Let's Switch to "Expressive Life!"

By Bill Ivey

I met with hundreds of congressmen (and women) back when I was NEA chairman, and while I was mostly soliciting support for my agency, inevitably the conversations turned on the importance of the arts in a more general way.  In just about all my meetings with government leaders, and with leaders in the corporate and foundation worlds, these talks convinced me that the terms we use -- "Art;" "Culture" -- are so burdened with assumptions and multiple meanings, and the policy arena they denote so unclear, that our key words are actually barriers holding back a meaningful connection between heritage and creativity and public purposes.  Just about everybody assumes "Art" is painting and sculpture, or maybe "The Fine Arts" generally; "Culture" can be "the sum of all human behavior" or just "the political tilt of a state or region:" read "The Culture Wars" or "Red-state/Blue-state" voting.  The implied policy frame is either way to big or, more frequently, much too narrow.  From a mainstream policy perspective, the terms are marginalizing; "The Arts" end up as an amenity that you get around to addressing after you've "fixed" sectors like health care, the environment, and public education.

In my book "Arts, Inc." I advanced "Expressive Life" as both a fresh descriptive term and a new framework for policy conversation.  I hope Expressive Life eliminates the dismissive, eye-rolling assumptions that now attach to "The Arts," and that the phrase implies up a zone of issues and possible engagements that can stand proudly beside "Family Life" and"Work Life."  To me, from now on, whether engaging research, advocacy, or analysis, we should be talking about "the condition of America's Expressive Life in the 21st Century."

Using an expressive life frame will force us to do more than worry about the funding, artist, and nonprofit priorities that have dominated to instead think about things we don't much address -- intellectual property, broadband penetration, amateur art practice, media regulation, the vitality of for-profit arts companies, non-school arts learning, Fair Use, union policies, and access to cultural heritage.  But carving out a more robust sector for ourselves, and moving out from under the marginalizing assumptions attached to current language will enable us to be "big" enough to secure cultural vibrancy ("a vibrant expressive life") as a key component of our democratic market democracy.

January 24, 2010 12:14 PM | | Comments (1) |

1 Comments


WE ARE THE ONES WE'VE BEEN WAITING FOR!
I weigh in on the conversation late because of fatigue from returning last night from eleven intense, engaged days in Cuba with colleagues from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian meeting with Cuban museum and humanities colleagues involved in a range of arts and culture work from under water patrimony, ballet, flamenco, poetry, reinterpretations of race, culture, and national identity, and historical preservation among other arts and culture topics. Whether one agrees or not with the Cuban ideological and political focus, what a contrast in formal, affirmative cultural policy to our national cultural policy discourse or lack of one, until this stimulating consideration of “Expressive Life”.

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.

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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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