Recently by Russell Willis Taylor
Although we are talking about what to call the broad field of endeavor in which we all toil, the larger question being posed is a policy question, as others have said. I suggest that the questions are: Why don't we have a cultural policy, who would develop it, promote it, and defend it, and what's the point of having one at all? Bill Ivey has defined the expressive life as being partly about "voice" and our conversations are also about voice, about giving voice to the needs of millions of people to be involved in creative and expressive activities, some of which but by no means all are included in the work of the nonprofit arts organization. This voice would be a counterbalance to the natural (some would say) predatory instincts of corporate interests which have been given unnatural (others would say) free reign over the past 20 years.
It seems to me that there are several barriers in our way, and the language question that Bill has raised is almost certainly one of them insofar as it symbolizes a narrow definition of creativity and culture that divides and weakens a broader range of constituents. This larger group, made up of all of the commercial and noncommercial cultural players already listed by others and one whose work centers on more than just the profit motive, would benefit from coalescing around commonalities rather than continuing to delineate themselves as warring tribes with diminishing returns for all concerned.
Another barrier to a more unified and effective voice protecting the interests of the many over the interests of the few is that many in this field have a rudimentary understanding of policy -- what one looks like, why you have them, and what you do with one when you do have it. The territoriality of the various service organizations is exacerbated by their need to stake out boundaries that will differentiate them for funding purposes, and I suspect but don't know that Americans for the Arts are resisting Bill's blandishments for the bigger push because they (entirely properly) don't want to be seen as building an even bigger empire in our tiny, fragmented sector. Educating ourselves about the purpose and limits of policy development would help us all.
A third barrier is that in the press of struggling for survival (in the case of nonprofit arts organizations), competing for markets (in the case of all creative organizations), and trying to earn a living (in the case of the vast majority of Americans) sifting through all the noise to understand what is actually happening in the broader picture and how it affects you as an individual is just plain hard work. The Ticket Master monopoly is a worrying decision, but how many arts organizations have the time to look beyond the decision to what happens in ten years when all the restrictions that have been laid down if a merger goes ahead lapse? And who else finds it worrying that Liberty Media is now moving ahead to gain controlling interest of the new company if the merger proceeds, given that Liberty owns the Starz channel and QVC, among other interests? How long will it take before the limited number of gatekeepers to all cultural experiences is as small as that predicted by Jeremy Rifkin several years ago?
I think Bill's conspiracy theoritis may be contagious. . .
The point is that a lack of understanding and incomplete information are two barriers to us acting in our best interests, and more importantly acting in a way that we believe benefits millions of others who have a right to access an expressive life. If we don't have an organization that is correctly positioned and neutral enough to get traction quickly, then perhaps we should create one. (NB: I am not volunteering for anything by suggesting this.) Perhaps an expansion of the work of the group the Curb Center has already convened is called for, provided it has a "Move On" type of activity that deciphers the meaning of random events and alerts people to their implications in a way that motivates them to act. And I do like the lists that we are compiling on this blog, from Lewis Hyde and others, about what the concerns and activities of that organization should be. I hope and pray I am not describing a lobbying organization with all that this implies.
Whatever the language, the underlying need is pressing, even acute. Without an intelligent, reflective and inclusive approach to demonstrating in a relentless manner the value that creativity or the expressive life offers to all, we may find ourselves surprised to awaken from our sleepy state, anesthetized by our ignorance of what the implications of all these seemingly disparate changes are, to discover that while we were fiddling in this corner, there was something burning over there.
The various comments about framing, vernacular, and who decides what's in and what's out have made me think hard about why I believe revisiting the language around what we do in arts/culture/entertainment or what have you is so important. By focusing on individuals as creators and instigators rather than the passive recipients of culture that is "done to them" we are beginning to address what role an expressive life should have in a developing democracy. In the US we are very much a work in progress, despite what we may tell ourselves about how much we want to export this thing we have built called freedom. Democracy requires a balance between the individual and the group -- policy helps set boundaries for how that balance will be maintained.
By examining the ways in which the narrow definition of arts and culture has limited how we think about who takes part, in what way, and why, we are perhaps rehearsing better reasons for us to regain our place in the civic conversation. The disparities of wealth and opportunity in the US (and indeed globally) are not someone else's problem -- they are everyone's problem, and I was intrigued to read recently in a work by Mark Stern and Susan Seifert that our traditional delivery systems and adherence to "star" hierarchies in the arts contributes actively to social and economic inequalities, just as in the realm of sports. Now there's an economic impact that doesn't get much air time.
Whether expressive life is the right phrase or not matters much less to me than our exploration of the dramatic need to involve far greater numbers of people in arts, culture and creative endeavours for their benefit rather than ours -- because we are not just part of an arts ecology but society as a whole, and in my view it's time we started taking that a lot more seriously.
And on that rather Calvinist note, I look forward to the ongoing discussion.
Should anyone think that this is the taboo plea for dropping standards everywhere and calling any old thing art, I bring to mind the analogy that several writers have used about food and the popularity of cooking shows when discussing the "amateur arts." Learning more about cooking and great food can benefit people without making them think they are chefs of international renown.
I look forward to the conversation this week and think that opening up the conversation about "what we call what we do" is intriguing -- a first step in rethinking how we can increase the value of our work to reach a broader range of people.
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
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