Art Is Not Fundamental

Now that I have your attention . . . .

I have just concluded an eight week marathon attending five conferences across the U.S. and beyond. At each, something leapt out at me for blog posting. (Indeed, I think I milked the American Association of Museums Conference for four entries.) There are still some left to craft and inflict upon you. However, today, the last shall be first.

At the Americans for the Arts Conference in San Antonio last weekend, I attended a session on “innovation.” It focused on  EmcArts’ ArtsForward program, but that’s not what I want to talk about here. Attendees at that session were asked to examine basic assumptions for the purpose of considering whether such assumptions get in the way of valuable change. (That’s a weak paraphrase of the assignment.)

I had already been thinking about a way to articulate what I consider to be an important change of perspective that’s required for effective community engagement. The assumption that needs consideration is the one many (most) of us have, that art, in and of itself, is . . . fundamental. As I intimated earlier in Art for Art’s Sake? There’s No Such Thing, the deification of art removes (or at least distances) it from its role in human experience. And it is that role that is crucial. Isn’t it the power the arts have in our own lives that drew us to the field? In addition, and this is the important part with respect to engagement, focus on the art as opposed to its role in individuals’ lives makes it easier to (unconsciously) ignore the fact that many are not moved by what we do. The art-focused view has the subliminal effect of supporting the “If we build it . . .” mindset. This impedes the potential for community engagement.

Art is vital to human experience. I take a back seat to no one in my commitment to the importance of art. I am simply observing that our “habit of mind” about the utter centrality of art can get in the way of serving the community; and, on the practical level, it can in turn get in the way of the arts being supported by that community. I have discussed before, and will again, the implications for our work of reassessing this assumption. There are many. But for now, imagine how your work would be different if its focus were on the point where art and people (many more than do so today) connect. For those of you who are already there, my hat is off to you.



  1. I’m going to struggle with the wording of this, but I think there’s a huge and important distinction to be made between the “Deification of Art” and the value of art independent of how any one individual or community segment values it.

    Hip-hop doesn’t lose its artistic value because some seniors don’t get it. Likewise, Emily Dickinson’s poems don’t stop being art when fifteen-year-olds don’t appreciate them.

    The constant focus on audience reception of the arts leads to the kind of funding situation we have now, when art spending is often justified only in terms of “creative economy stimulation”. Also, to receive “unearned support” (hah! grant writing, if you win, is “unearned”), your art has to reach a carefully counted audience of the underserved, because people who already like art apparently don’t deserve more of it.

    I realize that a focus on artistic value in itself may lead to a mindset where artists don’t take responsibility for engaging all segments of the community. I would ask: should such community engagement be the highest-prIority goal of every arts organization? I would enjoy reading your thoughts on how community engagement can start with the audiences already attending, and how to avoid mission creep while working on community engagement issues.

    • Habeas i could not have said it better. Much as in a Swift universe where we are examining our “navel” to discover the meaning of the universe; the sad state in modern civilization is not the worry that we are becoming to elite but that we do not value not only “Art” but the creative processes that make life worth living. Yes i agree with Habeas that always linking the artistic process to an economic model is not healthy for a forward and balanced society.

      R. David Weaver

      • Linking the artistic process to an economic model is not only unhealthy for a balanced society, it’s impossible.

        Ever try to find Mozart’s grave in Salzburg? There are memorials to him everywhere there, but he’s buried in a pauper’s grave.

        The Arts have always been underwritten: by the Church, by the aristocracy, or by the State. In the past few years arts agencies and nonprofits have been reasonably successful at finding funding. But how much of that actually finds its way to individual artists? How much “arts funding” goes directly to artists, so that they can lead lives of artistic endeavor (and not lives of perpetual fundraising)?

        The lives of artists in the United States are as sick as the lives of politicians here. Most of what I do as an artist isn’t about art at all. It’s about trying to find a way to create something beautiful and pay my bills at the same time.

        Picasso painted “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” and couldn’t sell it for years. Nobody cared then.

        Where are the Picassos of the world, now? Is there an artist, somewhere, daring to have a new vision, who is willing to starve for his or her ideas? The Picassos of our generation are out there. Does anyone really care?

        The answer, unfortunately, is a resounding “no.”

  2. A few observations on Habeas’ post:

    The continuum you cite in your first paragraph: “the ‘Deification of Art’ and the value of art independent of how any one individual or community segment values it.” Is far broader than anything I would imagine. “Any one individual or community segment” is not the issue. It’s about *some* individuals or community segments (not already part of the cognoscenti) being engaged in the art production/presentation process. So, I totally agree with your second paragraph, but I it’s not relevant to my point.

    I agree that the whole creative economy focus is overblown and have commented before that, while it has value, it is only one element of community value to be considered. Your statement “your art has to reach a carefully counted audience of the underserved” seems to come from a position that there is no room for adjusting the focus of your art (as opposed to its content/aesthetic) by taking into account the interests/concerns of that “audience.” (The word audience distances the art from the people, but that’s a topic for another post.) The funding push to support consideration of the underserved is rooted in an awareness of the fact that the “served” at this point is a pretty narrow slice of the population. I view responding positively as enlightened self interest.

    Your question about community engagement is too broad as stated. You say “engaging all segments of the community.” I’d say let’s engage *some* non-tradiitonal segments and see what happens. But to address your real point, the end of my book has a section on this issue. It’s available online at my website: If you search down on that page to the six paragraphs that begin “Colleagues whom I deeply respect challenge me . . .” you will see my take on that issue.

    And, to address your concluding sentence, I’d be thrilled if we could begin community engagement by working with current audiences, authentically asking (and discovering) what interests them, what moves them, and in what ways we might work with them to make their lives and the lives of their neighbors better. But that is going to be predicated on letting those discoveries lead the artistic creation/selection process, rather than our own artistic sensibilities/desires being the principal determiners of what art is offered.

  3. While your commentary is directed to arts industry players (“colleagues), I think it has importance for a much larger audience. In reading your piece, I was reminded of the Thai mentality that simply assumes that making/creating/playing is part of being a human being – on a par with eating or sleeping or learning or loving.

    I applaud your use of the word “deification” for indeed, if only The Gods make art, how could little old me possibly understand or enjoy or, The Gods Forbid, try to DO what they do? And THAT mentality is what disconnects art from funding, appreciation, support and most important – the exquisite personal experience of art.

    My request is, quit talking amongst yourselves. Spread this word and hopefully, the cost/benefit analysis of arts will cease to be such a predominant factor in funding decision making.

    I will be tweeting this story with a “Good Read” recommendation. Nancie Mills Pipgras, Editor Mosaic Art NOW

    • I agree, even though I’m suspicious of broad categorizations like “the Thai mentality”. “Arts”, as narrowly or broadly defined as you like, may not be “fundamental” but creativity in its broadest sense is fundamental to both the individual and society. The challenge for arts organizations who need to grow their audience (and not everyone does) is to link their missions with whatever personal aspirations individuals have in the field of innovation/creativity/play.