When Does Reframing Work? Why?

By Lewis Hyde
George Lakoff's ideas about "reframing" interest me, and I've even tried to do a bit of it myself, redescribing "intellectual property" as "monopoly privilege," for example (the frame that the nation's founders would have used).  

A question lingers, however:  when does reframing work and why?  Many Democrats in the 2004 election thought that if they could just change the catch phrases of the debate they would win.  They were wrong.  

I don't know the answer to the "when & why."  I hope others can offer some insight.  That said, my guess is that, as always, it matters whether the ground is fertile or sterile when you scatter your seed.  In this line a decade ago I wrote an essay that looked toward American history to try to understand what did and didn't have political traction when we debate issues such as funding the arts.  

I ended up with a short list of themes whose roots are very old in this country but whose fruits we still seem to be harvesting.  I suspect, for one, that we still have a surviving ethic of Protestant simplicity.  We also have a strong suspicion of anything that doesn't seem practical and useful; finally, from our early emphasis on the value of voluntary association, we have inherited a particular sense of what it means to contribute taxes to any common enterprise.

The opposition between simplicity and luxury was a commonplace in the eighteenth century, the latter always linked to corruption and tyranny.  From "the dawn of history," John Adams wrote, the fine arts "have been prostituted to the service of superstition and despotism."  It wasn't only the opulence of European art that put him off, either; it was the hierarchies of wealth that the stuff implied.  Adams had visited Blenheim in England, a palace that had taken twenty-two years to build:  did Americans wish to repeat the class system required for that kind of project?

As for the American love of the practical and useful, its flip side is distrust of learning or art pursued for their own sake.  To take but one old example:  in the nineteenth century, Yankee blue bloods, weary of having civic offices filled by the spoils system, hoped to institute competency tests, whereupon they were attacked for demanding useless knowledge when only the useful was needed.  On the floor of the House a congressman from Mississippi spun out the following fantasy:  

Suppose some wild mustang girl from New Mexico comes here for a position, and it may be that she does not know whether the Gulf stream runs north or south, or perhaps she thinks it stands on end..., yet although competent for the minor position she seeks, she is sent back home rejected.

A Senator from Wisconsin worried that a businessman, his mind "long engrossed in practical pursuits," would be rejected for public service in favor of a "dunce who has been crammed up to a diploma at Yale."  

Bill Ivey writes that Art and Culture "are so burdened with assumptions and multiple meanings...that our key words are actually barriers."  I agree.  But those assumptions and meanings have very deep roots.  How effective can a change of terms be in cutting those roots?  

I like the phrase "expressive life."  I'll use it myself.  But I'm also aware that I don't know when reframing works and when it doesn't work.  Ideas anyone?  
January 25, 2010 11:05 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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