What to Measure
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?"
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
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