Will the 'expressive life' get us where we want to go?

By Adrian Ellis

So we are frustrated with the imprecision of the terms 'arts' and 'culture' when used in the context of public policy, and we are frustrated with the confining policy perspectives that have developed around these terms. They encourage us to focus overly on the public funding of 501(c)(3) arts organizations and to under-emphasize other policy domains (private sector, unincorporated organizations, individuals, etc.) and policy levers (legislation, regulation, exhortation etc.). These levers, if used, have a potentially positive impact on our quality of life. The result of our collective myopia is that the cultural ecology of the United States is unbalanced and the potential contribution which that ecology can make to the richness of our lives is both underexplored and imperfectly understood.

There is therefore a linguistic issue and a substantive issue. The linguistic one I am personally agnostic about. Hopefully, by the end of the week I won't be. 'Expressive life' is an attempt to coin a phrase and maneuver it into use in policy discussions - ambitious task in itself, but I am also slightly unclear about the definitional contours: what's in there exactly? Arts and crafts as traditionally understood at amateur and professional levels. Sport? Hair-dressing? Mud-wrestling? Motor-cycle maintenance? Chess? Climbing mountains? Choosing walk to work? Cooking a cordon bleu meal? Frying an egg? Recreational sex? All of these present challenges for art and culture definitions but they seem to for 'expressive life' too. And do 'voice' and 'heritage' overlap too heavily to be distinct? Improvisation over a blues or standard song form, for example ...isn't one person's voice another person's heritage? Wouldn't a concerted effort at widespread adoption of the term just throw us into the same definitional quagmire that Bill sees 'art' and 'culture' floating in?

The substantive issue he raises though, however, is wholly on point. Cultural policy in the United States is anemic in content and circumscribed in scope in part because big, noisy, self-interested organizations have pre-empted so much of the 'issue space'. They did it on the way up and they are going to do it on the way back down. They should clearly have some of that space - and I suspect that Bill and I may differ on how much - and their current distress in adapting to changing circumstances is going to require public policy to sort it out . But they are just intermediaries and the criterion for judging their efficacy is how well they act as mechanisms for supporting artistic and cultural engagement (pre-Iveyian terminology) or transmitting heritage and encouraging voice (Iveyian).

The problem I see ahead is that this specific debate encourages us to side-step rather than to tackle a more essential debate to which is should lead: what heritages and voices should be the object of cultural policy, which like all policy is about the distribution of scarce resources and therefore requires allocative decisions to be made. That does not necessarily mean ' which art forms' - it can mean a la Tepper what social states (deliberation, solidarity etc.). But the debate about the legitimate and appropriate ends and means for cultural or expressive policy is the one that needs to be had and I need to see more clearly how the 'expressive life' express gets you there faster.

January 25, 2010 11:41 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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