The Arts Unify Communities

Posted by Mr. Randy Cohen, Dec 06, 2019

157 years ago next week, the Battle of Fredericksburg took place—one of the bloodiest of the Civil War to that point. Following the battle, the giant Union and Confederate armies were camped mere shouting distance from each other, separated only by the Rappahannock River in Virginia.

On a cold and wet evening, with both armies hunkered down and tending to their wounds, a band in the Union camp struck up a patriotic tune in hopes of lifting their side’s spirits. The Union soldiers cheered in appreciation. Not to be outdone, the Confederate band across the river then played their own patriotic tune—and the “Battle of the Bands” was on. Back and forth it continued, with each army whooping and cheering loudly for their band. Late into the night, one of the bands began playing “Home Sweet Home,” and was immediately joined by the other—the bands of both armies played as one. Everyone stopped what they were doing—pens were put down, books closed—and there wasn’t a sound except for the soulful music. It was then that the men of both sides, who were so far from home, cheered together as one.

In his 1910 book Reminiscences of a Private, author Frank Mixson, a member of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, wrote: “I do believe that had we not had the river between us that the two armies would have gone together and settled the war right there and then.”

Band of 114th Pennsylvania Infantry in front of Petersburg, Va., August, 1864. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

We are better people with the arts in our lives. We are healthier, creative, and actively engaged citizens who feel better about today and more optimistic about tomorrow. In a society struggling to find equity and social justice, the arts improve the quality of our communities. They unify us and help us understand other cultures—benefits that persist even in difficult social and economic times.

(click to expand)Like the thousands of soldiers celebrating that cold December evening, the research shows today’s public understands this as well. Last year, Americans for the Arts published Americans Speak Out About the Arts, the largest public opinion survey of the arts ever conducted. These are some of the findings that we learned:

  • 72 percent of Americans believe “the arts unify our communities regardless of age, race, and ethnicity.”
  • 73 percent agree that the arts “helps me understand other cultures better.”
  • 69 percent of the population believe the arts “lift me up beyond everyday experiences.”
  • 73 percent feel the arts give them “pure pleasure to experience and participate in.”
  • 81 percent say the arts are a “positive experience in a troubled world.”

Another remarkable finding from this study: These quality-of-life and well-being perspectives are not limited to the affluent, educated, or a particular racial or ethnic group. Rather, they cut across all demographic strata.

Artists and their advocates are on the right side of what needs to be done in this country. As we look ahead to a new decade, my hope is next time there won’t be a river between the two sides. The arts will touch our souls and we’ll walk into the future together, committed to finding a better way to build healthier and more unified communities.