The Arts’ Four Noble Truths

For those of you who have seen the first few posts, I guess it’s now time to get on with the interesting task of providing some kind of systematic overview of what we’ll be considering here. I could be very serious and professorial about it, . . . but who would want to read it? (And my students would probably not recognize me.) For the record, I would like to be clear that this post and the follow-up on the Eightfold Path to Community Engagement are in no way intended to trivialize Buddhist belief. It is actually my respect for those parallel constructs that brought this frame to mind.

So, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, here are The Arts’ Four Noble Truths. These will serve as the foundation for what is posted here:

1. Life in the arts as we know it today is suffering.
2. The origin of that suffering is insufficient attachment to community.
3. The cessation of suffering is attainable by engagement with the community.
4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path to Community Engagement.

Cute (or irritating, depending on your tolerance for hyperbole and, perhaps, blasphemy), right?

The first will bring a wry smile of recognition to the face of almost everyone who has spent even a day in the world of the arts. (Yes, we know the pleasures of being in the field; but we’re among friends here, let’s fess up to this side.)

The second and third will need more work from my awareness-building campaign, although I began to address this in my previous “Why?” and “Click” posts. In the meantime, think of it this way: If the majority of the population believed passionately that the work of the arts was vitally important to their health, happiness, and prosperity, wouldn’t many if not most of our problems be solved? Unrealistic? But didn’t you say that the arts are for everyone? . . . .

And the fourth will need to wait until I present the Eightfold Path. To get you to come back, I’ll use that as a later post. The delay will also give me a little more time to work out the details. :-)


And for our example du jour, see the August 2 post on the NEA’s Art Works site:, It describes  a project and organization, Critical Exposure. CE puts cameras in the hands of young people to document conditions in their schools and communities. Their work is then used to advocate for change. Here are a couple of observations:

  • Yes, I know this is not an arts-first organization. For Critical Exposure, the arts (Are we over the argument about whether photography is an art?) are a means to an end. This is a valuable example in this context because it demonstrates an awareness that the arts are powerful in their capacity to galvanize the public around an issue. This is power any arts organization has at its disposal.
  • Photography is a welcoming platform. It is accessible to many. It expands the reach of participatory activity. If we complain that one of the problems with public education is a decline in participatory activity on the part of students, how can we be anything but joyful about examples such as this?
  • And before someone else jumps on it, what about the dismissive “quality” argument? Don’t get me started. There is a whole rant (to be entered another day) about the short-sightedness of many complaints about quality in the context of community-focused art. For the present, let’s consider 1) Why do some not see connection with/meaning for real people a factor in quality? and 2) Advanced technique could be viewed as artificial or “precious” just as easily as it can be a marker of excellence. (I owe a debt to Arlene Goldbard for that insight.) This is not to say that technique is unimportant. In most cases, it is critical; but it may not be as unmixed a blessing as many think it is.


So far the blogging process has been fun, and not as burdensome in scheduling as I had anticipated. At the same time, the day job is looming. I have no idea if I’ll be able to continue the twice a week posts through the academic year. Stay tuned. In the meantime,



Image Credit:
By ( [FAL], via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. says

    I wonder if we might also consider the arts’ four ignoble secrets:

    1. The USA is the only developed country in the world without a comprehensive system of public arts funding.
    2. The prices for orchestra and opera tickets in the USA are on average 4 to 5 times more expensive than in Europe.
    3. We have very limited cultural offerings, especially in genres like opera (for details see below.)
    4. Our neo-feudalistic system of arts funding by the wealthy reinforces the negative effects of our racially informed class system and creates a form of white privilege in our arts-consuming demographic.

    Outside of a few major financial centers, our arts organizations usually do not have enough money or resources to effectively engage with their community. Your suggestions thus come across as someone suggesting a rigorous exercise program for a skeletally emaciated Biafran. When are we going to end our delusions and finally admit that our problems are systemic and created by our unique and isolated private funding system?

    About the limited cultural offerings: We only have, for example, a handful of real opera houses (houses designed for and dedicated to opera,) and they have only partial seasons. In terms of opera performances per year Chicago is in only the 66th position, San Francisco 96th, Houston 109th, Washington 128th, and Santa Fe 163rd. Los Angeles has the third largest Municipal Gross Product in the world (behind only Tokyo and NYC) but is in the 158th position. The few other companies that exist in America have even shorter seasons. They usually do not have houses and perform in poorly-suited rental facilities with pickup orchestras and singers. This applies even to cities with metropolitan populations in the millions like Atlanta in the 307th position, Kansas City at 271st, Baltimore at 309th, and Minneapolis at 204th. They are far outranked by even cities like Pforzheim, Germany which only has 119,000 citizens but occupies the 68th position and thus outranks even our nation’s capital, Washington D.C, by 60 positions. We only have three houses even in the top 100. (These and many more valuable statistics are available at Operabase.) This lack of funding also results in the bankruptcy of major cultural institutions like the NYCO, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

    Thank you for the thought-provoking post.

    • says

      Wonderfully thoughtful response. Thanks!

      A couple of observations. It could be argued that your first three Secrets are symptoms of a lack of engagement. Public policy flows from the will of the electorate (except where money intervenes to skew the results, as you point out in your fourth Secret). I don’t think anyone at this point would say, however, that arts policy is being artificially thwarted by campaign contributions. Widespread private support similarly depends upon a broad base of enthusiasm. There are simply not enough people who believe passionately in the arts as presented by our established organizations to press the case.

      I agree whole-heartedly with your fourth Secret. It is one of the things that can get in the way of widespread engagement efforts. Private supporters often like things the way they are and either oppose change or are assumed by management to oppose it.

      I’d also say that focusing so specifically on opera as an example is not where we should begin a discussion of community engagement. Opera is an expensive genre the roots of which are very specific to a time and culture that is no longer central (and is increasingly less so) to U.S. demographics. This is not say that opera cannot be responsive to a changed society. Great examples (Houston Grand Opera to name but one) exist of companies seriously engaging their communities. However, I would like to begin discussions of engagement by casting a wider artistic and cultural net.

      Finally, I’d like to suggest a revision of your exercise metaphor. If engagement is an extra and can only be an add-on activity, then, yes, I would agree. However, if engagement is the best and perhaps only path to long-term viability (and perhaps this is where the real conversation lies), then there may be another way of thinking. Engagement can be re-imagined as the frame out of which all activity emerges: programming, marketing, development, advocacy. It is therefore not yet one more thing to do. It is the thing to do. In that instance, it is IV nourishment, transfusion, and physical therapy.

      • says

        Excellent ideas and analysis. I agree that we need far more political engagement from our arts organizations and their administrators about public arts funding. I have observed, however, that arts administrators are often reluctant to be strong advocates for public arts funding. Why is that? Is it because they are usually employed by boards of wealthy people who often have rather conservative views about public arts funding? How can that cycle be broken?

        We could motivate the government, but the government could also motivate us. The government often acts to stimulate activity in areas like the medicine, aviation, telecommunications, computer development, agriculture, and science with the result that the USA is a world leader in these fields. So why not the arts?

        Engagment leads to more public funding, and more public funding leads to more engagement. Our arts adminstrators should be the leaders in initating this cycle.

        • says

          The government will only be motivated to this end if there is a groundswell of public support to do so. (This is not only a factor of the current political climate–though that exacerbates it–but also of the social and political history of the U.S.) And it doesn’t seem to me that that will happen unless and until the arts are perceived as *vitally* important by 50% + 1 of the voters. Once again, I come to community engagement on the part of the arts community as the path forward.

          • says

            50% + 1 is not the only way forward – though an important one. Arts administrators and their influential boards could work to persuade politicians to advocate for public arts funding. Politicians don’t simply follow ground swells, they are also very effective at creating them. The challenge would be persuading typically conservative board members to influence politicians in this direction.

  2. Shelly says

    Until “we” as a society understand how the arts heal, teach, enrich and support better lives we can expect little economic support whether it be individual or government money. Arts Administrators and Artistic leaders must continue to find ways to “teach” the value of the arts in our everyday lives at all economic levels. The most important lesson might be how we instill creativity into our lives. Early education seems to manage creativity a lot better than middle and upper schools but I look at this as an opportunity for growth. How do you engage and direct pubescent imagination and creativity into something productive and exciting?

    Which brings me to another thought: Arts education should not be dictated by how money is to be used…..I am speaking to qualitative statistics versus quantitative however I do believe both are valuable…I struggle to see the value in corporate support of the arts when it is mainly about how many saw an opera rather than what did they take away and how might it change their lives. The arts can be utilized in many ways but again….it is up to our leaders to open those doors. They too have to believe in the value of arts education and not look at funding as a means to an end of support. Instead our communities MUST believe and understand how the arts change lives and even save lives.

    A bit of random thinking here and the very first time I have ever responded to a blog so forgive my limited comments. I write only to learn more and to find ways to strengthen my beliefs so fire away and challenge my ideology.

    • says

      Yes, we need to teach the value of the arts. We should begin with our political leaders who will then provide the money to teach the masses. Otherwise, we are like that starving Biafran (see above) trying to be an Olympic weight lifter.

      Genuine community engagement won’t evolve until we have the money to make it happen. And as America clearly illustrates, an adequate amount of money for this is not going to come from a private funding system.

      All of these ideas about reviving the arts will remain ineffective until we get our public funding system aligned with the standards that already exist in all other developed countries. Another important first step in education is helping our arts administrators to understand this.

  3. Brault, Simon says

    Congratulation for your blog. It adds to a conversation about the arts in society thats has to become more and more broad and inclusive. I am pleading for this approach in my book ” No Culture, No Future” that now exists as en eBook. Will follow you.

  4. says

    Since you’ve wandered into the Buddhist paradigm, it would be useful to refine a short clarification on your arts four noble truths. I’ve been a zen Buddhist for a few decades and to get on the art path pointed to in your blog, may I shortly suggest:
    1. Life in the arts as we know it today is suffering.
    There has always been suffering in the arts. Maybe the short respite in a portion of some of the century was more of an anomaly. Beethoven had to hustle his work while deaf; not much patronage in later life, and Mozart over spent himself into a paupers grave. The list of painters that sufferered is too long to list.
    2. The origin of that suffering is insufficient attachment to community.
    Well, in a Buddhist paradigm attachment is not what one is to gravitate toward. Sometimes great art grows outside of community involvement, I’m thinking of the composer Charles Ives as one of the better examples.
    3. The cessation of suffering is attainable by engagement with the community.
    Now, cessation from suffering by engagement may do wonders for providing comfort to the artist, but often this comfort leads to the artists work suffering. Sort of a catch 22 there.
    4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path to Community Engagement.
    I would suggest that the “Eightfold Path to Community Engagement” won’t alleviate suffering but it may provide a degree of success, which can intensify tremendous suffering as in the case of artists (Jackson Pollock for example) having so much focus placed on their personalities as well as to their work.

    I don’t mean to imply that success is something to shunned, but that a Buddhist paradigm here is, in the words of the artist Zen Buddhist monk Hakuin, painter of the Enso, who live in the 17th-18th century, the much derided koan “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”. That may have a bit relevance to this discussion when asked what it means to actually suffer in art in America in the 21st Century.

    • says

      Yes, I confess, I’m guilty, guilty, guilty of many things in the post–oversimplification chief among them; lack of clarity was perhaps second. I did not intend to follow the Truths that closely. Re: lack of clarity, I did not intend “today” to mean as opposed to yesterday. I did know that I was contravening the Truths in citing attachment as a positive in the second one, but I have a weird sense of humor, and I *do* think that engagement is important for arts organizations.. Re: the merits of engagement, that’s where we probably have room for argument. I would say that if the art suffers via engagement, that’s not engagement’s fault. (And *much* space will be devoted to that as time goes by in this blog.) And for the fourth Truth, I guess I’d just say that we’d probably need to discuss a little more the meaning of suffering in this context. Remember, though, that the central focus of this blog is going to be on arts organizations rather than artists. But I do think there is much in engagement discussions of benefit to individual artists as well.

      And, while I will soon be publishing the Eightfold Path post, I’ll acknowledge that it has even less to do with its Buddhist model than this one did.