January 25, 2010 Archives
On the one hand, the general public I think would grasp Bill's definition. Most people know that when you express yourself, that means a part of who you are is being revealed either through speech, or what you create or wear, etc. Even professional athletes know that when they get elaborate tattoos that require a degree in semiotics to comprehend, they are indeed expressing themselves. It could be a very inclusive term.
But it may not be the best choice of words in corridors of power. 'Expression' is often used in legal contexts, typically in regards to free speech. There's a danger of using the word with policy-makers. Arts and culture will be conflated with more partisan, potentially controversial work that makes no attempt at being artistic. I think the broader the definition of 'expression,' the more difficult it becomes to defend when approaching those in power. Or worse, it will mean nothing to them.
The various comments about framing, vernacular, and who decides what's in and what's out have made me think hard about why I believe revisiting the language around what we do in arts/culture/entertainment or what have you is so important. By focusing on individuals as creators and instigators rather than the passive recipients of culture that is "done to them" we are beginning to address what role an expressive life should have in a developing democracy. In the US we are very much a work in progress, despite what we may tell ourselves about how much we want to export this thing we have built called freedom. Democracy requires a balance between the individual and the group -- policy helps set boundaries for how that balance will be maintained.
By examining the ways in which the narrow definition of arts and culture has limited how we think about who takes part, in what way, and why, we are perhaps rehearsing better reasons for us to regain our place in the civic conversation. The disparities of wealth and opportunity in the US (and indeed globally) are not someone else's problem -- they are everyone's problem, and I was intrigued to read recently in a work by Mark Stern and Susan Seifert that our traditional delivery systems and adherence to "star" hierarchies in the arts contributes actively to social and economic inequalities, just as in the realm of sports. Now there's an economic impact that doesn't get much air time.
Whether expressive life is the right phrase or not matters much less to me than our exploration of the dramatic need to involve far greater numbers of people in arts, culture and creative endeavours for their benefit rather than ours -- because we are not just part of an arts ecology but society as a whole, and in my view it's time we started taking that a lot more seriously.
And on that rather Calvinist note, I look forward to the ongoing discussion.
In several countries around the world of very different ideological and political persuasions, artists and cultural workers, national and local politicians, various civil society sectors, and multilateral bodies are vigorously engaged in ongoing discourses about culture and the arts combined as a transversal cultural policy category which intersects other quality of life polices in such areas as spiritual well being, imagination and creativity, economics, health, security, conflict resolution and so on. In general these discourses illustrate the poverty of our societal focus on arts and culture and I think the urgency of arts and culture practitioners and related fields to break with our rather amorphous, reactive, often anti-intellectual discussions, and pandering, raw market posture, e.g. "Arts=Jobs", in the search to foreground and get support for arts and culture from politicians and corporate patrons.
Provocative, yes! But I think a relatively accurate, real-culture-politic description of the national context in which Expressive Life is posited as a substantive qualitative focus and means with potential to "eliminate the dismissive, eye-rolling assumptions that now attach to "The Arts".
Although I do not think that Bill's Expressive Life construct will supplant traditional usage of the words arts and culture, I welcome it because I think it provides a needed discursive framework with potential to stimulate-- as in this Blog and the UK's engagement of the terminology and meaning--- a deep and ongoing examination of why we find the arts and culture, (artists and intellectuals) in such a marginal place in national life exemplified in the meager $50 million allotment of the $787 billion dollar stimulus package. Beyond reflection, I think Expressive Life as "voice" and "heritage" provides substance and direction for an expansive, productive public and governance policy focus. And Expressive Life has potential to prime a deeper discussion of meaning and range of arts and culture and help put behind us the often shallow practice of subsuming culture in arts' articulations and diminishing or dismissing the arts in intellectual discussion.
So, I urge that we take heed of the song lyrics "We are the ones we've been waiting for" of Sweet Honey in the Rock and use Bill's Expressive Culture initiative to situate artists and cultural workers and to elaborate arts and culture In the center of our national debate and policy formulation to re-steady our country and to reintegrate into the protocols forged by the community of nations.
To be honest, we have neither the process nor the authority to make those decisions. Rather, all the current and potential players in the game and their representatives can choose for themselves whether the larger frame serves their specific purpose. I'm hoping that most of them are having that very discussion right now (or perhaps they're already done).
Back in 2008, Elizabeth Long Lingo and I (and a fabulous research team) actually dabbled in the very question for a Curb Center research initiative at the National Performing Arts Convention in Denver. Since the convention was drawing a national audience of arts professionals, advocates, and supporters from multiple disciplines, our research team wanted to know how they drew the frame around ''performing arts'' (essentially the ''what's in and what's out'' question). Here are the results of that pre-conference survey question for those who care to know (click the link or the image for a full-size view).
I found it interesting that the convention was intended to bring more muscle and motivation to a national conversation about public policy and the performing arts, but that two of the largest national and local purveyors of music (Walmart) and media theater (Blockbuster) didn't make the cut.
I think Steven Tepper is correct about the way expressive life can be the umbrella for different policy realms. To me things like IP law, media regulation, corporate archival preservation policies, revenue streams that flow to the arts industries and other elements are the "system" that defines the character of expressive life. We can ask questions like "Will an extended copyright term enhance the expressive life of consumers and/or artists? Does local newspaper ownership enhance the expressive life of a community? Will the approval of a merger between two major motion picture studios improve or inhibit access to heritage film? And expressive life can be home to a number of advocacy efforts that are now disconnected -- arts funding, fairness in media, Internet access, free speech, the Creative Commons, etc., etc. The new whole might be greater than the current sum of these parts.
Adrian Ellis is right to ask about what's in and what's out. His list -- hair dressing, mud-wrestling, chess, would to me mostly be out. But frying an egg might fit if it were part of serious chefing, and home design or fashion would fit even if pursued by amateurs, and certainly things like social dancing would be in. More problematic for me is political speech -- probably has to be in -- and religion...Can we accept music and visual art and great sermons but leave the dogma itself to that other realm, religious life? It will be challenging and fun to figure out the contents of expressive life; there will probably never be agreement as to what fits along the margins but we can probably end with agreement on a solid core.
Andras asks what a vibrant expressive life would look like. Good question. Part of the solution is just access; everybody must have access to the materials of cultural heritage and to the tools of personal creativity. That formulation means that a record company that won't reissue an old disc is inhibiting expressive life, as is the fact of limited penetration of the Internet and related hardware and software in poor communities. The woman with a vibrant expressive life would be engaged with art and art making from the past, and would possess the skill set required to sustain her own creative practice. Much of the work of securing a vibrant expressive life will be the process of eliminating barriers, many of which are secured by powerful market forces, while critiquing policy in relation to access. Eliminate barriers so the system makes connecting and doing easy.
This is about community as well as individuals, and while much of this is pretty abstract, the creation of new, low-power FM broadcast licenses in urban areas is the kind of policy that could be discussed in relation to its impact on expressive life.
Lewis Hyde's question about timing has me wondering. Hmmmm. Americans for the Arts did launch their new National Arts Index last week, and it uses 76 indicators (such as the number of bookstores and movie screens) that go far beyond the uses counting of nonprofits. Maybe the arts sector itself is ready to engage a new idea and be part of a bigger frame. Interesting question
In Bill's theoretical division of the Expressive Life into Heritage and Voice, my hazy realm of folk music would seem to fall squarely on the Heritage side of the line. But along with clawhammer banjo and country blues harmonica, we fill hundreds of classes with students hungry for hip-hop, bhangra, punk-rock and alt-country, blurry-edged genres that are all reflections of some extended community's contemporary aesthetic -- legitimate fodder for an institution concerned with traditional culture, but hardly preservationist in intent. Heritage in practice includes an awful lot of Voice.
Over the decades there've been occasional suggestions to change our folk name. But to what? Old Town School of "American" Music? What message would that send to our students of Mexican son Jarocho, Brazilian samba, Hawaiian hula, Spanish flamenco and Finnish polskas? Maybe just Old Town School of "Music?" God forbid, somebody would mistake us for one of those stuffy conservatories where they toss around terms like "art" and "culture." Old Town School of "Expressive" Music... Hmmm. After repetitive reflection, we've come to embrace the Folk in our name. It is such a malleable term that we can use it to signify the totality of what we do. Our job consists, in part, in revealing the full glory of the word to our public, again and again.
Our folk music world is the smallest and least prestigious corner of the public arts domain, but I wonder if concerns over the ambiguous nature of "art" and "culture" are extensions of our modest struggles with self definition. Ultimately, can the slippery nature of our definitional terminology be transformed into a positive, forcing us to articulate a cohesive vision of whatever we're doing?
- the new frame is resonant with the belief, values and cognitive orientation of targeted audiences; and
- when activists find that the old frames are increasingly unhelpful in their work and are actively looking for new frames.
- You can "amplify" the frame, e.g. excavate the core values and beliefs underlying the frame and make those more salient. So amplifying the "expressive life" frame might include focusing on the idea that Americans believe in self-determination, or emphasizing that expressive life is an antidote to both big government and big corporations; or that expressive life is about freedom and/or the pursuit of happiness.
- You can "extend" the frame by connecting it to other frames or other issues where there are natural allies/constituents who might be sympathetic to your frame but currently view the world through a different lens.
If there is to be a cultural policy and an "expressive life infrastructure," by whatever name, how would we know that it's been put to work? What outcomes should policy-makers and advocates seek and nurture? If cultural policy is, as Sam Jones argues, analogous to health and learning, how can we agree about its goals and what would be the parallels to a healthy or educated person, community, and nation? Would the goals of such a policy be normative? Would they be inclusive without limitation?
Put another way, what would be the hallmarks of a person or a community that has a rich expressive life?
So we are frustrated with the imprecision of the terms 'arts' and 'culture' when used in the context of public policy, and we are frustrated with the confining policy perspectives that have developed around these terms. They encourage us to focus overly on the public funding of 501(c)(3) arts organizations and to under-emphasize other policy domains (private sector, unincorporated organizations, individuals, etc.) and policy levers (legislation, regulation, exhortation etc.). These levers, if used, have a potentially positive impact on our quality of life. The result of our collective myopia is that the cultural ecology of the United States is unbalanced and the potential contribution which that ecology can make to the richness of our lives is both underexplored and imperfectly understood.
There is therefore a linguistic issue and a substantive issue. The linguistic one I am personally agnostic about. Hopefully, by the end of the week I won't be. 'Expressive life' is an attempt to coin a phrase and maneuver it into use in policy discussions - ambitious task in itself, but I am also slightly unclear about the definitional contours: what's in there exactly? Arts and crafts as traditionally understood at amateur and professional levels. Sport? Hair-dressing? Mud-wrestling? Motor-cycle maintenance? Chess? Climbing mountains? Choosing walk to work? Cooking a cordon bleu meal? Frying an egg? Recreational sex? All of these present challenges for art and culture definitions but they seem to for 'expressive life' too. And do 'voice' and 'heritage' overlap too heavily to be distinct? Improvisation over a blues or standard song form, for example ...isn't one person's voice another person's heritage? Wouldn't a concerted effort at widespread adoption of the term just throw us into the same definitional quagmire that Bill sees 'art' and 'culture' floating in?
The substantive issue he raises though, however, is wholly on point. Cultural policy in the United States is anemic in content and circumscribed in scope in part because big, noisy, self-interested organizations have pre-empted so much of the 'issue space'. They did it on the way up and they are going to do it on the way back down. They should clearly have some of that space - and I suspect that Bill and I may differ on how much - and their current distress in adapting to changing circumstances is going to require public policy to sort it out . But they are just intermediaries and the criterion for judging their efficacy is how well they act as mechanisms for supporting artistic and cultural engagement (pre-Iveyian terminology) or transmitting heritage and encouraging voice (Iveyian).
The problem I see ahead is that this specific debate encourages us to side-step rather than to tackle a more essential debate to which is should lead: what heritages and voices should be the object of cultural policy, which like all policy is about the distribution of scarce resources and therefore requires allocative decisions to be made. That does not necessarily mean ' which art forms' - it can mean a la Tepper what social states (deliberation, solidarity etc.). But the debate about the legitimate and appropriate ends and means for cultural or expressive policy is the one that needs to be had and I need to see more clearly how the 'expressive life' express gets you there faster.
A question lingers, however: when does reframing work and why? Many Democrats in the 2004 election thought that if they could just change the catch phrases of the debate they would win. They were wrong.
I don't know the answer to the "when & why." I hope others can offer some insight. That said, my guess is that, as always, it matters whether the ground is fertile or sterile when you scatter your seed. In this line a decade ago I wrote an essay that looked toward American history to try to understand what did and didn't have political traction when we debate issues such as funding the arts.
I ended up with a short list of themes whose roots are very old in this country but whose fruits we still seem to be harvesting. I suspect, for one, that we still have a surviving ethic of Protestant simplicity. We also have a strong suspicion of anything that doesn't seem practical and useful; finally, from our early emphasis on the value of voluntary association, we have inherited a particular sense of what it means to contribute taxes to any common enterprise.
The opposition between simplicity and luxury was a commonplace in the eighteenth century, the latter always linked to corruption and tyranny. From "the dawn of history," John Adams wrote, the fine arts "have been prostituted to the service of superstition and despotism." It wasn't only the opulence of European art that put him off, either; it was the hierarchies of wealth that the stuff implied. Adams had visited Blenheim in England, a palace that had taken twenty-two years to build: did Americans wish to repeat the class system required for that kind of project?
As for the American love of the practical and useful, its flip side is distrust of learning or art pursued for their own sake. To take but one old example: in the nineteenth century, Yankee blue bloods, weary of having civic offices filled by the spoils system, hoped to institute competency tests, whereupon they were attacked for demanding useless knowledge when only the useful was needed. On the floor of the House a congressman from Mississippi spun out the following fantasy:
Suppose some wild mustang girl from New Mexico comes here for a position, and it may be that she does not know whether the Gulf stream runs north or south, or perhaps she thinks it stands on end..., yet although competent for the minor position she seeks, she is sent back home rejected.
A Senator from Wisconsin worried that a businessman, his mind "long engrossed in practical pursuits," would be rejected for public service in favor of a "dunce who has been crammed up to a diploma at Yale."
Bill Ivey writes that Art and Culture "are so burdened with assumptions and multiple meanings...that our key words are actually barriers." I agree. But those assumptions and meanings have very deep roots. How effective can a change of terms be in cutting those roots?
I like the phrase "expressive life." I'll use it myself. But I'm also aware that I don't know when reframing works and when it doesn't work. Ideas anyone?
Why do I think the idea of the 'expressive life' is important? The first thing to point out is that I'm writing from an international perspective: I am based in the UK. That shapes my opinion (like all countries, the UK brings a particular political context) but it also reminds us that cultural policy must respond to a more technologically diverse and connected world. That is one reason why I think that the idea of expression helps. Another is that, compared to, say, defence, health, communities and other policy areas, culture is not a major area of public policy and this is common to many countries. It can often be an afterthought, and considered more from the perspective of providing entertainment than anything more essential to life. The idea of 'expressive life' provides reason to think again - maybe it's a case of switching on to expressive life.
The British Museum has recently mounted a series of exhibitions about great leaders including China's Qin Shihuangdi, Rome's Hadrian, Shah Abbas in Iran and Moctezuma of the Aztecs. These have attracted millions of visitors. They have also centred around cultural artefacts, the creative products of the past. The way that those products were made, kept and cared for, expresses beliefs, attitudes and values - and that's how we seek to find out about life in ancient China or Rome or the world of the Aztecs and Isfahan. Today, the place of these objects in a museum and the choices that those millions make in going to see them are also expressions of value.
Why is it that, while we seek to understand the values of the past through cultural products, we rarely approach the choices we make now in what to create, do, consume and think about in the same way? The idea of 'expressive life' enables policy-makers to think about the value and role of culture differently. When we make these choices, we say something about who we are, what we want to be and with whom we feel affinity: this is the fabric of communities and societies. This puts cultural institutions in a different light: they are spaces for expression (that's a challenge for the professions that I see Marian has picked up below). There is a responsibility to give people the opportunity to take part in responding to the values symbolised around them and in creating values anew.
Each day we encounter an intensity of cultural forms. Online, on the streets and even in restaurants, we have the opportunity to seek out different cultural experiences. In London, there is even a Polish-Mexican restaurant with a French name. Advances in technology and our growing awareness of the experiences now available will mean that this will only increase. What is more, the opportunity to create and share what we have produced has increased as well. Now, I can watch a video put online by a teenager in Azerbaijan more easily - and maybe even less expensively - than I can Warner Bros' latest release at the local cinema.
All this creates fantastic opportunities to see and experience different beliefs, attitudes and worldviews, but it is not without problems. Different attitudes can grate against each other - this happened in the UK with the play Bhezti, and it happened globally with the film 300. Differences become clearer and often more exaggerated. At the same time, inequalities of access become more significant. If, in some parts of the world, cultural production is becoming an important way of getting opinion heard globally and is a field in which new, global values are shaped, is it not inequitable if people in other parts of the world are at a technological disadvantage and do not have as much access? As peoples mix and mingle through migration, education should open people to different cultural forms and how to read and interpret them. If private interest controls the cultural heritage of our past through contracts and copyright, are we not denied the chance to respond to and adapt the cultural heritage that has shaped us? The world would have been a poorer place if Homer or the Norse sagas had been subject to the ligatures of copyright.
As an area of policy, culture is more like like health and learning than it is the health service or education. It must be nurtured, maintained and responded to, rather than thought of as something that is provided, given or - especially at a time of financial pressure - cut or taken away. Culture is not something that is provided to entertain communities: it is the ongoing traffic and conversation between peoples and values of which communities are formed.
Most significantly of all, 'expression' is a basic democratic right. The opportunity to take part in shaping culture must not be denied. People should be given opportunities and skills to communicate through the different forms of expression available. Technology has broadened our potential to do this, but it has also raised new questions about cultural equity. We can create and express freely, but policy must ensure that the heritage that will stimulate that information and the capabilities so to do are freely available.
If it is Bill's intention to enlarge the traditional frame (which to me it seems it is) then where's the constituency for enlarging it? At this point "the arts" or worse yet the "arts community" have become muddied terms not because they've become too narrow, but perhaps because they've become too broad. From an artistic point of view, contemporary composers have difficulty enough figuring out which genre of music they're said to be writing in let alone worrying about community kinship with painters or video game writers. From a cultural policy perspective, it's unclear to me that even though the case has been made over and over that issues such as broadband policy, copyright and heritage are critical to our creative future, that many are willing to take them up.
We grew up and lost touch, and instead of becoming a visual artist I became a writer who draws the occasional quick sketch. On impulse I recently Googled R.C. and was amazed to learn that he has become a self-educated master of oil painting, with the kind of deep, subtle style that comes not just from talent but from years of cultivating talent.
R.C. has received no commensurate rewards for his work, and I know how bitter that is. So I agree that something needs to be changed about the larger art world and a discourse that seems self-defeating.
But the words themselves are not to blame.
Why are "art" and "culture" so loaded? Both can be used in a non-evaluative way, as in "Don't trip over the art," or "Jersey Shore is not reflective of Italian-American culture."
But both words also have a pesky evaluative meaning that irritates people who associate artistic achievement with social privilege and economic advantage. My question is, where does that leave R.C., who gave up conventional success, not for "expressive life" but for art?
For me, one important challenge facing cultural policy is the constant debate and emphasis on "content." Most of our policies and institutions are set up to advance, in one way or another, varying views of "good content" verses "bad content." Like aspects of food policy, we are seeking ways to make sure more people eat "good food" - leading to better nutrition, which is considered a public good. But, we don't have any evidence that when we engage "good culture" (the opera verses Family Guy), that we necessarily have better health.
Instead, I think cultural policy must try to be content neutral (which flips our entire paradigm on its head). In terms of cultural participation, I have argued that this means thinking about the types of "experiences" that produce the outcomes we care about (reflection, deliberation, efficacy, understanding, pride, solidarity, etc.) and then orienting our support and policies around ANY form of content that can produce those experiences. In the larger cultural policy debate, that means focusing on an outcome that is independent of content, such as the flow of creative expression between citizens.
If we think about our "expressive life" infrastructure, we can imagine a grid (like the energy grid) that allows culture to flow freely between citizens (back and forward across time - encompassing both heritage and voice). There are many things that get in the way of such communication or conversation (as Andras would put it) - intellectual property laws, restrictive corporate practice and narrow gates, media consolidation, lack of minority owned media, rules against low frequency radio, a shortage of presentation venues for live performing arts, the decline of local journalism, etc.
The Expressive Life frame helps me think about a content-neutral frame that can focus on public interest concerns related to the quality of our expressive life "grid." Where are the tolls, bottlenecks, dead ends, and one way streets in our collective cultural lives? Can policy address these structural problems?
As I anticipated, the "doing" part of expressive life is jumping out as the dominant component of the idea. Expressive life divides into "voice" and "heritage." These two halves are basically in conflict, or at least in a continual negotiated conversation. "Heritage" is the grounding, historical piece, encompassing shared values, historical practices, a sense of community, family, faith, and so on. Creativity of the past is a container for heritage, and our democracy needs access to it, even if, say, what we're talking about are historical blues recordings that are simultaneously heritage and corporate asset. "Voice," on the other hand, is more about autonomy, a sense of personal distinction, achievement, and independence. My folklorist friends are especially fond of heritage, because it provides continuity and strengthens community ties. On the other hand, global-perspecitive intellectuals like Anthony Appiah see heritage as an anchor that drags down individuals who want to achieve on a world stage; globalizers like "voice." To me, the two need to be in balance within individuals, communities, and even nations.
Andras feels we should just reclaim, reinvent, or redefine our existing terms. Good idea, but it's hard for me to see how that toothpaste will go back in the tube. Also, I think we need to make things like media regulation and intellectual property law part of our policy conversation, and it's really hard to see how we can rework "art" and "culture" to be a container for an expanded policy realm that mainstream actors with corporations, government, and foundations will understand.
Attention to the rights of groups and individuals within a cultural frame has frequently been a conversation stopper. "Is my tribe getting the appropriate share of money, attention, etc." is certainly a question that can be considered at some point...I'm just not certain it's the first thing.
By defeatist, I mean that the proposition here is to evacuate the contaminated rhetorical premises of "art" and "culture"; to flee from them, rather than win them back in all their glory. As a strategy, it's like switching to "progressive" from "liberal"--clever, but ultimately a bit of a copout. Can old terms have fresh meanings? Must we leave them charred and wounded on the battlefield?
By a lop-sided view of culture, I'm referring to a definitional nuance that is more important. "Expressive life" puts the emphasis on communication, and not just any communication--projective communication. Such a view of culture--solely comprised of people and organizations broadcasting their words, sounds and images into the world--is half of what I think culture to be. For culture is about absorbing as much as it is about expressing.
Perhaps, in addition to the "expressive life," should we also consider the "receptive life"? Bill alludes to this in his in his writings in his poignant contrast of "heritage" and "voice"--but those words reflect the duality only to a point. Yes, culture is certainly about listening to the past and having a voice in the present. But is also about listening in the present and having a voice in the present. Culture is a conversation: endlessly absorbing and expressing. The words "art" and "culture" have served us well because they encompass both of these dimensions.
But in this week's conversation, I'm less concerned about whether ''expressive life'' is exactly the right phrase for everyone, and more interested in whether it offers a USEFUL frame for the real work of our field. The George Box quote used as the title of this post gets to the heart of that issue: Every model we use to engage the world is incomplete or incorrect in some way -- it has to be. What matters is how well those imperfect models move us forward in the specific task at hand.
For me, at least, ''expressive life'' has become an extraordinarily useful model -- in teaching my MBA students about policy and practice, in discussing issues in the arts with peers, in thinking about the cast of characters that influence how we create, present, connect, discuss, preserve, and support both human heritage and individual voice.
As Marian suggests, the phrase doesn't ''do'' much on its own. But I think it allows us to think about, speak about, and go about our work in more productive and connected ways. And that's a start.