RE: Policy Ain't the Only Way...

By Chris Mackie, Principal, Covelly Strategies

A big +1 to Nathaniel's points, and especially to the insight that change happens in architecture, markets, and social norms, as well as policy. Tim's subsequent post suggests we branch out to those other domains as well, but I want to go even further, and suggest we quit talking about lawmaking altogether, for now.

If I read the other posters accurately, the reluctant consensus here is that the arts community is in no real condition today to affect the outcomes of current policy making, and won't be for years to come, at best. According to the various postings, the understandings are lacking, the institutions are lacking, and the motivation is lacking: none of these is a quick-fix problem, and any one of them alone is lethal to effective activism.

So perhaps we should stop talking about creative rights as lawmaking or political activism altogether, and instead talk more in-depth about changing the constraint(s) at which the arts have a comparative advantage?

Of the four constraints, artists individually and the arts collectively are at their strongest and most passionate when striving to change social norms, and at their second-strongest when changing the social architecture. Moreover, as our panelists all seem to agree, the arts are not over-funded even in their areas of comparative strength. So, if an artist, arts organization, or philanthropy has a marginal dollar to spend on securing the future of the arts and is interested in maximizing its social return on that investment, policy activism may well be the worst of the four constraints on which to spend it. The same dollar is likely to go a lot further if it is spent on creative work to change one or more social norms that shape the way lawmakers think about cultural policy, or to fund an arts-tech project that incrementally changes the social architecture in a direction favorable to the support of creative expression.

What, then, should these holders of marginal dollars fund? For instance, even if you had the money and other resources needed, would you really want to spend them to try to reverse the political-economic trends in arts education nationwide? Your "solution" would just start unraveling again the moment you stopped spending, because the underlying constraints (architecture, markets, norms, policies) would not have changed much. Or would you rather use the same resources to try to change the social architecture and norms vis a vis participation in art-making, so that every child is immersed in a culture of creativity that radiates into, not out from, the school? If you prefer the latter approach, what aspects of the architecture and what norms would you (as an artist, not a policy maker) want to tackle first, or hardest?

In other words, is the most powerful strategy available to the arts world to make the artist a better salesperson for certain policies--or is it, just perhaps, to make the next generation of policy salespeople better artists? If the latter, what do artists today need to be doing now, and what resources do they need to do it?

July 21, 2010 5:41 AM | | Comments (1) |


I enjoyed your tangential approach to the problems.

“POPaganda,” “subvertising,” and “culture jamming” are all political art forms that might serve the purposes you describe. These genres often examine the power corporations have over society. Ron English is one of the most famous practitioners. (I actually don’t follow that kind of work very closely.) One of the bloggers here even suggested we practice a kind of Internet civil disobedience by not adhering to some of the laws governing Internet usage. More established forms like novels, plays, and films that examine social issues are also important, but they are very slow to produce and many are artistic failures.

And most importantly, I’m not so sure artworks are very good at creating something as specific as government policy about the Internet. The best and most effective political art leans toward the broader, existential side of social consciousness (e.g. The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Orwell’s 1984.)

And their effects are notoriously slow -- about like planting a tree seed. The occupational hazards of being an artist are also a problem. Artistry is often a form of idealism practiced with fanatic intensity. We become insular, highly individualistic, undiplomatic, and anti-establishment – and some even narcissistic and abusive. We even tend to despise our colleagues who are political, especially since many of them use those gifts for merely careerist purposes. In any case, these are not the characteristics of gifted political operatives.

I think our best value is when we engage in dialog with arts advocates. They are more likely to understand our behavior and perspectives and know how to glean from our ideas insights that might be useful. I think Americans for the Arts might a good example of such an organization.

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William Osborne commented on RE: Policy Ain't the Only Way...: I enjoyed your tangential approach to the problems. “POPaganda,” “subverti...

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