The Curse of the Generic Topic

Brown paper packages, tied up with string

SOURCE: Flickr user TheBeachSaint

You may have noticed (or may not have, which is cool) that I’ve been away from blogging for a rather long while. And when I WAS blogging, the posts were few and far between. Part of that gap, I’ve come to recognize, was because my brain is still moving. My body and my business location moved five months ago to Washington, DC, and American University. My brain is still moving, thanks to my new environment, my fantastic new faculty colleagues here at AU, and my deep dive into tenure-worthy research. Pardon the dust.

But here, I think, is where my brain is moving: through the generic and into the specific. I’m increasingly discovering that, for me, generic topics about the business of arts and culture aren’t particularly productive. Generic topics generate lots of noise, but not much signal. Lots of heat, but not much light.

For example, here are a few generic subjects that I will work very hard NOT to discuss in generic terms in 2013:

  • Business Models
    Honestly, among the most useless topics to discuss in generic terms. A business model is a brutally specific response designed to achieve an objective with certain resources in a certain context at a certain time. Let’s stop talking about the subject as if “the arts” have a set of business models, and that we need “new ones”. There are archetypes and patterns that can help us focus our work. But let’s stop talking about them in the aggregate.
  • Advocacy
    It’s reasonably clear from chatter in the arts that we all should be doing more advocacy. Also, we all should also be consuming more fiber and eating more leafy greens (which is true, please go do it). But ‘advocacy,’ absent specifics, is a bit of a democratic dust-bunny…taking up space without making much difference. Advocacy is always about a specific action we’re encouraging a specific audience to take toward a specific outcome.
  • Value
    We’ve come a very long way in expanding our international discussion of value in the arts, and value OF the arts. We’ve come to generic awareness that arts and expressive activity have intrinsic and instrumental values across a wide spectrum of outcomes. And there have been some fantastic efforts to define specific values, and to help individual organizations clarify their own. But 2013 is the year to begin the deeper dive in to details for each expressive endeavor. Or, perhaps paradoxically, to admit that much of our value conversation is a retro-fit to justify our deeper beliefs that creation, itself, is the value.

The trouble with specifics (and the reason this move is blocking my blogging habits) is that they’re really, really hard to discern and discuss. The devil, as they say, is in the details. And the devil is a wily coyote. I’m committing my efforts in 2013 to grabbing that critter by the tail.


  1. Andrew Taylor says

    Sorry if you’re having trouble posting comments to my blog today. The plugin responsible for blocking comment spam has become a bit of a tyrant. Please try again! I’m working on the problem.

  2. Neill Archer Roan says

    Bravo. I couldn’t agree more with the above observations. People love exploring the conceptual, me among them. But I am increasingly concerned with utility and the quality of execution. Coming across fresh ideas and different points-of-view is not only invigorating, but essential to innovation and advancement. Equally, there are lots of great ideas wrongly or clumsily applied these days. Bridging ideation to circumstance is a skill we need to cultivate. So many times, great ideas fail in execution because some key aspect was overlooked or intentionally left out. I see this all the time in my consulting practice. I suppose ’twas ever thus, but we can do better. And we should.

  3. Clay Lord says

    Andrew, I don’t know why, but I missed this one. I agree with your assessment, particularly around the value conversation–we have made great strides, and now it’s time to get specific. I don’t know, though, that “much” of the value conversation has stemmed from creation as the end goal, although perhaps I am a bit biased, since I have had my head in intrinsic impact most of the time. I think, though, that at least with impact assessment, the place we have gotten most in trouble with people is in the placement of the art into a continuum of impact where it is the height of the curve, but it is neither the beginning nor the end of that impact. I’m heartened by the fact that I now seem to be hearing less about how outside the mainstream that idea is, and more about how old school the primacy of the art in the conversation is, but that again may be because I hear a lot in a particular and small corner of the world. We must, I think, get a lot more utilitarian about the role of art, if for no other reason than the people for whom we make the art (and who fund it) are seeing it in a utilitarian way, even if that utility is around things like transformation and tolerance.