Recently by Andras Szanto

Among the many rich strands unfolding here, I remain intrigued by the one about measuring the expressive life. Bill, Adrian, Steven and others are optimistic we can do it. So what would we be measuring, and how? 

"Why do you support the arts?" I once asked the man in charge of one of the most generous public arts agencies in the world, the Amsterdam Arts Council. Without hesitating for a second he answered, "Because we get better people."

I am not at all convinced that the official could have provided any objective proof of what he meant by this. I suppose he probably meant intrinsic and psychological factors, such as empathy, openness to others, respect for diversity and heritage, curiosity, reasoning capacity, creativity and inventiveness, etc. 

And isn't it true that ultimately most of our public policies are about getting "better people" -- law abiding, educated, healthy, and so forth? We invest in our public policies because of some vision of a healthier, more secure, more productive -- "better" -- society. 

So how can we connect the dots between the expressive life and a better society? Between enabling creative infrastructure and obtaining "better people"? 

The ultimate success of health policy is measured by variables like declining child mortality and infection rates, as well as positive changes in people's habits. Our cultural indices tend to look instead at the scope and soundness of delivery mechanisms--above all, the overall number and fiscal condition of cultural organizations--which would be somewhat analogous to counting doctors and hospital beds. 

So what is it that we would need to measure to unambiguously show that our investments have led to an amelioration in the condition--not just of our cultural institutions and the infrastructures supporting them--but of our communities and fellow citizens? 

At what scale of investment do these effects take hold? 

January 29, 2010 6:14 AM | | Comments (1) |
The previous two posts, in particular, serve as a reminder that we lack broad, independent research and think-tank infrastructure to deliver the kind of informed, disinterested, inclusive measures--and the debates surrounding them--that are key to the sort of enlightened arts policy that Bill is challenging us to imagine. 

We tried. The money ran out. The same funding mindset that has a hard time going beyond direct subsidies to nonprofits and attacking system-wide concerns also has a really hard time devoting money to this kind of research and thinking capacity. As a result, it is left to advocacy groups and market-research and consulting firms. Their efforts are well intentioned, but they will not provide a credible long-term basis for objectively-rooted policy to get us to the next step. 
January 28, 2010 5:53 AM | | Comments (2) |
In the spirit of getting more specific, back to those fried eggs for a second. 

The artist Rirkrit Tiravanija makes art that consists of cooking food and offering it to people. I well remember an exhibition of his involving cooked eggs, as it happens (people could eat them or throw them against a wall, as I recall). The "work" was cooking eggs. As such, based solely on the tangible attributes, it might well fall beyond an enumerative listing of activities that comprise the sphere of the "expressive life." Herein lies a problem. Art theory has long ago moved beyond such intrinsic definitions. We recognize that it is not the nature of an activity that might qualify it as art, but, at least in part, an institutional definition. This is relevant to the undertaking here, since many posts thus far have been about drawing up lists of what's in and what's out. In fact, we need to get up to speed with the evolution of art itself and recognize that anything can be art (not to mention culture) and that we will lose any game that's about setting boundaries. That reduces policy to politics: a power struggle about whose definition wins. 

It so happens, in addition, that Tiravanija's important artistic actions, now widely recognized as milestones in contemporary art, happened in a venue that falls almost completely outside the purview of traditional American cultural policymaking (such as it is)--a commercial art gallery. That underscores the need to set our sights wider, much wider, than the narrow confines of the nonprofit sphere, which, as Adrian and others suggest, is only too happy to reduce the conversation to how funders can keep high-art 501c3 institutions lubricated with grant dollars. 

What I take away from the conversation so far is that cultural policy must engage a wider set of issues and infrastructural sites than until now. Intellectually, that's unassailable. I have two specific concerns based on reading the posts up till now. One is that a widening of perspective--a "reframing"--can happen with a new term, perhaps, but there is no reason why it couldn't happen under the old terms. The problem is not the language, but the mindset. We may be placing too much faith in linguistics if we believe that by invoking a new name we can blast away decades of narrow-minded thinking habits. If getting people to say "expressive life" is a quicker path to making them realize that IT and IP are part of arts policy, Amen. I have my doubts. 

Ultimately, the most important and very specific issue is this: Who are the people who hold the keys to the resources and what's in their heads? In my personal experience, even trying to advocate the very basic idea that the news media and arts journalism are vital to the health of arts and culture (sorry, the expressive life) tends to draw blank stares accompanied by heavy nodding, but little else. In short, broadening the frame may have less to do with the words we use than with who is doing the speaking.   


January 27, 2010 6:30 AM | | Comments (0) |
Let's set the linguistic issue aside then, as Adrian suggests, and go along with "expressive life." As several recent posts suggest, however, ultimately the question is not about reframing but reframing what?

If there is to be a cultural policy and an "expressive life infrastructure," by whatever name, how would we know that it's been put to work? What outcomes should policy-makers and advocates seek and nurture? If cultural policy is, as Sam Jones argues, analogous to health and learning, how can we agree about its goals and what would be the parallels to a healthy or educated person, community, and nation? Would the goals of such a policy be normative? Would they be inclusive without limitation?

Put another way, what would be the hallmarks of a person or a community that has a rich expressive life?
January 25, 2010 12:49 PM | | Comments (0) |
There is no doubt that the words "arts" and "culture" are burdened with heavy ideological baggage. In American politics, they have turned into dangerous swamps in which many well-meaning art initiatives have perished. "Expressive life," by contrast, offers a new start and a bigger tent. It may prove lasting and useful. My concern is that it has a subtext of defeatism, and that it connotes a lopsided view of culture.

By defeatist, I mean that the proposition here is to evacuate the contaminated rhetorical premises of "art" and "culture"; to flee from them, rather than win them back in all their glory. As a strategy, it's like switching to "progressive" from "liberal"--clever, but ultimately a bit of a copout. Can old terms have fresh meanings? Must we leave them charred and wounded on the battlefield?

By a lop-sided view of culture, I'm referring to a definitional nuance that is more important. "Expressive life" puts the emphasis on communication, and not just any communication--projective communication. Such a view of culture--solely comprised of people and organizations broadcasting their words, sounds and images into the world--is half of what I think culture to be. For culture is about absorbing as much as it is about expressing.

Perhaps, in addition to the "expressive life," should we also consider the "receptive life"? Bill alludes to this in his in his writings in his poignant contrast of "heritage" and "voice"--but those words reflect the duality only to a point. Yes, culture is certainly about listening to the past and having a voice in the present. But is also about listening in the present and having a voice in the present. Culture is a conversation: endlessly absorbing and expressing. The words "art" and "culture" have served us well because they encompass both of these dimensions. 

January 25, 2010 5:54 AM | | Comments (0) |


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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Diana commented on How and what do you measure?: Nice post I like the sarcasm in it... Great stuff!...

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