When faced with stress or dramatic change in our environment, we humans have a tendency to conflate things in our thinking — to bundle two or more separate ideas or issues or observations into one. It’s a coping response when the universe around us gets more complex or shifts faster than we can process.
As arts managers, we do this in small ways — like conflating attendance shifts with whatever public trend we’re perceiving at the time (recession, political unrest, changing demographics…some of which might be relevant, but we don’t actually stop to think about it). As citizens, we do this in massive ways — like conflating “otherness” with threat, religious belief with criminal behavior, or political party with core values.
It’s a bit similar to our other flub of confusing causality, correlation, and coincidence — thinking because we experience things tracking together, they are connected in direct and influential ways (to flag this flub, I’ll tell my students: every time I open my umbrella, my feet get wet). But conflation is more insidious, because it doesn’t just represent sloppy thinking, it abdicates thought altogether. Conflating distinct things makes them inseparable, and therefore unavailable to creative attention. It feels like a shortcut, but behaves like a sandtrap.
I mention this in an arts management blog because we find ourselves in a particularly dramatic moment of change and complexity, and also in a moment of rather rampant conflation. Our public discourse is riddled with it, on all sides. Our community thinking and collective action are hobbled by it. We know and name our enemies by vague associations. We argue past each other, or through each other in dangerous ways.
But I also mention conflation because as arts professionals, we have access ways of seeing, thinking, knowing, understanding, and engaging that offer defense and refuge: artistic process and practice. The works of extraordinary human expression and experience we steward and serve are deeply about focused attention — not always rational attention, but clear and coherent and connected attention.
I’m not saying aesthetic expression or experience is a pure and reliable path to truth and beauty (that would be conflating complex things). But I am saying that there are ‘ways of seeing’ and ‘ways of knowing’ we foster in the process of making and experiencing aesthetic work that matter deeply in this moment, when the world is conflating upon itself. It’s part of our job to hold fast to those ways, not only in our artistic content, but also in our organizational and civic process.
This is all vague and high-brow, I know. I’m working it through. But just notice, as you’re reading this and as you make your way through another complex day, whether and when you’re conflating ideas, actions, and experiences around you — especially those in your newsfeed. Then call upon the aesthetic processes or practices that you value…and look again.
NOTE: The photo used in this post won a contest sponsored by the U.S. Army’s Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation (FMWR) Programs — an extraordinary example of unbundling assumptions and beliefs about artistic effort and the military (not just marching bands). Read the 75+ year history of the arts and crafts program within FMWR to learn more.