Whose expressive life?

By Marian Godfrey

I have been thinking about the concept of the cultural rights of all individuals, and the term "expressive life" to describe one such basic cultural right, since Bill began talking and writing about this idea several years ago. This concept responds to a universal human impulse toward curiosity and the search for meaning. It opens up a welcome space for people like me who lack the talent and/or tenacity to become professional artists, but need to be in touch with our own creative impulses and to be stimulated and elated by others' craft or artistic mastery. As such, it proposes a fundamental and critically important realignment of our cultural infrastructure to place the individual, and individual creative engagement, in the center.  But I've reluctantly come to the conclusion that the term "expressive life" itself will not accomplish what Bill wants of it, which is to shed the baggage of elitist assumptions that comes with the terms "arts" and "culture," and make room for a new policy perspective.

"Expressive life" could be seen by the same naysayers we are aiming to convert as broadly encompassing any and all forms of self-expression, creative or not, and even including destructive or anti-social self-expression.  In fact, it is even more general and abstract than "arts" or "culture." And I worry that the phrase, and Bill's proposal for "'heritage' and 'voice' as subdivisions of expressive life," could simply substitute new art-world verbal codes for old ones.

A new term such as "expressive life" could work if it is seen by the people whose activities it means to describe as actually representing them--and if it is embraced and used by them first of all.  This or any term needs to pass the smell test, particularly, of the young people on whom we place so much expectation for inventing new ways of blurring the lines between art and life, and between professional and avocational cultural activity.  If the people find both the concept and the phrase resonant, then there is a chance that policy makers will, too.

With that in mind I decided to conduct a short poll on the subject with my nieces and nephews, whose ages range between 17 and 30-something.

Here is what one of them said (in response to my use of Bill's earlier phrase, "vibrant expressive life," as my topic):

Vibrant expressive life - hmmm. As a stoic Mainer this phrase feels a little overdramatic to me. Maybe just drop the word "vibrant." Or say "creative life" instead. I do believe that everyone has creative gifts to offer, and unfortunately the circumstances of people's lives do not often support the bringing forth of these gifts. I know people who would be producing creative work if their time and energy wasn't devoted to scraping by.

I hope to offer other thoughts from other nieces and nephews in future posts.

January 24, 2010 12:50 PM | | Comments (1) |

1 Comments

I don't think "expressive life" passes the "smell test" for common use. Work life, family life, education -- these ideas are built on everyday words, and they make emotional, visceral connections to core values in our society and the basic building blocks of the American dream, things people naturally talk about every day. "Expressive" just isn't in the same category. When is the last time you were at a dinner table (with folks outside the arts sector) and people started talking passionately about "expression?" It's never happened for me. On the other hand -- work, family, health, sports, education, freedom, speech, the economy, government, business, war, religion, house repair, traffic, movies, neighborhood gossip -- those come up every day. If culture is as fundamental to society and human well being as we argue it is, why can't we find it discussed in everyday situations with everyday language? Why can't we come up with a name for it that is as immediate and visceral as "family?"

Jim

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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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