Art Works Blog

Taking Note: AEI President Arthur Brooks on Music & the Arts

Last June, at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado, American Enterprise Institute (AEI) President Arthur Brooks, an economist and former professional musician, presented “Life Lessons from the World’s Greatest Composers.” Available here, the talk regaled listeners with anecdotes and musical excerpts from composers who have been touchstones throughout Brooks’ life and philosophy, which emphasizes the importance of perseverance and risk-taking to personal happiness. In August, I took the opportunity to interview him about these values and their relationship to the arts.

SUNIL IYENGAR: How does a professional French horn player find himself enthralled by social sciences research—particularly behavioral economics—and then wake up one day as president of a leading public policy think tank in Washington, DC? Please describe that career trajectory.

ARTHUR BROOKS: I was practically born with an instrument in my hands. My childhood was all music, all the time. I loved it—so much so that I dropped out of college at 19 to go on the road and play the French horn professionally with the Annapolis Brass Quintet. After six years with the ABQ, I moved to Spain and took a job as associate principal in the City Orchestra of Barcelona.

However, I had something of a quarter-life crisis while in the orchestra. I found that I had pretty much peaked and wasn’t improving anymore, which was frustrating and discouraging. Worse yet, I didn’t feel a lot of “purpose” in my work.

A quote from my favorite composer, Bach, really drove the point home: “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” In short, the work we do should not be for ourselves, but for others. I wanted to be able to say that about my work. I knew so many other musicians who really felt a strong sense of serving others through their art, but I didn’t feel it.

That’s why I went back to school. I earned my college degree—in economics, of all things—by correspondence, while teaching at a music conservatory in Florida, and then left music at 31 to get my PhD. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the economics of symphony orchestras.

I went into academia, teaching first at Georgia State University and then at Syracuse’s Maxwell School. It was a great life, teaching and doing research. But that only lasted for a decade before Bach’s quote entered my mind once again. I loved being an academic, but the American Enterprise Institute, my favorite DC think tank and home to many of my intellectual heroes, asked me to become its president. I asked myself what would be my highest and best service, and jumped to AEI where I have been now for almost ten years.

But you know what? Even though I never play anymore, I still feel like more of a horn player than anything else.

IYENGAR: What prompted you to develop the talk “Life Lessons from the World’s Greatest Composers” for the Aspen Ideas Festival last June? What do you hope it accomplishes for viewers and listeners? Who needs to hear it most at the present time?

BROOKS: I’ve always felt that people compartmentalize the arts too much, and miss the seamlessness between truth and beauty.

It might seem like social science data sets and profound art and music sit at opposite extremes of human achievement. But philosophers like Plato and St. Thomas Aquinas have always defended the proposition that truth and beauty are actually completely intertwined. Think of the last two lines of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Even though I left behind the “beauty” of music for the “truth” of economics, I never felt the jump was so great, and I’ve always hoped my work could link the two fields and demonstrate the connection. So this lecture tries to link musical masterworks from five legendary composers with empirically validated lessons for improving work, life, and happiness.

I hope that both music fans and social science junkies enjoy the lessons. But most of all, I hope they both become more curious about the side that doesn’t normally interest them, and think differently about the hidden connections.

IYENGAR: What surprised you in doing research for your talk? What similarities did you identify among the composers you discuss, and in how they conducted their lives?

BROOKS: I was surprised that nearly all the artists I studied seemed to encounter some serious hardships. In this moment in business and culture, we pay a lot of attention to micromanaging and custom-designing the environments and the procedures we use to do our work. So it’s pretty humbling to see these world-historical artworks borne out of massive challenges—physical disabilities, family problems, even violent political persecution. It’s sobering and inspiring at the same time.

IYENGAR: What unique attributes of musical training—or of arts education in general—appear to have transferred to other domains of your life and learning? What personal or professional skills or competences did such training help to instill or reinforce?

BROOKS: The first is tons of experience in front of audiences. So many people harbor a lifelong fear of speaking up in front of large groups. One 2014 survey found that Americans are more afraid of public speaking than anything else. But when you’ve had to perform onstage holding a French horn—let alone when you have literally fallen off the stage at Carnegie Hall, which really happened to me—that fear kind of evaporates. Sometimes when I’m nervous before a big speech, I’ll tell myself, “Hey, it would be harder with a horn.” I do about 175 speeches a year now, and my horn career really made this possible.

The second lesson is more important: Whether your business is music or policy analysis or writing books about happiness, you have to “practice your scales.” Obviously that’s a metaphor outside music, but it’s really important. There is absolutely no substitute for deliberate, systematic, technical practice. Today, when I am learning a new talk or trying to master a complicated concept, I woodshed it the same way I would have woodshedded a tough lick in a piece back in the old days. I slow it way down, and repeat small chunks until I think I’m going to go crazy. I will literally practice the introduction to a speech 50 times before doing it in public. Sometimes I’ll rewrite a single sentence for a New York Times column 20 times. The objective is total technical mastery so one can focus on artistry.

IYENGAR: What preconditions do you believe are necessary for Americans to engage with the arts throughout their lives and to benefit from those encounters? In this context, what is the role for a public agency such as the National Endowment for the Arts?

BROOKS: There are two key components: 1) Exposure to the arts and 2) true education about the arts. You need both to become a follower of the arts. Because of that, I’m a little skeptical of all the programs that show people art in a superficial way. Public engagement programs, whether they’re for schoolchildren or adults, should integrate experiences of great art and music with the curation and information they need to truly understand and appreciate it. We can’t be satisfied with busing kids to the opera house for a field trip every few years and hope they will appreciate much.

The NEA is well-positioned to help facilitate both of these functions.

IYENGAR: In your book Gross National Happiness and in other works, you have argued for policymakers to pay closer attention to metrics such as subjective well-being and self-reported happiness, to augment traditional measures of the state of our economy. What can the arts teach us in this respect? Are there any key studies that come to mind about the arts’ relationship to happiness?

BROOKS: There’s an important distinction at work here. Policymakers should absolutely look more closely at measures of happiness like subjective well-being. These metrics can teach us interesting, counterintuitive lessons about human nature and all kinds of questions in public policy. It can also help us identify patterns of behavior that most lead to happiness and unhappiness.

But with that said, we have to be extremely careful not to reduce our whole idea of happiness to something utilitarian. Self-reported well-being only captures one important dimension. In the book, I distinguish between mere positive affect (emotional happiness), subjective well-being (life satisfaction), and Aristotelian eudaimonia, which is more about the moral art of living well independent of your moods and feelings.

This distinction is especially important when it comes to the arts. Paintings and symphonies shouldn’t be judged based on the short-term cheerfulness they can generate. Art has inestimable valuable as an end in itself, as a key element in a life well lived.

IYENGAR: In an opinion article you published in The New York Times in July, you assert that we as a society have become risk-averse. You challenge the way we think about words like prudence and caution. “True prudence,” you write, “means eschewing safety and familiarity in favor of entrepreneurial living.” How can the arts help us do this?

BROOKS: An example from that “Composers” lecture will help explain my thoughts on this.

Most people know of Hector Berlioz as the greatest composer of the French Romantic period. His Symphonie Fantastique is his most famous work and a huge fan favorite still today. What few people know is that his own family viewed Berlioz as kind of a failure. The family business wasn’t music; it was medicine. (Fun fact: Berlioz’s father introduced acupuncture to France.) And Hector was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. But it only took two years of medical school for Berlioz to decide he had to risk it all and go for broke. He risked his family’s good name, his share of the inheritance, and even his parents’ love and affection by turning his back on medicine to pursue a career in music.

Now, we may not all face a choice between loving our careers and being loved by our parents. But what we can all learn to do is be more courageous and take more personal risks for spiritual rewards.

IYENGAR: In a research paper you published back in February in Public Finance Review, you find that any proposed cap on charitable deductions would have a “large negative impact” on giving. Why is this study important and what are implications for the nonprofit arts sector?

BROOKS: Back when I was researching and teaching full-time, a lot of my research focused on the economics of charitable giving. Once in a while, I still manage to sneak away from my day job, run a few statistical regressions, and keep one foot in the world of peer-reviewed research.

I got curious about how the Great Recession might have altered the relationship between people’s tax rates and their charitable giving habits. Now, economists have known for a long time that higher taxes actually lead to more charitable giving, because the charitable tax deduction becomes more valuable as marginal tax rates go up. But my analysis of the data suggests that the sensitivity of donations to tax policy has intensified in recent years. If that’s true, we could expect that capping the charitable deduction could lead to sizeable reductions in giving, particularly to the nonprofit arts and other organizations that rely disproportionately on wealthy funders.

At the same time, it’s important not to over-interpret findings like this and make sweeping policy statements. Like every other kind of business and organization, America’s nonprofits will only thrive in the long run if our whole society stays prosperous, dynamic, and high-growth. I am convinced that big, bold tax reform has to be an essential piece of America’s policy future. We’ll just have to evaluate individual proposals as they’re rolled out.

IYENGAR: Do you have any favorite, “go-to” studies when considering, from an empirical perspective, the value and impact of the arts in American life?

BROOKS: There’s so much to dig into, but let me commend just a couple of individual scholars to your interest. On this subject I am a big fan of Randy Cohen, who works at Americans for the Arts, and his coauthor Roland Kushner who teaches at Muhlenberg College. Full disclosure: Roland and I used to be coauthors back in my university days, and we once even wrote an economic analysis of street performance


Add new comment