Getting Some Traction

By Martha Bayles
My last word is to agree with the 18th-century chemist quoted by Andrew: language and ideas change together, not separately.   But for this to happen, the arts community needs to get out of a rut that is both rhetorical and political.

President Obama's appearance before the Republican congressional retreat was the best piece of political theater I've seen in years.  (And I mean that as a compliment, since so much of leadership is theater.)

But most arts advocates seem incapable of reaching out in this fashion.  For example, I suspect that the "we" in this blogathon is as blue as a Nav'i's backside.  There are other political colors out there, folks.

The obvious first step is to reckon more honestly with the 1990s culture wars.  That is, to recast the narrative so those years are not simply described as a time when mad-dog conservatives suddenly went berserk and began persecuting innocent painters, actors, musicians, and poets whose only offense was to uphold artistic freedom.

That's only half the story.  The other half is a culture of transgression that valued art for no other quality than its willingness to violate widely held norms of decency, propriety, and civility.  Soon American culture was consumed by a Hatfield-McCoy feud between between moralists who hated art and artists who hated morality.

My problem with "expressive life" is that instead of addressing this festering issue, it draws on the same anodyne language that has always been used by arts advocates and bureaucrats: a blend of 19th-century gentility and 20th-century boosterism.  Why not emulate the president and put some grit under the wheels?
January 30, 2010 7:14 AM | |


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

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