grow into bigger altruists than others. Maybe some of it has to do with the altruism of one’s parents, or maybe it’s a result of the company one kept as a young adult. I was happy to find this article by author Liz Dwyer in GOOD about a study by the University of Illinois that shows people who engage in the arts are more likely “to be civically engaged, socially tolerant, and altruistic.” Dwyer writes:

“Kelly LeRoux, an assistant professor of public administration at UIC who is the principal investigator on the study, says their data analysis found a high correlation between the arts and altruistic actions—like donating blood, donating money, giving directions, or doing favors for a neighbor—that place the interests of others over the interests of self, and civic activities like volunteering and being involved in organizations and politics.”

I’m curious now to know why there is this link between art and altruism. What does art teach us about giving to others? I grew up studying art in various capacities- drawing when I was little, taking intensive art classes in high school, and finally studying photography in college- but truthfully always considered it a very introspective, personal time. Engaging with art was rarely, if ever, an activity to be done with others. You don’t usually paint with a group, edit on Photoshop with a partner, or write an art history thesis paper with someone else.

So what is it then about the arts that breeds altruism? I don’t have a very good answer to this, but I do have some ideas. As I said, artistic activities tend to ask one to do some deep introspection. When seeing a play, how often we do imagine ourselves as the characters on stage, wondering what this story means to our lives? Or when drafting a new drawing, how long does it take to think about which life experiences you will choose to draw into this piece, you will choose to expose to the public in this piece? Will you spend several minutes, hours, or weeks contemplating?

As you engage with the arts you must question yourself and the world, and what you are going to do with that world- what you will show to it and how you will do so. I can say with great certainty that most kids aren’t thinking “who am I?” in the most explicit sense every time they create a new painting for their grandmother, or when they audition for the lead in the high school musical. But without knowing it, these same kids are indeed dealing with these deep questions of life, and maybe this in turn makes them just a bit more altruistic.

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