Excellence and Engagement: III

In my two previous posts I have been exploring the question of excellence as it applies to community engagement in the arts. (Excellence and Engagement: 1; Excellence and Engagement: II)  Here, I want to address issues of equity and respect for communities in this context.

A complicating factor in discussions of excellence is the issue of equity. The arts of the European aristocratic cultural tradition have benefited for centuries from financial support for infrastructure, education, and presentation that has been totally unavailable to the arts of other cultures. One result is that gatekeepers in the arts who are products of this system are largely unaware of the arts of other cultures and so continue to make assumptions about excellence that favor the art they know.

A more practical result of the access to resources is that visual and performing artists working in these European traditions have been provided time to hone their technique in ways sometimes not possible for artists whose work is rooted in other cultures. It is patently unfair to compare levels of technical excellence (especially with respect to institutions) in Eurocentric presentation with that of other cultures. The fact that many individual artists are on a par with their Western peers with respect to technical proficiency in their native styles and forms is a testament to the hold that the arts have on them.

Community engagement is rooted in relationship building and the indispensable foundation for that is respect for those with whom one is attempting to engage. Unfortunately, discussions of excellence in the arts are sometimes clouded by an undercurrent of dismissiveness about the ability of people (the “unwashed masses”) to appreciate great art. This assumption of cultural (and/or intellectual) superiority is usually, though not always, unconscious.  

The issue of cultural traditions is important here. I have some understanding of Indian classical music–ragas, rhythmic practices, and musical structure, but I can’t say that it speaks to me. That does not make me lesser nor does it demean Indian music. It’s just that I don’t make a point of attending concerts. That, I am sure, is largely due to the fact that I am not a product of the culture of the subcontinent of India; and it demonstrates why it can be difficult to grow an arts organization by attempting to connect with people who do not share the culture of the art presented. People whose cultural background is not tied to the European aristocratic tradition can hardly be faulted for a disinclination to participate in arts experiences derived from it.

With respect to the more general issue of capacity, there is one view that a lack of interest in our art demonstrates that “those people” lack a basic depth of feeling or understanding. (If, reading this, your reaction is that no one believes that, trust me. I’ve had these conversations.) The inherent arrogance of this perspective should be self-evident. Most people on this planet have passionate attachments to home and family, to their god, and sometimes to their region or country. When they have the time and luxury of thinking about things other than basic necessities (and this is a key issue) they are concerned about the big questions of their place in the universe and the meaning of life. To believe otherwise, consciously or not, is simply indefensible.

There is a related view that the success of mass culture proves that people are incapable of reflective experience. To be sure, there is much in mass culture that is superficial and easy, but there are also many examples of popular works providing profound insight–the songs of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, television shows like The West Wing or Breaking Bad, movies like Sophie’s Choice, and the cultural phenomenon of Hamilton–to name a few. In addition, frankly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with some entertainment being easy. (For more on the nature of different types of cultural experiences, see https://www.artsjournal.com/engage/reflective-art-visceral-art/.)

Finally, to address a negative assumption that some people make about community engagement, we are not talking about “giving people what they want.” Polling people about what works they want presented is particularly counter-productive when they have little or no awareness of what works exists. As I often say, community engagement is not “giving them what (we think) they want.” Rather, it demands learning enough about communities to know what work of the international cultural canon will be meaningful to them and then programming that with them.

Unquestionably, it takes education, effort, and experience to appreciate great art, but people without access to any or all of those cannot be held to account for that lack. We, the workers in the nonprofit arts industry, are the ones with the most direct, practical vested interest in the success of our organizations. It is not the responsibility of others to come to us. It is our job to figure out how to become more meaningful to them.

If it were true (and unalterable) that many are incapable of appreciating reflective art, that would be devastating for the future of arts organizations. Fortunately, that is not the case. For the health of the industry, widespread relevance is an important goal. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, relevance may not be sufficient in an era of conflicting priorities. Achieving recognized indispensability may be vital. (Engage Now! A Guide to Making the Arts Indispensable.) Finding appropriate ways to be meaningful to greater numbers of people is the key to our future.

There are many categories of excellence. No individual or organization can be excellent in all things. Unfortunately, some in our industry use the shibboleth of technical and expressive excellence (in one very specific cultural tradition) as a means of stopping conversation about connecting with communities. This is tragic when the need for ever greater relevance is critical to the future of the nonprofit arts industry.

There is no question that technical and expressive excellence in art of the European cultural tradition will be a central goal for many arts organizations, but these are not the only types of excellence. Frankly, they may not be the categories of excellence most necessary to move us toward relevance and certainly not toward the goal of indispensability. Organizations can and should make choices about how to focus their efforts and choose the areas of excellence they want to highlight, but this should be done with full understanding of the impact of those choices on their path to sustainability.



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  1. My new favorite quote:

    “People whose cultural background is not tied to the European aristocratic tradition can hardly be faulted for a disinclination to participate in arts experiences derived from it.”

    As true for people from India as it is for the grandchildren of todays subscribers.

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  3. “Rather, it demands learning enough about communities to know what work of the international cultural canon will be meaningful to them and then programming that with them.”

    The power of all art, whatever it’s source, is that it gives us things, ideas, experiences which we have never dreamed of. The above sentence, no matter how you try to spin it still seems to suggest giving people what it is they “want” in art.

    I see this played out all the time on social media. Community engaged arts organizations promoting a public art project and boasting how the work is relevant and relates to what the community knows and wants. That’s not artist’s driven art. In many cases it’s not even really art.

    • I should know better than to take the bait, but:
      • You’re right. There’s a lot of really bad stuff that gets labeled community engagement. Much of that comes from a profound lack of understanding of (or sometimes even belief in) effective engagement. But it’s also true that there is a lot of pretty bad stuff generated by artists following their own muse.
      • However, following the thread of these three blog posts, there are multiple categories of “good” that are important to acknowledge. The fact that some of them are meaningless to you does not make them less good.
      • There is no doubt that individual artists’ visions can (and should) drive and lead. Much of the general public was outraged at Maya Linn’s Vietnam War Memorial when it was first introduced. Now, of course, it has become a model for healing after contentious events.
      • Re: your interpretation of the statement of mine that you quote here, you are flat out wrong. If you know someone well you can suggest things that they can come to appreciate, even if they don’t “want” it at first.
      • You decry organization-based and community-oriented funding for creative expression (in your comment on the preceding blog post), little as that may be. We all have Jesse Helms (and his comrades) to thank for that. But he could get away with it because there was little connection between the general populace and the world of the arts, a circumstance largely unchanged today. What are you going to do to improve that?

      • Doug, What am I doing to foster the connection between the general public and the world of the arts you ask?
        For one thing, I work every day at trying to be an actual artist but also to study both the history and philosophy of art making in all cultures; a feat made more difficult because of the culture war created by people like Jesse Helms, Dick Armey, Peter Hoekstra, and others. These politicians did more than use the arts as a political football for their governmental austerity ideas. They starved the funding of culture in our society which resulted in arts organizations young and old, big and small, of all focuses, having to scramble for money to survive.

        I don’t think the argument should be against “European aristocratic tradition”, something that even Jesse Helms had no idea about. We should be arguing for funding of all traditions in art. We shouldn’t be pitting the Guggenheim against the National Museum of Mexican Art, or one form of thinking about excellence art against the other.