BecomeIndispensableI recently had a conversation with a friend in which I used that phrase, “making the arts indispensable.” While he agreed with my intent, he was concerned that one view of it would be to reinforce a sense of entitlement that some in the industry feel today. “Yes, the arts are special and since they are, we should be supported to continue doing what we are doing.” Clearly that was not my intent so I thought it might be useful to pursue it a little further in spite of the fact that it’s not been long since I touched on this idea. (Make Yourself Indispensable)

Beyond my friend’s concern, there are those who would object to the very premise. Everyone who works in the arts industry believes, as an a priori truth, that the arts are indispensable, that there is no need to make them so. And that is true. The arts are indispensable. However, when “the arts” is thought of as synonymous with the organizations that comprise the arts industry as it exists today, it is demonstrably false in any objective sense.

The intent of the phrase is to support work that makes the public aware of and believe in the arts’ indispensability, an indispensability in which arts organizations play an important role. Certainly one might argue that it is possible to be indispensable without recognition of the fact (like trace elements in our diets), but that does nothing to serve the sustainability of the arts industry. Support only arises from awareness of value. It does no good to exist in functional oblivion as in the unforgettable words of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl,

I’m the greatest star.
I am by far,
. . . but no one knows it.

The community outside the arts is largely unaware of the arts’ power. To be viable in any long-term sense, the industry needs to be viewed as essential, not merely “nice.” (Elizabeth Merritt has recently amplified on this idea in Why You Don’t Want to Be Nice.) As long as we are an amenity, as long as we are “nice” we will struggle to get the attention of a world that only has time for that which is understood as essential. When we engage, when we seek to serve the community good, we begin to gain traction as being necessary. That is a substantial base upon which to build.



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  1. says

    If, we artists and arts presenters can meet the public halfway, in terms of some of the content that we provide and in the way we market it, we will have a situation in which the public will have an appetite for what we create and perform. Also, if we can find or create stories that are interconnected with their life’s struggles, they will see themselves in us and they will require that “our” art will remain a part of their lives.

    On the other hand, if we sit back and think of ourselves as being above them, in terms of our intellect and as being ‘Artists’, there will continue to be a growing gap between us and them.

    One way that we can mend our relationship with the public is by modernizing the classics that we know and love in the arts so that we may serve as a reflection of the public’s life stories. This will help us understand them more and it will spark a more symbiotic relationship that will be hard to cease.

  2. Liz Palmer says

    By and large the arts (music, dance, visual arts, etc.) are deemed important by public at-large for reasons that are not directly related to the arts. For example, music is taught in schools to teach citizenship, teamwork, and collaboration, not because being able to read staff notation is a valuable skill. We as artists need to be able to communicate the importance of art within a particular community and how the experience and the power of art is beneficial to humanity.

    The original author notes the outside community is unaware of arts’ power. I think this is true, however, artists need to be more willing to share this power in more meaningful ways with their community. The community must be allowed to discover meaning within art and arts’ power for themselves. Conversely, as Teodross alluded to, we need to open ourselves up to the experiences and the impact art has had on those outside of the arts community. Further, we have be open to the art that is created by those who do not call themselves “artists” and accept what was created as valid artistic artifacts/products.

    I believe the more open artists are to experiences and subsequent impact the arts have had on people outside of the arts community, artists will be able to become more relevant and indispensable to the communities which they serve.

    One of my greatest failings as a (general) music teacher was being so bogged down in the curriculum that was overwhelming dedicated to Western Art Music, that I did not take the time to affirm the music that my students were creating. Of course, I was able to tell them why they should care about what I was teaching (i.e. “You never know, you may really like Brahms” or “You never know, you may decide you want to be a composer one day.”), but, delivering material that affirmed how they experienced music would have engaged the students more. In this context, the general music class was quite dispensable.

    With music education as a metaphor, when we do not engage, are not relevant, and are not affirming, we become dispensable in the lives of others. To be indispensable we must be engaging, relevant, and affirming to the art that is present in the lives of those outside of the arts community. Further, we must be open to the possible impact their arts experiences have on us.

  3. says

    “Support only arises from awareness of value.”

    This word, “value”, is probably the key to helping the general public see that the arts are indispensable. If a community values something (such as education, clean water, safe neighborhoods, etc.), then they will support it. The difficulty lies in convincing the general public of the value of the arts… Budget and funding cuts over the past few decades have sent a clear message to the public: “the arts are not as important as _______”.

    If artists (musician, in my case) could convince their community about why the arts are valuable, and also indispensable, and generally say something about how the arts transcend the spoken word and connect humans on another level of emotion or knowing (BTW, which to me, is related but still different from the spiritual), and maybe provide such an instance of it, then we probably could open the proverbial door for others to experience and take an interest, and later, maybe even “value” art to the point of considering it indispensable.

  4. says

    You don’t have to like art or think it is important if you don’t want to. I personally believe that if you do so you will live a deeper life and I also believe that it would behoove us if we taught that belief in schools.
    But it’s not the car mechanics job to teach you that taking care of your car is important. It’s not even the doctors job to teach you to eat well. And it’s certainly not the job of artists to teach individuals or communities the value of art. It’s a full time job just to be able to make art.

    • says

      “[I]t’s certainly not the job of artists to teach individuals or communities the value of art. It’s a full time job just to be able to make art.” Finally something about which we totally agree. Individual artists can be, should be, and are free to do as they see fit. I applaud them if they have a community orientation, but if not that’s perfectly fine.

      Arts organizations have a somewhat different situation. People understand their needs when their cars won’t run or they are sick. Where the need for art is not perceived, it is in the best interest of arts organizations to engage with them.

  5. Allison Chu says

    Perhaps the issue is that we’ve allowed art to become an increasingly commercialized product, changing our packaging to attract audiences, whose likes and dislikes are constantly changing, depending on pop culture and media. We’ve made music into a business endeavor, expecting audiences to appreciate what we deem valuable instead of using music as a tool to engage, connect and benefit our community (and humanity as Liz Palmer mentioned in her response).

    This post reminds me of Dr. Karl Paulnack’s speech to the incoming freshman class at the Boston Conservatory in 2004. Paulnack mentions his parents’ worse fears and many others’: not being fully appreciated as a musician in a world where society associates music with “arts and entertainment.” However, what we do (and what great art does) is it finds its way inside us and heals us from the inside out. That will never go defunct, and I think the public is indeed aware of this to some degree.

    Paulnack provides examples that reflect the indispensability of music, mentioning Olivier Messiaen’s composition Quartet for the End of Time (1940) and the singing he witnessed in the streets by a NY fire station after 9/11 – an expression of mourning, coping and remembrance.

    To quote Paulnack in his welcome speech:

    “You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevies. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.”

    Though the speech is meant for aspiring musicians, I think it applies to arts organizations as well. Rather than demanding and expecting support, we could just ask for it, as performer/singer Amanda Palmer does. And if arts organizations are asking the right questions and for the right things, perhaps the right people will respond.

    For more of Dr. Karl Paulnack’s speech:

    For Amanda Palmer’s 2013 TED Talk on ‘The Art of Asking:’

  6. Vlad Gorbach says

    An artist can function at his best only in a vital and healthy environment for the simple reason that the very act of creation is an affirmative gesture.

    For the artist, who may be willing to meet and serve the community’s needs, it is hardly the main motivation to create. Rather, in a larger sense, artwork, as specific and complex as it can get, is simply a sort of mirror image of the community, the economic, political and cultural environment.

    Arts Organizations, as pointed out in a comment above, have a somewhat different task. But instead of plainly engage with a “community” and fighting the problem wherever “art is not perceived”, it could be a bit of a different way of engagement. As well as finding the right art for the existing community, it is the Arts Organizations’ job to find the right community/audience for the existing art,

    If the “right” fit between the audience and the art is found, even if the audience is small, art can certainly be called indispensable.

  7. Mirkwood82 says

    As a musician, I wholeheartedly agree with you that the arts are indispensable, but I want to be slightly critical or play the devil’s advocate. You stated that the arts are indispensable without offering any type of proof or without backing up the statement, thus making the statement mere assertion. The fact is that much of society does not believe this statement, because of the general lack of support for the arts on the federal and local levels as well as in education. Things cannot be a priori truths for some group and not for others.

    Therefore we must be able to argue for the value of arts in and of themselves, or we must ask ourselves to be self critical of our “a priori” knowledge that art is intrinsically valuable (i.e., it is indispensable). Are the arts valuable objectively? or do they have value as an accidental quality or because of their effects? or do they only have value when artists use them to “engage” or “serve the community good”?

    If you think that the arts are only valuable for what they can do, then I think we have lost the ballgame. In fact, this whole argument might be useless unless we can change the thinking of society. In our neoliberal, laissez-faire economy, the market is the sole creator, sustainer and judge of value. If something is not marketable and profitable, it is not worth much. That’s why I think many of the arguments in support of the arts are championing the effects of the arts on the person and on society. I agree that art has many good and useful effects and accidental qualities, but I think we need to argue, like Gustavo Dudamel, that art is a fundamental human right. However, I think we as artists need to do some solid philosophical groundwork in epistemology and aesthetic theory so we can make a cogent argument that the value of arts is real and intrinsic. We need to because apostles for the arts, and aesthetic evangelists and spread the good news of the arts in order to fundamentally change how people think. Though the usefulness argument might work in part and in some segments of society, I think we will lose the war to the leviathan if we do not have a ready answer to defend our beloved arts

  8. says

    As the strong center slogan in this elegant blog post, Indispensability in art is more blurry than we (artists) wish it to be in reality. Think of any specific living performing artist or any form of art that is indispensable, I cannot come up with any, in fact. I am not a pessimist, but none of its indispensability exceeds “our world” (the narrow and shrinking world of arts).

    What is Arts?

    On Merriam-Webster dictionary online, the good old definition of arts can be found as :
    1. something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings

    2. works created by artists : paintings, sculptures, etc., that are created to be beautiful or to express important ideas or feelings

    3. the methods and skills used for painting, sculpting, drawing, etc.

    Let’s think for a moment about this first definition of art. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, everyone can be an artist, in the 21st century. And no particular training required, but perhaps some help from the new technology. For example, let’s talk about the art of photo-taking. Anyone who processes a smartphone can easier download a photo editing app to their phone and create a stunning picture using the phone camera. Would they really be thrilled to go to a photo gallery and pay a $ 15 dollars admission/donation to the arts organization? The possibility of being impressed by another human being who did the same thing (taking/editing a photo) using a more expensive camera, is pretty low.

    I am not trying to deflate the value of professional artists in the current world. I am a musician who concerns about the current vision of the arts. I have been trained for the past 22 years in my life. There were so many great artists in the past that are the indispensable ones to me. But the concert halls are no longer packed with patient audience, so as the museum, theater, and school. Let’s think hard on sustaining the indispensable art. Otherwise, we might become the next, but not least, dispensable me (as an artist).

    (thinking of the movie Despicable Me)