An Encouraging Conversation with Cautionary Notes

By Bill Ivey, Director, Curb Center, Vanderbilt University

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!

January 29, 2010 2:29 PM | |


This Conversation Are the terms "Art" and "Culture" tough enough to frame a public policy carve-out for the 21st century? Are the old familiar words, weighted with multiple meanings and unhelpful preconceptions, simply no longer useful in analysis or advocacy? In his book, Arts, Inc., Bill Ivey advances "Expressive Life" as a new, expanded policy arena - a frame sufficiently robust to stand proudly beside "Work Life," "Family Life," "Education," and "The Environment." Is Ivey on the right track, or more

Our Bloggers

Adrian Ellis; Alan Brown; Andras Szanto; Andrew Taylor; Bau Graves; Douglas McLennan; Ellen Lovell; Bill Ivey, William James; James Early; Jim Smith; Lewis Hyde; Marian Godfrey; Martha Bayles; Nihar Patel; Russell Taylor; Sam Jones; Steven Tepper


Contact us Click here to send us an email... more

Archives: 61 entries and counting


AJ Blogs

AJBlogCentral | rss

About Last Night
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Artful Manager
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
blog riley
rock culture approximately
critical difference
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
State of the Art
innovations and impediments in not-for-profit arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
The Unanswered Question
Joe Horowitz on music

Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off

Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary