January 24, 2010 Archives
Should anyone think that this is the taboo plea for dropping standards everywhere and calling any old thing art, I bring to mind the analogy that several writers have used about food and the popularity of cooking shows when discussing the "amateur arts." Learning more about cooking and great food can benefit people without making them think they are chefs of international renown.
I look forward to the conversation this week and think that opening up the conversation about "what we call what we do" is intriguing -- a first step in rethinking how we can increase the value of our work to reach a broader range of people.
I have been thinking about the concept of the cultural rights of all individuals, and the term "expressive life" to describe one such basic cultural right, since Bill began talking and writing about this idea several years ago. This concept responds to a universal human impulse toward curiosity and the search for meaning. It opens up a welcome space for people like me who lack the talent and/or tenacity to become professional artists, but need to be in touch with our own creative impulses and to be stimulated and elated by others' craft or artistic mastery. As such, it proposes a fundamental and critically important realignment of our cultural infrastructure to place the individual, and individual creative engagement, in the center. But I've reluctantly come to the conclusion that the term "expressive life" itself will not accomplish what Bill wants of it, which is to shed the baggage of elitist assumptions that comes with the terms "arts" and "culture," and make room for a new policy perspective.
"Expressive life" could be seen by the same naysayers we are aiming to convert as broadly encompassing any and all forms of self-expression, creative or not, and even including destructive or anti-social self-expression. In fact, it is even more general and abstract than "arts" or "culture." And I worry that the phrase, and Bill's proposal for "'heritage' and 'voice' as subdivisions of expressive life," could simply substitute new art-world verbal codes for old ones.
A new term such as "expressive life" could work if it is seen by the people whose activities it means to describe as actually representing them--and if it is embraced and used by them first of all. This or any term needs to pass the smell test, particularly, of the young people on whom we place so much expectation for inventing new ways of blurring the lines between art and life, and between professional and avocational cultural activity. If the people find both the concept and the phrase resonant, then there is a chance that policy makers will, too.
With that in mind I decided to conduct a short poll on the subject with my nieces and nephews, whose ages range between 17 and 30-something.
Here is what one of them said (in response to my use of Bill's earlier phrase, "vibrant expressive life," as my topic):
Vibrant expressive life - hmmm. As a stoic Mainer this phrase feels a little overdramatic to me. Maybe just drop the word "vibrant." Or say "creative life" instead. I do believe that everyone has creative gifts to offer, and unfortunately the circumstances of people's lives do not often support the bringing forth of these gifts. I know people who would be producing creative work if their time and energy wasn't devoted to scraping by.
I hope to offer other thoughts from other nieces and nephews in future posts.
I met with hundreds of congressmen (and women) back when I was NEA chairman, and while I was mostly soliciting support for my agency, inevitably the conversations turned on the importance of the arts in a more general way. In just about all my meetings with government leaders, and with leaders in the corporate and foundation worlds, these talks convinced me that the terms we use -- "Art;" "Culture" -- are so burdened with assumptions and multiple meanings, and the policy arena they denote so unclear, that our key words are actually barriers holding back a meaningful connection between heritage and creativity and public purposes. Just about everybody assumes "Art" is painting and sculpture, or maybe "The Fine Arts" generally; "Culture" can be "the sum of all human behavior" or just "the political tilt of a state or region:" read "The Culture Wars" or "Red-state/Blue-state" voting. The implied policy frame is either way to big or, more frequently, much too narrow. From a mainstream policy perspective, the terms are marginalizing; "The Arts" end up as an amenity that you get around to addressing after you've "fixed" sectors like health care, the environment, and public education.
In my book "Arts, Inc." I advanced "Expressive Life" as both a fresh descriptive term and a new framework for policy conversation. I hope Expressive Life eliminates the dismissive, eye-rolling assumptions that now attach to "The Arts," and that the phrase implies up a zone of issues and possible engagements that can stand proudly beside "Family Life" and"Work Life." To me, from now on, whether engaging research, advocacy, or analysis, we should be talking about "the condition of America's Expressive Life in the 21st Century."
Using an expressive life frame will force us to do more than worry about the funding, artist, and nonprofit priorities that have dominated to instead think about things we don't much address -- intellectual property, broadband penetration, amateur art practice, media regulation, the vitality of for-profit arts companies, non-school arts learning, Fair Use, union policies, and access to cultural heritage. But carving out a more robust sector for ourselves, and moving out from under the marginalizing assumptions attached to current language will enable us to be "big" enough to secure cultural vibrancy ("a vibrant expressive life") as a key component of our democratic market democracy.