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) |


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?"



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

Our Bloggers

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


Contact us Click here to send us an email... more

Archives: 61 entries and counting


Recent Comments

Jim Rosenberg commented on Whose expressive life?: I don't think "expressive life" passes the "smell test" for common use. Wor...

AJ Blogs

AJBlogCentral | rss

About Last Night
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Artful Manager
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
blog riley
rock culture approximately
critical difference
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
State of the Art
innovations and impediments in not-for-profit arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
The Unanswered Question
Joe Horowitz on music

Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off

Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary