January 26, 2010 Archives
This conversation reminds me of the time six years ago when Wallace Foundation and RAND released Gifts of the Muse - Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts. After providing us with a terrifically erudite accounting of arts benefits, the authors' lead recommendation in the last chapter was to "develop language for discussing intrinsic benefits." And I wondered, whose job is it to create this new language? (Frankly, I'd hoped RAND might make some suggestions...) I imagined a room somewhere in the sub-basement of the NEA where wordsmiths were earnestly hammering away at new framing language that will, once and for all, tickle the funnybone of policymakers and convince them that the arts really matter.
I can contribute one data point to the language conversation. A few years ago, I led some focus groups with caregivers of children in low-income Dallas neighborhoods, in connection with the Thriving Minds creative learning initiative. We tested three terms for salience: 1) "arts activities," 2) "cultural activities," and 3) "creative activities," with the following results:
- The word "creative" had strongly positive connotations associated with awakening the imagination, interaction and freedom of choice. It was also seen as a gender-positive term for boys who might feel social pressure not to get involved with "arts" activities.
- "Cultural activities" were generally expected to be heritage-based and culturally-specific, and thus not for everybody.
- "Arts Activities" took on the meaning of arts and crafts.
I can only imagine how they would've reacted to "Expressive Life."
The notion that every citizen has a right to an expressive life is a powerful and galvanizing idea, and a good platform for debate about copyright law and other policy reforms. I like it, I really do. But will it translate from insider to outsider? From policy circles to lawmakers and plain folk who care deeply about culture? It depends on who we want to influence, and what we want from them. Maybe we just need to hire really expensive lobbyists? (:~>)
As policy language goes, I am partial to 'creative vitality' as a core element of quality of life, and to 'creative capital' as the thing that gets measured. This train has already left the station. Creative Scotland. Creative New Zealand. The Creative Campus program, funded by the Duke Foundation and administered by Arts Presenters, is a good example. Increasingly, arts presenters are recasting themselves as catalysts of creativity in their communities, not just as presenters of touring artists. Business schools are looking to design firms for new ways of teaching young entrepreneurs how to think more creatively. Given all the positive energy around 'creative vitality,' and the direct links to civic engagement and economic competitiveness, I have to wonder why we would want to jump from the creative vitality train to the expressive life express.
I had a dark thought. I think the Supreme Court just complicated the idea of expressive life. If corporate contributions to political campaigns are now to be protected as part of our freedom of expression, what exactly qualifies as "expressive life?"
I keep coming back to creativity, to the ability to make what is new, to combine previously disparate elements, to communicate something previously unrecognized. And yes, it happens in the syntheses, in the discoveries of science too. Our case for the participation of all in creative expression would be strengthened by understanding how this occurs. Expression must be qualified with "creative."
Doug worries that if we take on any policy issues other than those that directly affect our core constituency -- nonprofit arts organizations and artists who work mostly in that world -- we'll be out of our depth and get things wrong, unable to choose sides responsibly.
True, there are some ambiguous situations that arise, but many issues are pretty clear, especially if we always ask, "Will policy x enhance the expressive lives of individuals and communities by making heritage and the tools of creativity more available, or will the policy increase costs, erect barriers, or limit access?" After all, we are as smart as leaders in any field, and little of this is rocket science: create low-power FM outlets in urban areas, almost certainly a good thing; allow one company to own 10% of all radio stations; probably bad (as the Clear Channel experiment demonstrated); abandon Net Neutrality to allow advertisers to steer online searches; almost certainly bad. Yes, there are some really thorny issues (Google Books is one) but I absolutely believe that the conversation around these issues will be better if the smart folks who have mostly thought about museum attendance and foundation funding turn their attention to a wider set of issues. If we don't, the part of the arts scene that we know best will end up as roadkill smashed flat as public policy speeds along the highway to market hegemony.
Now I'm not a conspiracy theorist (really; I'm not) but if I were it would be easy to frame the entire nonprofit arts scene as a plot to keep smart arts people from ever thinking about things like copyright, union agreements, media ownership, or mergers in the recording, film, and television, or live performance industries. They give the NEA an extra ten million some years, and it's all "high-fives;" the next year they take it away, and we spend thousands on seminars to help us cope with the funding crisis. All the while, bigger forces are quietly tying up the Internet, expanding the footprint of IP, while allowing heritage assets to be locked up in the vaults of a few merged media giants. The nonprofit scene can be viewed as a medium-sized sandbox in which arts people are asked to play for a pittance while mainstream policy actors use legislation, legal interpretation, and regulation to expand controlled revenue streams.
But I'm not, just not, a conspiracy theorist...
I appreciate Marian Godfrey's concern about our current crop of cultural nonprofits; they're in trouble and, quite apart from any talk about expressive life, they seem to be getting pushed to the margins. While I've never viewed the idea of broadening our frame of reference as a strategy to increase support for any part of the arts spectrum, it does seem that, if there's a bigger discussion about the importance of all of expressive life to quality of life, all boats should rise.
Think about the environment. Let's say thirty years ago a smart cluster of advocates began to gather support for wetlands preservation. They would have had some success over the decades; duck hunters would have weighed in, and probably some birdwatchers, but my guess is that the wetlands preservation movement would have hit the upper limits of financial support and policy engagement pretty quickly. On the other hand, wetlands as a part of a larger environmental-movement frame has much greater standing and can get its share of a very big whole. You get my point; I don't think our traditional fine-arts organizations can advance in the current economy and policy frame unless they're part of a big idea that is powerful enough to stand beside health care, education, and even the environment. But it will be challenging for a sector that has claimed most of the conversation "on the way up and down" (to paraphrase Adrian Ellis), to step back and be part of something bigger in order to advance expressive life as a marker of a healthy democracy.
We need to test Nihar Patel's idea that "expressive life" is too close to "free expression" for comfort. I know the phrase tilts us away from heritage, but if the very term "expression" is too hot for policy leaders to handle, we need to keep thinking...
I get that expanding the frame still means having a list of who's on the boat and who's off. But even after one determines whether frying eggs is on or off, it seems to me that an expanded list means expanded difficulty in determining desirable rational policy. Authors versus Google books. Musicians versus recording companies. Concertgoers versus TicketMaster. Where do you come down?
It's difficult enough when it's just the non-profit sector and there seems like even the semblance of a commonality of model. There are many issues where cultural policy for the public good seems easy (access to cultural heritage being an obvious one) But how do we expand the frame to deal with something even so fundamental as the ticket business without making a mess?
Monday, the Justice Department approved the merger of Ticketmaster (the world's largest ticketing service) and Live Nation (the world's largest producer, promoter, and host of live concerts). The merger has clear implications for worldwide markets of live performance, for the control of and profit from all activities surrounding those performances, and for how venues, media outlets, artists, presenters, producers, artist representatives, and local communities connect the live arts with audiences.
It's an example of a significant and public shift in the shape of our industry (not just nonprofit arts, but certainly including nonprofit arts) that had little play in the ''arts and culture'' conversation. Bruce Springsteen was against it, but he's not ''arts and culture.'' Consumer groups and independent commercial entertainment providers were concerned, as well, but they're not ''arts and culture'' either.
I'm not sure that ''expressive life'' resolves that problem, or would suddenly make artists and cultural leaders more aware and engaged in public policy decisions that shape their universe. But it underscores to me the inadequacy of ''arts and culture'' as a frame and a filter for public conversation.
UPDATE 1/27/2010: Neill Archer Roan posted some detailed thoughts on the merger issue on his blog. Worth a read if you're not sure how the merger might impact your work.
Here's my question: are we just going to ignore these organizations? They are the bed we have made and are currently lying in. If we are Darwinian about it, and just let them go down, we (and policy makers) could be heavily distracted by that depressing spectacle for another twenty years. Or don't they need to be co-opted into the process of reframing both the place of expressivity in civic life, and the centrality of the expressive individual in our cultural life?
What happens to our current non-profit cultural infrastructure will influence the success or not of the enterprise Bill has pointed us toward because in the eyes of many policy makers, especially at the local level, these big, noisy, dysfunctional organizations are the most important and visible carriers of cultural heritage. Of course we can just wait the twenty years and let their fate resolve itself, but that doesn't feel like any way to pursue a movement, which is what it feels to me we are talking about.