January 29, 2010 Archives
Thanks to Marian for reminding us that the nonprofit sector remains a source of responsible adult leadership when it comes to questions of heritage, creativity, and the public interest.
Today arts managers, and just about everybody who cares about art, artists, and cultural vitality is talking about the need for a new approach and a new beginning. To me expressive life, with its suggestion of a more-inclusive cultural sector claiming a more-elemental role in democracy, offers a banner behind which smart, new arguments can proceed. I don't know when our Blogmeister will cut us off, but this is probably the time for final thoughts...
To paraphrase Marian: let's find an opportunity to keep this going...
And Nashville's snow is turning to freezing rain...
BIll returns to the role of nonprofits in advancing the idea of expressive life. I agree: one thing this dialog has made abundantly clear is that for the idea to gain traction with policy makers, the first responsibility lies with us, who operate within the professional culture sector, to respect not only the idea of the cultural right to an expressive life, but also the individuals who pursue that right and the activities attendant upon that right. For the time being, anyway, the media and other purveyors of commercial culture will acknowledge those individuals to the degree that they are, or can be converted to being, consumers. It is the nonprofit cultural sector that has the already recognized responsibility to serve the public interest. and as such I believe that it is nonprofit cultural organizations that can and should be on the front lines of welcoming all kinds of creative individuals into the center of their missions and activities. The organizations who are thinking and acting most innovatively are already moving toward embracing this role.
PS to Jim: I expect there is always a tension between voice and heritage; indeed, exploring such tensions is exactly what narrative is good at doing.
I hope we can continue this conversation in other venues, it's a privilege to be in all your company.
This has been an enjoyable, stimulating conversation over the past five days and I suspect it will take a while for each of us to untangle its many threads in order to extract maximum value.
Great fun for me!
I agree with Adrian that consideration of expressive life must be part and parcel rethinking in new ways about quality of life generally, and that Robert Lane's and Richard Layard's and other's work on happiness will be important companions as we re-value heritage and voice. Many observers of quality of life are critics of consumer values, and I suspect that to elevate expressive life as a destination for smart public policy we will have to help deflate consumerism. Back when I was working in the Obama transition the economic situation looked so dire that a number of us on that team felt that the U.S. would be forced to rethink core values, as was the case in the 1930s, and consumerism might be pushed off its throne. Although that big reset didn't happen it still looks like a modest one is in play -- our standard of living is unlikely to return to credit-driven excess, and I suspect market fundamentalism is properly and fatally wounded. Perhaps the immediate value in defining expressive life boldly and specifically is to allow a new view of culture in society to stand in the wings ready to bolt onstage when old values and assumptions exit?
The quotation provided by Andrew's dad is apt; if we want to rename the cultural sector we must also reshape it. My argument, of course, has been that the pieces of a new model of culture in society are lying about, and we can make great progress by simply scooping up things like media policy, intellectual property, trade in cultural goods, international cultural engagement, and regulation of mergers and acquisitions to flesh out the content of our new term, expressive life.
Throughout Andras has reminded us of the limitations of our existing portfolio. Each of us, in one way or another, is an "arts person," and it is reasonable to ask if voices steeped in the nonprofit arts can suddenly stand up and advocate for changes in language and substance that will reshape the character of our field. This is especially problematic because the payoff to be derived from an ambitious, expressive-life frame is off in the future, while present concerns about deficits, endowment shrinkage, etc. is with leaders in our field every day. We will certainly have to enlist the help of the legal crew -- Larry Lessig, et al -- who are working to humanize the IP regime, focusing on law and the courts, and there are also dynamic potential partners in public interest media. And we can certainly find passionate allies among the librarians, archivists, and documentary producers who are vexed by the cumbersome, permission-based system that stands between present-day creativity and heritage art. But despite the presence of quite a few relevant fellow-travelers, it still feels that those of us in what we have called "the cultural sector," though focused on nonprofits and the fine arts, are still best equipped to lead. I hope we can find a way to pick up the challenge.
There is good, helpful argument coming down the pike. Lewis Hyde's soon-to-be published book on 18th-century American thought and the real character of copyright will undermine many of the scandalous arguments advanced today by corporate copyright maximalists, and Matha Bayles' forthcoming volume will clarify the character of the relationship between American export culture and the rest of the world. Both of these works will help define the content and boundaries of expressive life, and I'm sure others on this blog have valuable projects underway.
Though narrowly constructed, our familiar formulation of "The Arts" has experienced remarkable growth. Lately Bob Lynch, of AFTA, has been reminding us that, between 2003 and 2008, a new cultural nonprofit was created every three hours (!). That said, all of this growth in organizations and dollars -- through foundations, the NEA, corporate giving, private contributions -- has been in service of something that is basically viewed as an amenity. Thus, The Arts, as we've defined them, grow flush in times of perceived surplus, only to be cut back sharply when fiscal restraint forces centers of power to focus on "real" issues -- health care, the environment, education (but not arts ed). Gates Foundation priorities, mirrored by government and engaged by business, end up setting the boundaries within which "legitimate" efforts to advance quality of life are carried out. But we know that quality of life depends on more than those crude markers of well-being that Gates will fund, but old words and and old definitions are insufficient. To spend more decades flogging away on behalf of "The Arts" at this point feels futile. On the other hand, advancing Expressive Life at least affords the possiblity of marking an important new path to a high quality of life in our democracy.
Thanks to Doug for putting this blog together, and to each of our participants for your many, many thoughtful contributions.
We're having a big snow in Music City...An excellent opportunity to link brandy with contemplation!
There's clearly work to be done to ensure each citizen's right to find and express their voice, and to discover, experience, and remix the expressions around them. There's also work to be done in repurposing those cultural institutions who care to be repurposed as local and national stewards of such expression -- among other stewards. Whether language comes first or policy does is probably the wrong question. In truth, such things always move together.
My father, who's a physics professor, sent me the following quote when he read what I would be talking about this week. Seems to be a good sentiment to close my last post:
''...we cannot improve the language of any science without at the same time improving the science itself; neither can we, on the other hand, improve a science, without improving the language or nomenclature which belongs to it.''
A. Lavoisier, Traité Elémentaire de Chimie. William Creech, Edinburgh, 1790. Translated by Robert Kerr as The Elements of Chemistry, reprinted by Dover, 1965
The expressive life agenda feels as much to me like the stuff of a broad social movement as it does a framework for policy analysis. The head of steam required for the policy analysis, the honing of performance indicators and the required assault on producer interests in policy-making is likely to occur only if there is, to use Bill's comment, 'an environment that honors expressive life as a public good.'
For this to happen, the agenda needs to be linked back to the debate about what constitutes a fulfilled life, expressive or otherwise, and whether social institutions are generally arranged in a way that permits that life to be led and that gives us all some gentle nudges in that direction, particularly in our formative years.
This - the good life, what it is and how you live it - was for centuries an overt topic of discussion and not just amongst philosophers and framers of constitutions but then sort of went underground a little under a century ago, resurfacing in self-help literature and a few academic books that were generally seen as eccentric and subjective within the value-neutral realm of social science (e.g. Tibor Skitovky's The Joyless Economy or Robert Lane's The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies). The burgeoning literature of 'happiness studies' is attempting to bring this together and link issues of self-actualization back to public policy - health, education etc.
But like the expressive life agenda with which it overlaps, the issue of how the long term interests of individuals are best promoted in a political economy that is dominated by producer interests is critical. It seems a long way from artsjournal.com territory and nearer to that of adbusters but it's where Bill is taking us. It's what political parties used to be for ...
Andras asks what would be measured in determining the state of expressive life. I would make two points: First, this is not about selecting artists and art forms for special attention or support. My assumption is that in a more-coherent approach to the arts system we would still have agencies like the NEA that would gather expert opionion and dispatch checks (larger than those sent out these days, we would hope) to art making or preservation efforts deemed worthy. Government and philanthropic intervention in cultural vibrancy is important and, in an environment that honors expressive life as a public good, this part of the policy regime that deals with the arts should grow. But I don't think better coordination of policy affecting exprssive life should be about shaping content or picking winners and losers.
So the second, and to me more-critical point, is to bring some coordinated public-interest attention to the underlying structure, to the gatekeeping and pricing mechanisms that constitute the "rules of the cultural road" -- the laws, regulations, and practices that control access to heritage, to the tools of creativity, to the work of artists and arts organizations, and to bodies of shareable knowledge. Once we make the small leap of faith that believes an open system that enables access is "better" -- is a public good -- then there are plenty of things we can measure or count to see how different parts of the system are working.
So it's a bad thing if our copyright regime is so "heavy" that a classroom teacher is, for example, reluctant to produce a CD of classic African-American musical performances for student study because her school administration fears legal action. It's probably a good thing if a community features a number of neighborhood book stores. Likewise, it's probably good if there exists a mechanism to fund Internet connections for homes in poor neighborhoods, or that zoning restrictions are loose enough to make it easy for small Mexican restaurants to both sell beer and feature live music. It is probably good if the work of a symphony orchestra can be made widely available. If we take some time to list the many components that make up expressive life (and that process will be fascinating, fun, and not without argument), we will find many things that can be measured or counted, and many underlying policies or corporate practices that can be assessed and critiqued in relation to whether they open or clog the essential processes of creation, distribution, and consumption.
Now, the ultimate value -- the "big why" of all this -- requires another leap of faith. Andras quotes an arts leader: "Art makes better people." Artistic heritage and creativity are at the very center of expressive life, so this statement is not far off the mark. But how are we to justify or defend it?
A quick thought experiment:
Imagine a young man, reared in the Islamic faith in Nigeria. He's part of a well-to-do family, and with all best intentions, his father ships him off to a fine boarding school in England. He is devote, and struggles to fit in to an alien environment. Emails suggest he is lonely, without friends, and longs for a path to a meaningful life. He connects with an inspiring jihadist on the Internet, and leaves school on a path that leads to an attempted suicide bombing. Observers are stunned that a well-off, well educated youth make such choices. But imagine someone cut off from heritage and denied voice who finds a way to restore expressive life through devotion to a charismatic leader who offers a deep connection to heritage and an opportunity -- albeit a violent one -- to express his individual voice. Is the destruction, search for, and reconstruction of expressive life a useful lens in describing the terrorist impulse?
Or imagine American society reset to a persistantly-lower standard of living by the current recession. What is the pathway to quality of life in a post-consumerist democracy? A deeper connection with heritage and personal creativity -- a vibrant expressive life -- may not be the only alternative to materialism but it is a good one.
I've gone on too long. But art is at the center of expressive life, and it seems that expressive life, framed properly, does have an opportunity to aggressively claim a defining role in the lives of indivduals and communities: the kind of role meaningful to mainstream policy leaders. To state it simply, maybe art does make "better people?"
Running to catch up on this week's conversation, I feel like the old, raspy-voiced character actor Andy Devine shouting out to Wild Bill Hickok (those of a certain age, that is to say most of you, will remember him). Like Andy, I need a faster pony to catch up. Or maybe I just need to think like all the other under-horsed side kicks of yore -- find a short cut or head back to the ranch.
I want to address two topics. First, we've been discussing the fragmented state of our cultural policy-making for at least twenty years. Quite often that conversation has deviated from the rather straightforward question of policy coordination to the historically weighty subject of cultural czars and cultural authority. There have been several proposals for coordinating mechanisms, including those laid out in a decade old briefing paper from the Center for Arts and Culture. This is simply to say that the problem of policy fragmentation has been identified (and nicely summarized and updated in one of Bill's recent posts). There are ideas for how coordinating mechanisms might work and where they might be lodged. Sadly, we've not acted on them.
When I've wondered why we've taken no action, I've always looked back (way back since, like Andy, I ride a slow nag) and asked what other policy domains have struggled to find structures to coordinate and integrate their policy making. Federal budget policy was always a mess (still is, for that matter) and efforts to coordinate it have been a long, slow slog since the 1910s and the creation of the Bureau of the Budget (with the out-sourcing of some of its analytic work to Brookings in the late 1910s and 1920s); it continued with the creation of the Congressional Budget Office in the 1970s and the reforms of BOB that gave us OMB; a cluster of independent think tanks and analytic groups also sprang up to operate outside the formal boundaries of the policy process. Other policy domains -- think of the establishment of the NSC and the 70-year struggle to coordinate national security policy or the creation of the Council of Economic Advisers in 1946 -- have dealt with their particular problems of policy fragmentation. Is it any surprise that cultural policy coordination is a challenge? Is it worth looking at these other mechanisms more carefully?
I said I had two topics, this is a seque to the second, if anyone is counting. I'm now heading back to the ranch and to the value of thinking in terms of "expressive life."
I would argue that when other policy domains have ultimately succeeded, they have been shaped less by a cluster of related problems and plaintive cries about perceived needs than by the emergence of analytic insights and tools and by the cadres of professionals who embrace those tools.
The story of budget policy coordination begins with the invention of new corporate accounting methods in the late 19th century, the emergence of training in public administration early in the 20th century, the embrace of Keynesian economics in the 1930s...quick sand ahead if this saga were to continue. Similarly, the beginnings of social security and other social welfare programs can be traced to the work of actuaries and demographers who had devised new ways of thinking about sharing collective risks. The field of national security owed much to the systems analysis and operations research that flowed out of World War II.
I've only mentioned the intellectual beginnings in these fields, not traced their evolution or acknowledged the contrarian intellectual strains that often have pushed back against these analytic methods. The anti-Scientific Revolution of the late twentieth century, the critique of the expert class, is another story (cup of tea, anyone?).
I think the promise of "expressive life" for our artistic and cultural realm resides not so much in its rhetorical promise or its re-framing potential but in its analytic heft. We are learning more about what makes us human from new research in evolutionary psychology, animal behavior, neuroscience, behavorial economics and the other disciplines (the old fields of archaeology and anthropology are also contributing). We are peering more deeply into the brain and looking back at our evolving primate selves to better understand our essentially social nature. (Bill has reminded us on several occasions about developments in the new field of "happiness" research).
Over the past decade or so, many of us came to understand that we were not on solid policy ground (or on the most defensible cultural terrain) in making economic arguments for the value of the arts. The RAND studies helped us think about the "intrinsic" values of the arts, drawing on diverse disciplines. "Expressive life" opens up an even more robust way of pursuing those questions. There's obviously much more to say about what we are learning about the place of the arts in human evolution, both inside the brain and in our social interactions. But my last word in the post is simply "Whoa!" [Does anyone know the name of Andy Devine's horse?]
P.S. to Marian -- If our creativity begins with utterances that become language that assume narrative form (and are perhaps accompanied by other narrative embellisments, song and dance), is there a tension between voice and heritage?