Recently by Lynne Conner, Chair and Associate Professor, Colby College
Doug challenges us to identify "the biggest policy threat or potentially transformative initiative currently facing our culture." I keep coming back to Bill Ivey's meta question about the concept of cultural vibrancy as a public good. How do we create a new norm that encourages cultural rights for all? Jean and others note that cultural workers tend to talk only to (and listen only to and care only about the opinions of) their particular cohort--artists to artists, academics to academics, policy wonks to . . .
Where does that particular calculus leave the audience?
In my work studying audience behavior and facilitating audience engagement practices, the single most prevalent (and telling) audience commentary has to do with the excitement people feel when they are invited into the interpretive process. "You want to know what I think that dance (play, symphony, painting) means?" "You'll sit listen while I tell you how it made me feel?"
As many have noted, the democratization of access brought on by digital technology has profoundly altered our "arts and culture" landscape. But what about the democratization of interpretation? Have we cultural workers really changed our behavior when it comes to listening to our audiences? I mean, really listening? Ten years or so into the "Audience Engagement" era, have we actually stopped objectifying audiences (butts in seats)?
How do we create a new norm in which the audience is not object but subject? Bill suggests that "perhaps we can learn some things from the environmental movement." I don't know much about biology, but I do know something about how Rachel Carson launched the environmental movement (I wrote a play about the process of writing Silent Spring). Carson changed the world by inviting the average citizen into her scientific process; she invented a narrative structure for Silent Spring (and her other books) that was both intelligible to lay readers and utterly emotionally engaging. Carson didn't conduct a literal dialogue with her audience, of course, but she did in effect "listen" to them.
Are we listening?
So what happens to this concept mapping in what I'm calling, somewhat cheekily, the post-copyright digital era? If the democratization of 21st century culture is underway largely because of an open-source ethos and the dismantling of the professional/amateur binary (which itself didn't actually get going with any real traction until well into the Renaissance), what exactly does it mean to "author" a work of art for the next generation of artists? The historian in me needs to understand how this changing etymology affects (and perhaps negates?) existing strategies of action so that we don't get stuck in Nathaniel's "policy determinism."
Vicki, Bill, Brian and others are absolutely right in noting how dysfunctional the long-standing distaste within the academy for any sort of policy discussion/know-how has become (Though honestly, this shouldn't surprise anyone--keep in mind that colleges and universities are places where teachers refuse to discuss teaching or even to learn how to do it effectively.)
In my view it's a self-fulfilling problem: a majority of practicing artists were trained in university or college-based conservatories and come out of their programs primed to re-produce the self-referential elitism (read real-world insecurities) of their professors. But here's a rub to consider as this conversation moves forward: In the music, visual arts and film realms the commercial application (and thus the immediate ties to issues of copyright, creative control and regulatory legislation) are considerably more relevant than in the predominantly not-for-profit environment of theater and dance, where they are muted largely because there is so little commercial production and thus so little, economically speaking, at stake. It's hard to get artists interested in business issues when they see no business going on.
I'll jump in with a direct response to Doug's opening question: "Do artists even know what the priorities are?" From my perspective as a cultural historian, the answer is decidedly NO--artists have never understood the relationship between creative output and creative control and they have always been at a loss as to how to access the means of production and distribution (economically speaking.) Is it a left brain/right brain thing? I don't think so. I think it's a cultural assumption turned aesthetic pressure--artists aren't supposed to be good managers or business savvy and, if they are, then they must not "really" be artists. Imagine, for example, how hard Mick Jagger has had to work over the years to mask the fact that he's actually a very steady, savvy, strategic business man.
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