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January 23, 2010
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
I met with hundreds of congressmen (and women) back when I was NEA chairman, and while I was mostly soliciting support for my agency, inevitably the conversations turned on the importance of the arts in a more general way. In just about all my meetings with government leaders, and with leaders in the corporate and foundation worlds, these talks convinced me that the terms we use -- "Art;" "Culture" -- are so burdened with assumptions and multiple meanings, and the policy arena they denote so unclear, that our key words are actually barriers holding back a meaningful connection between heritage and creativity and public purposes. Just about everybody assumes "Art" is painting and sculpture, or maybe "The Fine Arts" generally; "Culture" can be "the sum of all human behavior" or just "the political tilt of a state or region:" read "The Culture Wars" or "Red-state/Blue-state" voting. The implied policy frame is either way to big or, more frequently, much too narrow. From a mainstream policy perspective, the terms are marginalizing; "The Arts" end up as an amenity that you get around to addressing after you've "fixed" sectors like health care, the environment, and public education.
In my book "Arts, Inc." I advanced "Expressive Life" as both a fresh descriptive term and a new framework for policy conversation. I hope Expressive Life eliminates the dismissive, eye-rolling assumptions that now attach to "The Arts," and that the phrase implies up a zone of issues and possible engagements that can stand proudly beside "Family Life" and"Work Life." To me, from now on, whether engaging research, advocacy, or analysis, we should be talking about "the condition of America's Expressive Life in the 21st Century."
Using an expressive life frame will force us to do more than worry about the funding, artist, and nonprofit priorities that have dominated to instead think about things we don't much address -- intellectual property, broadband penetration, amateur art practice, media regulation, the vitality of for-profit arts companies, non-school arts learning, Fair Use, union policies, and access to cultural heritage. But carving out a more robust sector for ourselves, and moving out from under the marginalizing assumptions attached to current language will enable us to be "big" enough to secure cultural vibrancy ("a vibrant expressive life") as a key component of our democratic market democracy.
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.
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.
But in this week's conversation, I'm less concerned about whether ''expressive life'' is exactly the right phrase for everyone, and more interested in whether it offers a USEFUL frame for the real work of our field. The George Box quote used as the title of this post gets to the heart of that issue: Every model we use to engage the world is incomplete or incorrect in some way -- it has to be. What matters is how well those imperfect models move us forward in the specific task at hand.
For me, at least, ''expressive life'' has become an extraordinarily useful model -- in teaching my MBA students about policy and practice, in discussing issues in the arts with peers, in thinking about the cast of characters that influence how we create, present, connect, discuss, preserve, and support both human heritage and individual voice.
As Marian suggests, the phrase doesn't ''do'' much on its own. But I think it allows us to think about, speak about, and go about our work in more productive and connected ways. And that's a start.
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.
As I anticipated, the "doing" part of expressive life is jumping out as the dominant component of the idea. Expressive life divides into "voice" and "heritage." These two halves are basically in conflict, or at least in a continual negotiated conversation. "Heritage" is the grounding, historical piece, encompassing shared values, historical practices, a sense of community, family, faith, and so on. Creativity of the past is a container for heritage, and our democracy needs access to it, even if, say, what we're talking about are historical blues recordings that are simultaneously heritage and corporate asset. "Voice," on the other hand, is more about autonomy, a sense of personal distinction, achievement, and independence. My folklorist friends are especially fond of heritage, because it provides continuity and strengthens community ties. On the other hand, global-perspecitive intellectuals like Anthony Appiah see heritage as an anchor that drags down individuals who want to achieve on a world stage; globalizers like "voice." To me, the two need to be in balance within individuals, communities, and even nations.
Andras feels we should just reclaim, reinvent, or redefine our existing terms. Good idea, but it's hard for me to see how that toothpaste will go back in the tube. Also, I think we need to make things like media regulation and intellectual property law part of our policy conversation, and it's really hard to see how we can rework "art" and "culture" to be a container for an expanded policy realm that mainstream actors with corporations, government, and foundations will understand.
Attention to the rights of groups and individuals within a cultural frame has frequently been a conversation stopper. "Is my tribe getting the appropriate share of money, attention, etc." is certainly a question that can be considered at some point...I'm just not certain it's the first thing.
For me, one important challenge facing cultural policy is the constant debate and emphasis on "content." Most of our policies and institutions are set up to advance, in one way or another, varying views of "good content" verses "bad content." Like aspects of food policy, we are seeking ways to make sure more people eat "good food" - leading to better nutrition, which is considered a public good. But, we don't have any evidence that when we engage "good culture" (the opera verses Family Guy), that we necessarily have better health.
Instead, I think cultural policy must try to be content neutral (which flips our entire paradigm on its head). In terms of cultural participation, I have argued that this means thinking about the types of "experiences" that produce the outcomes we care about (reflection, deliberation, efficacy, understanding, pride, solidarity, etc.) and then orienting our support and policies around ANY form of content that can produce those experiences. In the larger cultural policy debate, that means focusing on an outcome that is independent of content, such as the flow of creative expression between citizens.
If we think about our "expressive life" infrastructure, we can imagine a grid (like the energy grid) that allows culture to flow freely between citizens (back and forward across time - encompassing both heritage and voice). There are many things that get in the way of such communication or conversation (as Andras would put it) - intellectual property laws, restrictive corporate practice and narrow gates, media consolidation, lack of minority owned media, rules against low frequency radio, a shortage of presentation venues for live performing arts, the decline of local journalism, etc.
The Expressive Life frame helps me think about a content-neutral frame that can focus on public interest concerns related to the quality of our expressive life "grid." Where are the tolls, bottlenecks, dead ends, and one way streets in our collective cultural lives? Can policy address these structural problems?
We grew up and lost touch, and instead of becoming a visual artist I became a writer who draws the occasional quick sketch. On impulse I recently Googled R.C. and was amazed to learn that he has become a self-educated master of oil painting, with the kind of deep, subtle style that comes not just from talent but from years of cultivating talent.
R.C. has received no commensurate rewards for his work, and I know how bitter that is. So I agree that something needs to be changed about the larger art world and a discourse that seems self-defeating.
But the words themselves are not to blame.
Why are "art" and "culture" so loaded? Both can be used in a non-evaluative way, as in "Don't trip over the art," or "Jersey Shore is not reflective of Italian-American culture."
But both words also have a pesky evaluative meaning that irritates people who associate artistic achievement with social privilege and economic advantage. My question is, where does that leave R.C., who gave up conventional success, not for "expressive life" but for art?
If it is Bill's intention to enlarge the traditional frame (which to me it seems it is) then where's the constituency for enlarging it? At this point "the arts" or worse yet the "arts community" have become muddied terms not because they've become too narrow, but perhaps because they've become too broad. From an artistic point of view, contemporary composers have difficulty enough figuring out which genre of music they're said to be writing in let alone worrying about community kinship with painters or video game writers. From a cultural policy perspective, it's unclear to me that even though the case has been made over and over that issues such as broadband policy, copyright and heritage are critical to our creative future, that many are willing to take them up.
Why do I think the idea of the 'expressive life' is important? The first thing to point out is that I'm writing from an international perspective: I am based in the UK. That shapes my opinion (like all countries, the UK brings a particular political context) but it also reminds us that cultural policy must respond to a more technologically diverse and connected world. That is one reason why I think that the idea of expression helps. Another is that, compared to, say, defence, health, communities and other policy areas, culture is not a major area of public policy and this is common to many countries. It can often be an afterthought, and considered more from the perspective of providing entertainment than anything more essential to life. The idea of 'expressive life' provides reason to think again - maybe it's a case of switching on to expressive life.
The British Museum has recently mounted a series of exhibitions about great leaders including China's Qin Shihuangdi, Rome's Hadrian, Shah Abbas in Iran and Moctezuma of the Aztecs. These have attracted millions of visitors. They have also centred around cultural artefacts, the creative products of the past. The way that those products were made, kept and cared for, expresses beliefs, attitudes and values - and that's how we seek to find out about life in ancient China or Rome or the world of the Aztecs and Isfahan. Today, the place of these objects in a museum and the choices that those millions make in going to see them are also expressions of value.
Why is it that, while we seek to understand the values of the past through cultural products, we rarely approach the choices we make now in what to create, do, consume and think about in the same way? The idea of 'expressive life' enables policy-makers to think about the value and role of culture differently. When we make these choices, we say something about who we are, what we want to be and with whom we feel affinity: this is the fabric of communities and societies. This puts cultural institutions in a different light: they are spaces for expression (that's a challenge for the professions that I see Marian has picked up below). There is a responsibility to give people the opportunity to take part in responding to the values symbolised around them and in creating values anew.
Each day we encounter an intensity of cultural forms. Online, on the streets and even in restaurants, we have the opportunity to seek out different cultural experiences. In London, there is even a Polish-Mexican restaurant with a French name. Advances in technology and our growing awareness of the experiences now available will mean that this will only increase. What is more, the opportunity to create and share what we have produced has increased as well. Now, I can watch a video put online by a teenager in Azerbaijan more easily - and maybe even less expensively - than I can Warner Bros' latest release at the local cinema.
All this creates fantastic opportunities to see and experience different beliefs, attitudes and worldviews, but it is not without problems. Different attitudes can grate against each other - this happened in the UK with the play Bhezti, and it happened globally with the film 300. Differences become clearer and often more exaggerated. At the same time, inequalities of access become more significant. If, in some parts of the world, cultural production is becoming an important way of getting opinion heard globally and is a field in which new, global values are shaped, is it not inequitable if people in other parts of the world are at a technological disadvantage and do not have as much access? As peoples mix and mingle through migration, education should open people to different cultural forms and how to read and interpret them. If private interest controls the cultural heritage of our past through contracts and copyright, are we not denied the chance to respond to and adapt the cultural heritage that has shaped us? The world would have been a poorer place if Homer or the Norse sagas had been subject to the ligatures of copyright.
As an area of policy, culture is more like like health and learning than it is the health service or education. It must be nurtured, maintained and responded to, rather than thought of as something that is provided, given or - especially at a time of financial pressure - cut or taken away. Culture is not something that is provided to entertain communities: it is the ongoing traffic and conversation between peoples and values of which communities are formed.
Most significantly of all, 'expression' is a basic democratic right. The opportunity to take part in shaping culture must not be denied. People should be given opportunities and skills to communicate through the different forms of expression available. Technology has broadened our potential to do this, but it has also raised new questions about cultural equity. We can create and express freely, but policy must ensure that the heritage that will stimulate that information and the capabilities so to do are freely available.
A question lingers, however: when does reframing work and why? Many Democrats in the 2004 election thought that if they could just change the catch phrases of the debate they would win. They were wrong.
I don't know the answer to the "when & why." I hope others can offer some insight. That said, my guess is that, as always, it matters whether the ground is fertile or sterile when you scatter your seed. In this line a decade ago I wrote an essay that looked toward American history to try to understand what did and didn't have political traction when we debate issues such as funding the arts.
I ended up with a short list of themes whose roots are very old in this country but whose fruits we still seem to be harvesting. I suspect, for one, that we still have a surviving ethic of Protestant simplicity. We also have a strong suspicion of anything that doesn't seem practical and useful; finally, from our early emphasis on the value of voluntary association, we have inherited a particular sense of what it means to contribute taxes to any common enterprise.
The opposition between simplicity and luxury was a commonplace in the eighteenth century, the latter always linked to corruption and tyranny. From "the dawn of history," John Adams wrote, the fine arts "have been prostituted to the service of superstition and despotism." It wasn't only the opulence of European art that put him off, either; it was the hierarchies of wealth that the stuff implied. Adams had visited Blenheim in England, a palace that had taken twenty-two years to build: did Americans wish to repeat the class system required for that kind of project?
As for the American love of the practical and useful, its flip side is distrust of learning or art pursued for their own sake. To take but one old example: in the nineteenth century, Yankee blue bloods, weary of having civic offices filled by the spoils system, hoped to institute competency tests, whereupon they were attacked for demanding useless knowledge when only the useful was needed. On the floor of the House a congressman from Mississippi spun out the following fantasy:
Suppose some wild mustang girl from New Mexico comes here for a position, and it may be that she does not know whether the Gulf stream runs north or south, or perhaps she thinks it stands on end..., yet although competent for the minor position she seeks, she is sent back home rejected.
A Senator from Wisconsin worried that a businessman, his mind "long engrossed in practical pursuits," would be rejected for public service in favor of a "dunce who has been crammed up to a diploma at Yale."
Bill Ivey writes that Art and Culture "are so burdened with assumptions and multiple meanings...that our key words are actually barriers." I agree. But those assumptions and meanings have very deep roots. How effective can a change of terms be in cutting those roots?
I like the phrase "expressive life." I'll use it myself. But I'm also aware that I don't know when reframing works and when it doesn't work. Ideas anyone?
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.
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?
- the new frame is resonant with the belief, values and cognitive orientation of targeted audiences; and
- when activists find that the old frames are increasingly unhelpful in their work and are actively looking for new frames.
- You can "amplify" the frame, e.g. excavate the core values and beliefs underlying the frame and make those more salient. So amplifying the "expressive life" frame might include focusing on the idea that Americans believe in self-determination, or emphasizing that expressive life is an antidote to both big government and big corporations; or that expressive life is about freedom and/or the pursuit of happiness.
- You can "extend" the frame by connecting it to other frames or other issues where there are natural allies/constituents who might be sympathetic to your frame but currently view the world through a different lens.
In Bill's theoretical division of the Expressive Life into Heritage and Voice, my hazy realm of folk music would seem to fall squarely on the Heritage side of the line. But along with clawhammer banjo and country blues harmonica, we fill hundreds of classes with students hungry for hip-hop, bhangra, punk-rock and alt-country, blurry-edged genres that are all reflections of some extended community's contemporary aesthetic -- legitimate fodder for an institution concerned with traditional culture, but hardly preservationist in intent. Heritage in practice includes an awful lot of Voice.
Over the decades there've been occasional suggestions to change our folk name. But to what? Old Town School of "American" Music? What message would that send to our students of Mexican son Jarocho, Brazilian samba, Hawaiian hula, Spanish flamenco and Finnish polskas? Maybe just Old Town School of "Music?" God forbid, somebody would mistake us for one of those stuffy conservatories where they toss around terms like "art" and "culture." Old Town School of "Expressive" Music... Hmmm. After repetitive reflection, we've come to embrace the Folk in our name. It is such a malleable term that we can use it to signify the totality of what we do. Our job consists, in part, in revealing the full glory of the word to our public, again and again.
Our folk music world is the smallest and least prestigious corner of the public arts domain, but I wonder if concerns over the ambiguous nature of "art" and "culture" are extensions of our modest struggles with self definition. Ultimately, can the slippery nature of our definitional terminology be transformed into a positive, forcing us to articulate a cohesive vision of whatever we're doing?
I think Steven Tepper is correct about the way expressive life can be the umbrella for different policy realms. To me things like IP law, media regulation, corporate archival preservation policies, revenue streams that flow to the arts industries and other elements are the "system" that defines the character of expressive life. We can ask questions like "Will an extended copyright term enhance the expressive life of consumers and/or artists? Does local newspaper ownership enhance the expressive life of a community? Will the approval of a merger between two major motion picture studios improve or inhibit access to heritage film? And expressive life can be home to a number of advocacy efforts that are now disconnected -- arts funding, fairness in media, Internet access, free speech, the Creative Commons, etc., etc. The new whole might be greater than the current sum of these parts.
Adrian Ellis is right to ask about what's in and what's out. His list -- hair dressing, mud-wrestling, chess, would to me mostly be out. But frying an egg might fit if it were part of serious chefing, and home design or fashion would fit even if pursued by amateurs, and certainly things like social dancing would be in. More problematic for me is political speech -- probably has to be in -- and religion...Can we accept music and visual art and great sermons but leave the dogma itself to that other realm, religious life? It will be challenging and fun to figure out the contents of expressive life; there will probably never be agreement as to what fits along the margins but we can probably end with agreement on a solid core.
Andras asks what a vibrant expressive life would look like. Good question. Part of the solution is just access; everybody must have access to the materials of cultural heritage and to the tools of personal creativity. That formulation means that a record company that won't reissue an old disc is inhibiting expressive life, as is the fact of limited penetration of the Internet and related hardware and software in poor communities. The woman with a vibrant expressive life would be engaged with art and art making from the past, and would possess the skill set required to sustain her own creative practice. Much of the work of securing a vibrant expressive life will be the process of eliminating barriers, many of which are secured by powerful market forces, while critiquing policy in relation to access. Eliminate barriers so the system makes connecting and doing easy.
This is about community as well as individuals, and while much of this is pretty abstract, the creation of new, low-power FM broadcast licenses in urban areas is the kind of policy that could be discussed in relation to its impact on expressive life.
Lewis Hyde's question about timing has me wondering. Hmmmm. Americans for the Arts did launch their new National Arts Index last week, and it uses 76 indicators (such as the number of bookstores and movie screens) that go far beyond the uses counting of nonprofits. Maybe the arts sector itself is ready to engage a new idea and be part of a bigger frame. Interesting question
To be honest, we have neither the process nor the authority to make those decisions. Rather, all the current and potential players in the game and their representatives can choose for themselves whether the larger frame serves their specific purpose. I'm hoping that most of them are having that very discussion right now (or perhaps they're already done).
Back in 2008, Elizabeth Long Lingo and I (and a fabulous research team) actually dabbled in the very question for a Curb Center research initiative at the National Performing Arts Convention in Denver. Since the convention was drawing a national audience of arts professionals, advocates, and supporters from multiple disciplines, our research team wanted to know how they drew the frame around ''performing arts'' (essentially the ''what's in and what's out'' question). Here are the results of that pre-conference survey question for those who care to know (click the link or the image for a full-size view).
I found it interesting that the convention was intended to bring more muscle and motivation to a national conversation about public policy and the performing arts, but that two of the largest national and local purveyors of music (Walmart) and media theater (Blockbuster) didn't make the cut.
In several countries around the world of very different ideological and political persuasions, artists and cultural workers, national and local politicians, various civil society sectors, and multilateral bodies are vigorously engaged in ongoing discourses about culture and the arts combined as a transversal cultural policy category which intersects other quality of life polices in such areas as spiritual well being, imagination and creativity, economics, health, security, conflict resolution and so on. In general these discourses illustrate the poverty of our societal focus on arts and culture and I think the urgency of arts and culture practitioners and related fields to break with our rather amorphous, reactive, often anti-intellectual discussions, and pandering, raw market posture, e.g. "Arts=Jobs", in the search to foreground and get support for arts and culture from politicians and corporate patrons.
Provocative, yes! But I think a relatively accurate, real-culture-politic description of the national context in which Expressive Life is posited as a substantive qualitative focus and means with potential to "eliminate the dismissive, eye-rolling assumptions that now attach to "The Arts".
Although I do not think that Bill's Expressive Life construct will supplant traditional usage of the words arts and culture, I welcome it because I think it provides a needed discursive framework with potential to stimulate-- as in this Blog and the UK's engagement of the terminology and meaning--- a deep and ongoing examination of why we find the arts and culture, (artists and intellectuals) in such a marginal place in national life exemplified in the meager $50 million allotment of the $787 billion dollar stimulus package. Beyond reflection, I think Expressive Life as "voice" and "heritage" provides substance and direction for an expansive, productive public and governance policy focus. And Expressive Life has potential to prime a deeper discussion of meaning and range of arts and culture and help put behind us the often shallow practice of subsuming culture in arts' articulations and diminishing or dismissing the arts in intellectual discussion.
So, I urge that we take heed of the song lyrics "We are the ones we've been waiting for" of Sweet Honey in the Rock and use Bill's Expressive Culture initiative to situate artists and cultural workers and to elaborate arts and culture In the center of our national debate and policy formulation to re-steady our country and to reintegrate into the protocols forged by the community of nations.
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.
On the one hand, the general public I think would grasp Bill's definition. Most people know that when you express yourself, that means a part of who you are is being revealed either through speech, or what you create or wear, etc. Even professional athletes know that when they get elaborate tattoos that require a degree in semiotics to comprehend, they are indeed expressing themselves. It could be a very inclusive term.
But it may not be the best choice of words in corridors of power. 'Expression' is often used in legal contexts, typically in regards to free speech. There's a danger of using the word with policy-makers. Arts and culture will be conflated with more partisan, potentially controversial work that makes no attempt at being artistic. I think the broader the definition of 'expression,' the more difficult it becomes to defend when approaching those in power. Or worse, it will mean nothing to them.
Here's my question: are we just going to ignore these organizations? They are the bed we have made and are currently lying in. If we are Darwinian about it, and just let them go down, we (and policy makers) could be heavily distracted by that depressing spectacle for another twenty years. Or don't they need to be co-opted into the process of reframing both the place of expressivity in civic life, and the centrality of the expressive individual in our cultural life?
What happens to our current non-profit cultural infrastructure will influence the success or not of the enterprise Bill has pointed us toward because in the eyes of many policy makers, especially at the local level, these big, noisy, dysfunctional organizations are the most important and visible carriers of cultural heritage. Of course we can just wait the twenty years and let their fate resolve itself, but that doesn't feel like any way to pursue a movement, which is what it feels to me we are talking about.
Monday, the Justice Department approved the merger of Ticketmaster (the world's largest ticketing service) and Live Nation (the world's largest producer, promoter, and host of live concerts). The merger has clear implications for worldwide markets of live performance, for the control of and profit from all activities surrounding those performances, and for how venues, media outlets, artists, presenters, producers, artist representatives, and local communities connect the live arts with audiences.
It's an example of a significant and public shift in the shape of our industry (not just nonprofit arts, but certainly including nonprofit arts) that had little play in the ''arts and culture'' conversation. Bruce Springsteen was against it, but he's not ''arts and culture.'' Consumer groups and independent commercial entertainment providers were concerned, as well, but they're not ''arts and culture'' either.
I'm not sure that ''expressive life'' resolves that problem, or would suddenly make artists and cultural leaders more aware and engaged in public policy decisions that shape their universe. But it underscores to me the inadequacy of ''arts and culture'' as a frame and a filter for public conversation.
UPDATE 1/27/2010: Neill Archer Roan posted some detailed thoughts on the merger issue on his blog. Worth a read if you're not sure how the merger might impact your work.
I get that expanding the frame still means having a list of who's on the boat and who's off. But even after one determines whether frying eggs is on or off, it seems to me that an expanded list means expanded difficulty in determining desirable rational policy. Authors versus Google books. Musicians versus recording companies. Concertgoers versus TicketMaster. Where do you come down?
It's difficult enough when it's just the non-profit sector and there seems like even the semblance of a commonality of model. There are many issues where cultural policy for the public good seems easy (access to cultural heritage being an obvious one) But how do we expand the frame to deal with something even so fundamental as the ticket business without making a mess?
I appreciate Marian Godfrey's concern about our current crop of cultural nonprofits; they're in trouble and, quite apart from any talk about expressive life, they seem to be getting pushed to the margins. While I've never viewed the idea of broadening our frame of reference as a strategy to increase support for any part of the arts spectrum, it does seem that, if there's a bigger discussion about the importance of all of expressive life to quality of life, all boats should rise.
Think about the environment. Let's say thirty years ago a smart cluster of advocates began to gather support for wetlands preservation. They would have had some success over the decades; duck hunters would have weighed in, and probably some birdwatchers, but my guess is that the wetlands preservation movement would have hit the upper limits of financial support and policy engagement pretty quickly. On the other hand, wetlands as a part of a larger environmental-movement frame has much greater standing and can get its share of a very big whole. You get my point; I don't think our traditional fine-arts organizations can advance in the current economy and policy frame unless they're part of a big idea that is powerful enough to stand beside health care, education, and even the environment. But it will be challenging for a sector that has claimed most of the conversation "on the way up and down" (to paraphrase Adrian Ellis), to step back and be part of something bigger in order to advance expressive life as a marker of a healthy democracy.
We need to test Nihar Patel's idea that "expressive life" is too close to "free expression" for comfort. I know the phrase tilts us away from heritage, but if the very term "expression" is too hot for policy leaders to handle, we need to keep thinking...
Doug worries that if we take on any policy issues other than those that directly affect our core constituency -- nonprofit arts organizations and artists who work mostly in that world -- we'll be out of our depth and get things wrong, unable to choose sides responsibly.
True, there are some ambiguous situations that arise, but many issues are pretty clear, especially if we always ask, "Will policy x enhance the expressive lives of individuals and communities by making heritage and the tools of creativity more available, or will the policy increase costs, erect barriers, or limit access?" After all, we are as smart as leaders in any field, and little of this is rocket science: create low-power FM outlets in urban areas, almost certainly a good thing; allow one company to own 10% of all radio stations; probably bad (as the Clear Channel experiment demonstrated); abandon Net Neutrality to allow advertisers to steer online searches; almost certainly bad. Yes, there are some really thorny issues (Google Books is one) but I absolutely believe that the conversation around these issues will be better if the smart folks who have mostly thought about museum attendance and foundation funding turn their attention to a wider set of issues. If we don't, the part of the arts scene that we know best will end up as roadkill smashed flat as public policy speeds along the highway to market hegemony.
Now I'm not a conspiracy theorist (really; I'm not) but if I were it would be easy to frame the entire nonprofit arts scene as a plot to keep smart arts people from ever thinking about things like copyright, union agreements, media ownership, or mergers in the recording, film, and television, or live performance industries. They give the NEA an extra ten million some years, and it's all "high-fives;" the next year they take it away, and we spend thousands on seminars to help us cope with the funding crisis. All the while, bigger forces are quietly tying up the Internet, expanding the footprint of IP, while allowing heritage assets to be locked up in the vaults of a few merged media giants. The nonprofit scene can be viewed as a medium-sized sandbox in which arts people are asked to play for a pittance while mainstream policy actors use legislation, legal interpretation, and regulation to expand controlled revenue streams.
But I'm not, just not, a conspiracy theorist...
I had a dark thought. I think the Supreme Court just complicated the idea of expressive life. If corporate contributions to political campaigns are now to be protected as part of our freedom of expression, what exactly qualifies as "expressive life?"
I keep coming back to creativity, to the ability to make what is new, to combine previously disparate elements, to communicate something previously unrecognized. And yes, it happens in the syntheses, in the discoveries of science too. Our case for the participation of all in creative expression would be strengthened by understanding how this occurs. Expression must be qualified with "creative."
This conversation reminds me of the time six years ago when Wallace Foundation and RAND released Gifts of the Muse - Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts. After providing us with a terrifically erudite accounting of arts benefits, the authors' lead recommendation in the last chapter was to "develop language for discussing intrinsic benefits." And I wondered, whose job is it to create this new language? (Frankly, I'd hoped RAND might make some suggestions...) I imagined a room somewhere in the sub-basement of the NEA where wordsmiths were earnestly hammering away at new framing language that will, once and for all, tickle the funnybone of policymakers and convince them that the arts really matter.
I can contribute one data point to the language conversation. A few years ago, I led some focus groups with caregivers of children in low-income Dallas neighborhoods, in connection with the Thriving Minds creative learning initiative. We tested three terms for salience: 1) "arts activities," 2) "cultural activities," and 3) "creative activities," with the following results:
- The word "creative" had strongly positive connotations associated with awakening the imagination, interaction and freedom of choice. It was also seen as a gender-positive term for boys who might feel social pressure not to get involved with "arts" activities.
- "Cultural activities" were generally expected to be heritage-based and culturally-specific, and thus not for everybody.
- "Arts Activities" took on the meaning of arts and crafts.
I can only imagine how they would've reacted to "Expressive Life."
The notion that every citizen has a right to an expressive life is a powerful and galvanizing idea, and a good platform for debate about copyright law and other policy reforms. I like it, I really do. But will it translate from insider to outsider? From policy circles to lawmakers and plain folk who care deeply about culture? It depends on who we want to influence, and what we want from them. Maybe we just need to hire really expensive lobbyists? (:~>)
As policy language goes, I am partial to 'creative vitality' as a core element of quality of life, and to 'creative capital' as the thing that gets measured. This train has already left the station. Creative Scotland. Creative New Zealand. The Creative Campus program, funded by the Duke Foundation and administered by Arts Presenters, is a good example. Increasingly, arts presenters are recasting themselves as catalysts of creativity in their communities, not just as presenters of touring artists. Business schools are looking to design firms for new ways of teaching young entrepreneurs how to think more creatively. Given all the positive energy around 'creative vitality,' and the direct links to civic engagement and economic competitiveness, I have to wonder why we would want to jump from the creative vitality train to the expressive life express.
My nieces and nephews tell me they are more apt to think about their own "creative" life and activities than their "expressive" life, so I'm going with that one. They also express a lot of self-reliance about their ability to pursue their creative activities--they don't see any entitlement to or need for outside support of the kind provided by our current subsidy-oriented arts policies. But if they are informed that if big media succeed in suppressing net neutrality or fair use. and consequently they will lose the ability to access and share both information and creative expression, and if they are given something to do about it through an advocacy campaign, I believe they will act.
Thought experiment: we have a policy framework - expressive
lives - and we apply it to a specific area - in this case increasing
concentration of ownership in the music business - and we conclude that it
looks like a bad thing because on balance it reduces opportunity for voice and
access to heritage. Where do we go
from here? Who are the agents who will press this cause?
Thought experiment: we have a policy framework - expressive
lives - and we apply it to a specific area - in this case increasing
concentration of ownership in the music business - and we conclude that it
looks like a bad thing because on balance it reduces opportunity for voice and
access to heritage. Where do we go
from here? Who are the agents who will press this cause?
A fundamental challenge is the imbalance between producer interests in the broad domain under discussion and those of consumer/individual participants. Whether we are talking about traditional 501(c)(3) land or the broader territory staked out by Bill, there is very little by way of infrastructure or organized capacity through which to pursue the agenda he describes. This is, of course, why that agenda has not been pursued. I am interested to know who the natural allies are and how one might create a collation of interest around the expressive life. Is this like the rambling associations in nineteenth century Britain who opened up rights of way in closed rural estates to working class walkers; or the Slow Food movement who have sought to reclaim quality of life around conviviality? Who are the natural advocates of the expressive life agenda (or whatever name resonates most effectively)? Whoever it is, there is a struggle ahead, as late capitalism a l'Americaine, marked by high concentrations of wealth, ownership and political power, seems arranged in a way that is antithetical to the agenda.
This is not of course a reason for setting the agenda aside - in many ways it makes it all the more urgent, as so many market and social forces encourage cultural passivity and an a-historical perspective. But it does make me want to look around other areas or people and groups with whom the expressive lifers could make common cause.
I keep scrolling back to Steven Tepper's discussion of reframing, when it's effective, and how it can be made more effective. Particularly, this point:
You can "extend" the frame by connecting it to other frames or other issues where there are natural allies/constituents who might be sympathetic to your frame but currently view the world through a different lens.Odds are that different partners on the path will have different words that move them. Alan identified some of these with his focus groups. Marian found others with her nieces and nephews. And perhaps our best step is NOT to craft the perfect language, but to use the most resonant and productive language for a specific task. Remember the ''Clean Air Act''? The ''Patriot Act''? Brilliant nuggets of symbolic sleight of hand.
My experience has been that the folks now camped in the ''arts and culture'' frame are among the most difficult to move, and the most reluctant to partner with industries or advocates that live in a different camp.
I continue to like ''expressive life'' as a way to organize my thoughts, and to give me space to use multiple paths to explain my meaning. But perhaps it's a term for inside baseball.
I'm sorry to come so late to the conversation. Over the past five days I've spent three in board meetings and two on the road. My expressive life has taken two forms: governance rituals (well-choreographed meetings, dancing around issues, singing the praises of staff) and sheer delight in what our modern digital technologies render accessible to the bored and delayed traveler (Ute Lemper singing Kurt Weill is the perfect companion while navigating TSA airport security).
These quick queries about the uses of the term "expressive life" should have come earlier in the conversation. They were what I was pondering when the rumpus began.
Is "expressive life" intended as a term for gaining wider popular traction in our political discourse (wider than such arid and conventional expressions as "arts policy" or "cultural policy")?
Is "expressive life" a term designed primarily to widen the aperture through which we view policy issues, among other things expanding our concerns beyond the nonprofit arts sector and its financial travails?
Is "expressive life" a means for embracing a greater range of artistic and cultural forms, some of which acknowledge the creative activities intrinsic to our daily lives, some of which are made possible with new technologies?
Is "expressive life" a way of reaching toward and defining an explicit policy aim, setting a public goal? This suggests a slight variation on Bill's aim a decade ago in setting out a cultural bill of rights.
I offer this late intervention rather blindly, grasping at threads after only a quick scan of what has obviously been a rich and varied conversation. I shall return.
Yes, yes, the air is thin up here. At the conclusion of a meeting I chaired here at the Curb Center a few years ago, the participants, at meeting's end, presented me with a sweatshirt embazoned with "Captain Macro." Alan has correctly nailed me as hopelessly addicted to the Big Picture.
A few quick bullets about points from Alan, Marian, Adrian, and Andras:
* It feels as if "creativity" in all its permutations pushes us toward "voice" and "awakening the imagination." It's difficult to bring heritage into creativity, I think, and the awakening the imagination stuff, through important, is also pretty easy for mainstream power to trivialize.
* Alan is right about "culture;" in policy conversation it's mostly used to invoke identity politics and that starting point is often unhelpful.
* Andras indicates that expressive life will (or does) produce "blank stares." To me this might be a good thing as we are afforded an opportunity to fill in those blanks. The problem with "art" and "culture" is that too many people think they already know exactly what the terms mean and that pre-sets the limits of any conversation.
* Adrian's question about who or what can actually carry a new policy frame forward identifies a huge problem. It's quite astonishing that in a society with such a vigorous and varied expressive life there's no single voice speaking for the public interest in relation to the whole. There are some scattered allies -- advocacy groups dealing with Internet access, and similar groups advancing fairness in media, localism in broadcasting, and so on. Also there are several organizations that advocate on behalf of a more-nuanced copyright/IP regime, and they would also be natural partners. But there exists no single entity that can walk into the office of a governor, member of congress, or FCC commission and say "We are the group that works to insure that America's expressive life is aligned with public purposes." I keep pressing our friends at Americans for the Arts to inch toward this role, and their National Arts Index certainly is based on many indicators that imply a broadening of their policy lens, but AFTA hasn't yet stepped out to claim this broader territory. Just as advocacy on behalf of nonprofit and artist funding would benefit if we were part of a larger policy sector, I think media and IP advocacy would also benefit through a connection with the nonprofit arts.
A quick anecdote to suggest the small ways in which public interest policies affecting expressive need to advance in the current environment. The Curb Center runs the Arts Industries Policy Forum in DC; it's funded by Ford, has 66 members, and brings together career staff from Commerce, Judiciary Committee, FCC, NEA, State -- many, many of the entities that work with legislation or regulation that shapes the US cultural system -- for bipartisan, policy neutral seminars on cultural topics. One Forum member, an FTC attorney, co-authored a paper arguing that, in the case of "three-to-two-mergers" in industries like health care and media, the effect of the merger on "consumer choice" should be as important as assessing the impact on "price." Now, this is a very specific recommendation and a bit arcane, but such a new policy would target mergers of, say, record companies, and would also help inflence big issues like access to heritage. If consumer choice had been taken into account by the Dept. of Justice and the FTC, would the Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger been approved? Some day, a la the environmental movement, there might be one grooup that would make the case for expressive life and the public interest within our democracy. In the short run, we need to find ways to cobble together a network of interested parties who focus on media, art, IP, trade, and international engagement.
I'm so pleased Ellen Lovell brought up the recent Supreme Court decision. Let's talk about it!
Andrew Taylor might be right that our best step might be to avoid trying to craft the perfect language. Andras is also right that language alone won't change behavior, especially the behavior of those in power.
Expressive life is not just a framework for talking; it is framework
for thinking and for action (which I believe is the challenge Marian Godfrey
sets out for us in her post).
Expressive life is not just a framework for talking; it is framework for thinking and for action (which I believe is the challenge Marian Godfrey sets out for us in her post).
I am compelled by Bill's simple formulation:
I am compelled by Bill's simple formulation:
"Will policy x enhance the expressive lives of individuals and communities by making heritage and the tools of creativity more available, or will the policy increase costs, erect barriers, or limit access?" Costs, barriers, access. In some ways, what expressive life recaptures is a more robust notion of "freedom of expression." Rather than think narrowly about how our freedoms are constricted by the authoritarian force of government and censorship, we should consider all of the ways in which corporations, government, and nonprofit institutions restrict the freedom of ideas to flow between citizens.
Costs, barriers, access. This formulation does indeed broaden the frame and it clarifies
who the allies are - it is not slow food advocates (as much as I like their
cause and feel their goals are sympathetic to a vibrant expressive life), but
rather media reform, free expression, localism, media literacy, IP, etc. In fact, I think nonprofits can regain
their status if they defend themselves as critical institutions for generating
access to and exchange of ideas for and between citizens (especially in light
of Adrian's late capitalism - which runs roughshod over such concerns). They -nonprofits - can be key nodes in the
expressive life grid.
Costs, barriers, access. This formulation does indeed broaden the frame and it clarifies who the allies are - it is not slow food advocates (as much as I like their cause and feel their goals are sympathetic to a vibrant expressive life), but rather media reform, free expression, localism, media literacy, IP, etc. In fact, I think nonprofits can regain their status if they defend themselves as critical institutions for generating access to and exchange of ideas for and between citizens (especially in light of Adrian's late capitalism - which runs roughshod over such concerns). They -nonprofits - can be key nodes in the expressive life grid.
A recurrent theme also seems to be a perceived need to protect our expressive lives from rapacious corporate dominance or carelessness. In mid-conversation the Supremes change the game by ruling that the corporate voice has been unduly restrained. In this morning's Chicago Tribune, Clarence Page cites the irony that the 14th Amendment, intended to ensure freedom and citizenship for slaves, has provided the legal basis for corporate personhood and the steady amplification of corporate power, since 1886. That feels totally germane to this discussion -- and also hopelessly beyond the scope of a week-long blogathon amongs arts types. What steps can we take that are within our existing, mostly-strained, capacity?
One organizing idea of Bill's book Arts, Inc. is that our default conceptions of "art" and "culture" leave us blind to and powerless before many of the forces that in fact affect expressive/cultural/artistic life. Bill and others have offered examples in these posts: the consolidation of radio stations, the merger of Ticketmaster and Live Nation, the Supreme Court's ruling on corporate money in politics...
To make a list of these things is to come at "expressive life" from the substantive rather than linguistic end of the puzzle. What are the problems that might be solved, or at least better enjoined, if we could get beyond our default conceptions?
To continue the "what's in and what's out" thread, then, might we generate a more formal list of the topics or policy areas that Bill and others hope to see come into focus? Bill's initial post offered a starter set:
intellectual property, broadband penetration, amateur art practice, media regulation, the vitality of for-profit arts companies, non-school arts learning, Fair Use, union policies, and access to cultural heritage.
A later post adds a few more: "media regulation, corporate archival preservation policies, revenue streams that flow to the arts industries...." Russell Taylor suggests we look at "what role an expressive life should have in a developing democracy" and consider the idea that "our ... adherence to 'star' hierarchies in the arts contributes actively to social and economic inequalities, just as in the realm of sports."
My own list would include:
* Claiming the fair use doctrine for all realms of expression. As many of you know, good work has been done in this realm by documentary filmmakers. I myself have tried to start up a project for teachers and artists in higher education. (Funders: please call soon!) There's much to be done here.
* Designing online libraries to maximize the circulation of knowledge, consistent with current law. Specifically there are serious issues at stake in the Google Book Search Settlement that is now before a Federal Court. The disposition of that lawsuit will shape our expressive ecology for a generation to come and yet much of what is about to transpire seems to me invisible to the "arts & culture" community.
What other topics belong in this list?
Several entries have talked about definitions, 'What's in' and so forth. I think that's one of the real values of the idea of expressive life itself: its capacity to connect seemingly different activities, strands of policy and - for want of a better phrase - what people actually get up to.
A couple of years ago, I did some work at Demos on conservation, making the point that conservation is about caring for the material world, and hence the physical manifestations of things and objects that symbolise concepts like identity and community. We produced a short video to accompany the pamphlet. It features professional conservators talking about their work. Alongside this, we asked a graffiti artist to talk about his art (expression). As we interviewed him, he began to talk with sadness about how the history of his peers (his heritage) gets whitewashed and painted over. I accept, graffiti can be controversial - I don't want to make an argument about its pros and cons here. The point is that the graffiti artist was talking about heritage in exactly the same way as the conservators we interviewed for the film. Here, we had two worlds coming together around the values of expression.
What really appeals to me about the idea of 'expressive life' is the constructive challenge that it poses to professional self-conception - what actually is a cultural form and why are we showing it, collecting them, selling them, listening to them and so on. In particular, it helps make links that might not otherwise be apparent. My fear was that some of the conservators with whom I was working would look at the video with horror. They didn't. Instead, many said that they looked at graffiti anew.
So, when Adrian asks 'Where do we go from here? Who are the agents who will press this cause?', my answer is that thinking about expressive life is a means by which seemingly disparate groups can find common ground. To take this wider, it would be great to hear other bloggers and readers comment the role of cultural organisations and professionals in encouraging public debate about expressive life (by that I mean beyond policy) and what implications the idea has for education.
I think a big part of the struggle here is to figure out how citizens can have more of a voice in these public policy issues. This is far more important than the small grant funding the NEA has at its disposal (though of course I don't want to minimize the value of that direct support for art). Right now the default winners on cultural policy are companies like Disney, who own issues such as copyright. As you so shockingly point out, a great deal of our cultural heritage is under the lock and key of private interests and we (artists or audience) don't necessarily have access to it.
But here's my problem. We're in the midst of a revolution in the ways culture is produced and distributed. A very big part of this revolution is the breakdown of traditional channels and institutions, the empowerment of individuals to be more creative and find audiences for that creativity. The traditional powers of centralization are being overtaken by more efficient dynamic network effects. The fragmentation and the constant rewiring of that fragmentation, it seems to me, increasingly resists attempts to generalize or common-ize the validation of culture.
Many of us are still thinking of culture or information or communities in terms of centralizing places like websites or institutions. But I see culture and communities atomizing and networking in organic ways that make sense for the moment or the place, then melting away and reforming around the next idea that makes sense. This is the power of the creative revolution that gives artists the power to create and distribute in ways they never were able to before.
So. Any list you might make of expression would necessarily have to be fluid and ever-evolving. It might be unworkable. Better, I think, to take up the suggestion below of tackling costs, barriers, and access. In these at least, there are some principles that could be articulated for the public good. But how sexy is this? How do you create and rally a constituency around them?
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.
I am picking up Marian's point that we should not just leave the non profit institutional sector to flounder for a generation while we address the wider policy issues that Bill is rightly flagging, and Russell's last post. Here goes...
The institutionalized non profit cultural sector needs serious, disinterested (i.e. objective) attention by intelligent policy analysts. Its administrators' antics and self-importance may rile Bill but this sector is tasked with, as it should be, stewardship of the highest expressions of humanity, with its transmission to the next generation intact if not enhanced, and with ensuring the widest enjoyment and appreciation of these defining achievements by as many people as it can engage - this mandate crosses material, visual, dramatic, literary and musical culture - voice and heritage.
There is much to criticize about how we are going about that
task basic, and I suspect history will judge my generation harshly - we have probably been grabby and
overbearing in the dispatch of our
duties - just we will probably be judged harshly in many other respects, in our
fiscal habits, our public morals and our civic passivity. But these tasks of stewardship, transmission and illumination
are vital and legitimate objects of public policy.
There is much to criticize about how we are going about that task basic, and I suspect history will judge my generation harshly - we have probably been grabby and overbearing in the dispatch of our duties - just we will probably be judged harshly in many other respects, in our fiscal habits, our public morals and our civic passivity. But these tasks of stewardship, transmission and illumination are vital and legitimate objects of public policy.
The tragedy of so much cultural policy however is that it is, formally, bullshit (c.f. Eleonora Belfiore's elegant analysis of Bullshit in Cultural Policy). Like bullshit in other areas of public discourse, rather than working through in good faith how these modest but vital responsibilities are best dispatched, cultural policy in the United States and Europe has tended to focus on how to stake a claim to more of the public agenda than these responsibilities, important though they are, can reasonably command, both for both the fun of it and for the funding of it. This tends to undermine the disinterested nature of the analysis. Any serious attempt at policy, expressive or cultural, has to be re-grounded in a more objective ethos of policy analysis, if it's not simply to be lobby-fodder. Advocacy is essential but it is not policy analysis.
I am interested in the extent to which Bill's framework can
help to ensure a closer congruence between the institutional structure of the
cultural sector as conventionally conceived (which is a mess) and the efficient
and sustainable execution of the voice- and heritage-related responsibilities
that are the sector's core responsibilities. It may be that the
mess is just what it is and, like democracy, better than the alternatives. But we seem to be
at a cusp and a convergence of both acute fiscal mayhem and chronic secular demographic, technological and other drivers. Together they have created a real (albeit slightly desperate) appetite
amongst cultural decision makers and opinion formers to address the fundamental
issue of the inadequate fit between the institutional infrastructure of the
arts and sustainable aspirations for various (and as Andras, has emphasized, fluid) art forms.
I am interested in the extent to which Bill's framework can help to ensure a closer congruence between the institutional structure of the cultural sector as conventionally conceived (which is a mess) and the efficient and sustainable execution of the voice- and heritage-related responsibilities that are the sector's core responsibilities. It may be that the mess is just what it is and, like democracy, better than the alternatives. But we seem to be at a cusp and a convergence of both acute fiscal mayhem and chronic secular demographic, technological and other drivers. Together they have created a real (albeit slightly desperate) appetite amongst cultural decision makers and opinion formers to address the fundamental issue of the inadequate fit between the institutional infrastructure of the arts and sustainable aspirations for various (and as Andras, has emphasized, fluid) art forms.
I think there's a conference
in Chicago at the moment on the future of symphony orchestras. Russell, you are
there? I bet they are talking about this. The AAMD met two weeks ago - I be they were talking about this too... The
language may vary but it's THE issue for the expressive responsibilities that the non profit institutional sector shoulders in return for for all the fiscal love it gets.
I think there's a conference in Chicago at the moment on the future of symphony orchestras. Russell, you are there? I bet they are talking about this. The AAMD met two weeks ago - I be they were talking about this too... The language may vary but it's THE issue for the expressive responsibilities that the non profit institutional sector shoulders in return for for all the fiscal love it gets.
Addressing the mature execution of these responsibilities will take political will
and collective action - neither of which are common in the cultural sector. But
I would hope that the agenda that Bill is articulating can embrace and address this
critical dimension of expressive life, simply because it's a big part of the
totality. I feel this has to be said in a way that does not diminish other aspects
of expressive life that he is rightly high-lighting as neglected. Here's a stab
at encapsulating it: the ecology is unbalanced in part because many expressive
social interests are under-articulated, and Bill has highlighted them and has suggested an agenda around them. It's an agenda that it is intellectually compelling but it is difficult to see how and by whom it will be pursued. Meanwhile other agendas are over-articulated: a move toward a balanced ecology requires us to address both issues.
Addressing the mature execution of these responsibilities will take political will and collective action - neither of which are common in the cultural sector. But I would hope that the agenda that Bill is articulating can embrace and address this critical dimension of expressive life, simply because it's a big part of the totality. I feel this has to be said in a way that does not diminish other aspects of expressive life that he is rightly high-lighting as neglected. Here's a stab at encapsulating it: the ecology is unbalanced in part because many expressive social interests are under-articulated, and Bill has highlighted them and has suggested an agenda around them. It's an agenda that it is intellectually compelling but it is difficult to see how and by whom it will be pursued. Meanwhile other agendas are over-articulated: a move toward a balanced ecology requires us to address both issues.
Whoa! That was way too long. Sorry, Doug.
Great analysis, Adrian. You should be a consultant. (:~>) I know this will sound self-serving as a researcher, but what gets measured is often what really matters, particularly in the eyes of dispassionate authorizers. All I know for sure is that we need a new outcome rubric for arts and culture, one that re-balances 'heritage' and 'voice,' and one that every community can buy into. That, and a well-funded champion for cultural policy, and we're off to the races - at least the races where everyone doesn't bet on winning horses.
Seriously, maybe the moment is right now for an expressive revolution, given the tidal wave of interest in personal creative expression that is sweeping our country. But whenever I start talking with large budget producing organizations about making more connections to the inventive and interpretive modes of engagement, I get blank stares and hear an undertone of hostility about being taken 'off mission.' What should be made of the recent finding from an Irvine Foundation study that a third of adults in some regions of California want to take dance lessons? There is no infrastructure, nonprofit or commercial, to accommodate even a fraction of that demand. Nor does the dance field seem to care about it. Whose job is it to respond to this sort of public demand, much less detect it?
Only a couple of disruptive changes might actually shift the locus of power, and one would be to introduce a new measurement system for "expressive life" or "creative capital." As Bill has said, "policy accretes around bodies of data." If we can develop commonly accepted metrics for characterizing expressive life, then we stand a better chance of influencing policy. You can't win the game if you don't know the score. And, if no one else is keeping score, then you get to design the rules and thereby change the game.
I hate to bring this up, but Richard Florida's scorekeeping rubric for creative economies changed the conversation amongst civic leaders, in part because he produced a quantitative measurement system that policymakers could believe in, and that motivated them to 'win the game.' It tapped into a competitive streak amongst communities. Whether or not you agree with his premise, Florida changed the policy conversation. I envision a time, maybe 10 or 15 years from now, when communities across the country strive to increase their 'creative capital' in order to be competitive. The National Arts Index is a good step forward, but we need to press forward on this front much more vigorously.
A better framework for assessing the public value of arts and cultural programs and facilities might also help create a more objective basis for considering policy alternatives, as Adrian suggests. How does one weigh the value of seeing a great work of art in a museum against the value of seeing a cheap reproduction of the same work every day for twenty years over the kitchen sink?
I believe Adrian, Alan, and Andras are all raising the right questions. Andras makes the point that we've tried a research agenda, and it didn't take. It didn't feel this way in the late '90s but my sense today is that our timing was off by about a decade. Right now everybody seems at least open to fresh look at the sector, and I bet if money were available, we'd be working with an arts field much more open to authentic new knowledge (as opposed to advocacy arguments) than was the case ten or fifteen years ago.
I've been thinking about our big, fine arts organizations while this blog has progressed. I get the sense that the nonprofit sector -- especially the "big dog fields" like museums, orchestras, dance companies, opera companies -- are today in something of a defensive crouch. There are many reasons for this, burt it shouldn't be; the fine arts remain a huge and critical part of America's expressive life. I think we need to ask a new question, "What is the unique role of our Europe-derived fine arts in heritage, voice, and quality of life?" That is actually a very hard question; in the past a high value has pretty much been assumed. I think, however, that the nonprofit fine arts have a unique and irreplaceable function in society, but smart people need to really dig in and figure out how to talk about say, classical music or ballet in relation to other kinds of music making, music consumption, and dance. Alan makes the point that we simply haven't connected with the tradition of homegrown social dancing that he uncovered in California. The question is, "If you dance at home, why should you connect with modern dance or ballet downtown, and how can you do it? You dance within your community and family tradition; why should your make the dance tradition of others your own?" If the fine arts have maxed out working to engage policy leaders as the "be-all and end-all of all art," what is a truer and more-effective way of assigning the value that is certainly there?
But I agree with Adrian that we can measure expressive life. We have the ability to not only count orchestra attendance and the other usual markers, but we can count the number of locally-written stories on the front page of the paper, the number of music students with private teachers, and the number studying at places like Guitar Center. We can count independent book stores and nightclubs with live music, Internet and cable penetration, and count the classical players who teach on the side. Measuring a long list of indicators (and the National Arts Index is a start) will enable us to assess health of community expressive life and open the door to a new generation of cultural plans that may be more compelling than those of the past.
But, as Andras reminds us: "Who will pay to acquire this new knowledge?"
By contradiction I don't mean disagreement. On the contrary, the level of agreement is thoroughgoing. The problem is, the two propositions that everyone seems to agree about are contradictory.
First, there is a general sense that "we" need some sort of centralized cultural authority to deal in a coherent and coordinated fashion with the array of issues raised by Bill Ivey.
Second, the prevailing mantra is that cultural authority is bad, especially when it is centralized.
Bill has done an admirable job of raising a set of interrelated issues and tracing the connections among them. But while no one is proposing a U.S. minister of culture (or to use the more likely term, culture czar), many of the arguments posted here point to a desire for some national entity powerful enough to direct resources in a more fruitful direction, maximize the amount of expressive life flowing in all directions, and (most important) re-order the perverse priorities of an irresponsible private sector.
I am in sympathy with all of these aims, and I will leave aside for the moment the question of whether the government has either the power or the will to impose any sort of curbs on the entertainment industry.
The point is, you can't want a culture czar and at the same time decry any exercise of evaluative judgment as "elitism." (In arts circles, I find that "elitism" is like "racism," an epithet that effectively paralyzes thought.)
Resources aren't infinite, and the unspoken goal of every human being's self-expression being appreciatively received by every other human being is absurd. So choices must be made, and unless the cultural marketplace is to become even more of a lottery than it is now, those choices must be based on some sort of evaluative judgment.
So elitism -- i.e. cultural authority -- is required if "we" are going to achieve any of the goals presented here.
Yesterday Bill reiterated his concern that "It feels as if "creativity" in all its permutations pushes us toward "voice" and "awakening the imagination." It's difficult to bring heritage into creativity, I think..." I don't agree with this and I think Bill's concern may have embedded in it a kind of cultural bias. It is often true that within the institutions that purvey and sustain a mainstream European (forgive the reductive terms) culture and heritage, the notion of "creativity" privileges voice over heritage and as such an emphasis on creativity seems to pose a threat to the sustainability or equal weight of heritage.
But in other communities, for example the newcomer communities in Philadelphia that include Cambodian and Hmong groups, the enterprise of young artists is specifically to synthesize voice and heritage, or at least to negotiate a balanced relationship between the two. These artists start from a stance of exploring their own creative expression but do so overtly within the context of the cultural heritage from which they come. Russell's example of the graffiti artist's encounter with conservators is another example of a more nuanced relationship between voice and heritage.
I keep returning to Jim Early's previous post and comment because one of the things he is talking about also seems to connect to this subject--that we have yet to give equal privilege and value to cultural expressions from all quarters in our consideration of the cultural landscape and our current, limited and flawed, cultural policies.
Like Marian, I'm going to do some digesting overnight and weigh back in tomorrow after some thinking and a few glasses of wine. But I am pleased that Marian doesn't feel that expressive life automatically tilts away from heritage. Artistic heritage attached to ethnicity and nationality has certainly been an area of growth within expressive life. My guess is that much of the at-home music making and dance that have been tracked in recent participation surveys are grounded in community folk traditions, and certainly making this kind of art making part of the big picture is a good thing.
Martha has raised an important question. I'm not at all certain that the U.S. needs a central cultural authority -- certainly not right now. But I believe the nation's expressive life has drifted without regard to public purposes in large part because authority in cultural matters is split up and assigned to dozens of government departments and agencies. Copyright is attached to LC, which also is involved in heritage preservation, as is the Smithsonian Institution. The FCC attempts to influence the content of broadcasting, and also weighs in on media mergers and acquistions, but it also handles telecommunications. Trade in cultural goods is aggressively promoted by both the Dept. of Commerce and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and support for cultural nonprofits falls to the NEA, and to a certain extent NEH and IMLS. Although the FCC may comment on a merger, it is really both the FTC and the Department of Justice who have the final say, and it is the Broadcasting Board of Governors that manages the Voice of America and a number of Arabic-language stations. The Department of Defense is very involved in community cultural work and in broadcasting, although much of this activity is secret, and the Department of State has an Office of Public Diplomacy managed at the undersecretary level, while the USAID program supports traditional (folk) arts as a vehicle of community development in a number of countries. The White House Social Office and the Office of the First Lady generate arts-oriented events in the White House, and the Administration's Office of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs mounts White House conferences. The Department of Transportation spends money on the arts to beautify highways, and Interior -- through the Park Service -- produces arts events in national parks. There is a National Council on the Arts, a Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities, an IMLS board (they actually have 2), the National Council on the Humanities, and the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Cultural issues hit Congress through the Judiciary, Commerce, and Interior Committees. The movement of art and artists across borders is controlled by the Dept. of Homeland Security. And this is by no means a comprehensive list. The result of course is that policy is made in tiny pieces, without reference to the way one small step in one agency might have significant unintended consequences in the province of another. Congressional staffers that I know have become very uncomfortable crafting legislation in tiny snippets when they only hear from contending interested parties (record companies vs. radio, for example) and never get to think broadly about whether a proposed action is really in the public interest.
So I don't know if we need a central authority, but we at least need some real communication and coordination among the major players whose individual actions cumulatively shape the character of expressive life. It would be fascinating and helpful just to get the key policy actors in a room. Some of these characters, like Homeland Security or Social Security don't see themselves as cultural actors at all, so any coordination would have to start out with some remedial education.
What do others think? My informal assessment is that this scattershot approach to policy affecting art has made it easy for commercial interests to control broadcasting spectrum, extend the footprint of IP, and generally hand over gobs of authority in cultural matters to self-interested market forces. If Sony, BMI,Google, NBC, Apple, and Verizon would all object to central authority or coordination, we're probably onto something.
I do think our current President has enough czars for the time being, and more will just be written of as big government liberalism. A centrist Republican, a Bloomberg type, is the ideal champion if we're talking about the federal government.
The worry is no central authority will make a habit of defending or funding work that some will find offensive. Maybe the right to express it will be defended, but the work itself wont be embraced. Which really gives this authority no real currency with artists. Perhaps this central authority functions more like the MPAA, a lobbying group with industry, not government funding. Though even with the MPAA, that relationship between public and private is too cozy for some filmmakers.
What if this central authority's main purpose is simply to seed this notion of an expressive life into the soil of America. That seems like a more realistic goal. Education first, not oversight, evaluation, or management. That may mean no grants, no awards, just outreach and communication. Can you imagine the Ad Council producing posters and TV commercials promoting a concept like the expressive life? Maybe they already do, but it's just not as funded as anti-smoking campaigns.
I guess the question is, what are the goals here, and what's priority one? To convince millions of Americans that arts and culture, learning to express yourself creatively, are worthwhile pursuits? Are we seeing the current landscape dominated by corporate interests and new technological realities, and we're struggling to make sense of it all? Or are we fighting to make arts a priority in American education in the same way athletics is, hoping the next generation will pick up the baton for us? Ok, enough, Doug and Bill get to ask the questions.
Running to catch up on this week's conversation, I feel like the old, raspy-voiced character actor Andy Devine shouting out to Wild Bill Hickok (those of a certain age, that is to say most of you, will remember him). Like Andy, I need a faster pony to catch up. Or maybe I just need to think like all the other under-horsed side kicks of yore -- find a short cut or head back to the ranch.
I want to address two topics. First, we've been discussing the fragmented state of our cultural policy-making for at least twenty years. Quite often that conversation has deviated from the rather straightforward question of policy coordination to the historically weighty subject of cultural czars and cultural authority. There have been several proposals for coordinating mechanisms, including those laid out in a decade old briefing paper from the Center for Arts and Culture. This is simply to say that the problem of policy fragmentation has been identified (and nicely summarized and updated in one of Bill's recent posts). There are ideas for how coordinating mechanisms might work and where they might be lodged. Sadly, we've not acted on them.
When I've wondered why we've taken no action, I've always looked back (way back since, like Andy, I ride a slow nag) and asked what other policy domains have struggled to find structures to coordinate and integrate their policy making. Federal budget policy was always a mess (still is, for that matter) and efforts to coordinate it have been a long, slow slog since the 1910s and the creation of the Bureau of the Budget (with the out-sourcing of some of its analytic work to Brookings in the late 1910s and 1920s); it continued with the creation of the Congressional Budget Office in the 1970s and the reforms of BOB that gave us OMB; a cluster of independent think tanks and analytic groups also sprang up to operate outside the formal boundaries of the policy process. Other policy domains -- think of the establishment of the NSC and the 70-year struggle to coordinate national security policy or the creation of the Council of Economic Advisers in 1946 -- have dealt with their particular problems of policy fragmentation. Is it any surprise that cultural policy coordination is a challenge? Is it worth looking at these other mechanisms more carefully?
I said I had two topics, this is a seque to the second, if anyone is counting. I'm now heading back to the ranch and to the value of thinking in terms of "expressive life."
I would argue that when other policy domains have ultimately succeeded, they have been shaped less by a cluster of related problems and plaintive cries about perceived needs than by the emergence of analytic insights and tools and by the cadres of professionals who embrace those tools.
The story of budget policy coordination begins with the invention of new corporate accounting methods in the late 19th century, the emergence of training in public administration early in the 20th century, the embrace of Keynesian economics in the 1930s...quick sand ahead if this saga were to continue. Similarly, the beginnings of social security and other social welfare programs can be traced to the work of actuaries and demographers who had devised new ways of thinking about sharing collective risks. The field of national security owed much to the systems analysis and operations research that flowed out of World War II.
I've only mentioned the intellectual beginnings in these fields, not traced their evolution or acknowledged the contrarian intellectual strains that often have pushed back against these analytic methods. The anti-Scientific Revolution of the late twentieth century, the critique of the expert class, is another story (cup of tea, anyone?).
I think the promise of "expressive life" for our artistic and cultural realm resides not so much in its rhetorical promise or its re-framing potential but in its analytic heft. We are learning more about what makes us human from new research in evolutionary psychology, animal behavior, neuroscience, behavorial economics and the other disciplines (the old fields of archaeology and anthropology are also contributing). We are peering more deeply into the brain and looking back at our evolving primate selves to better understand our essentially social nature. (Bill has reminded us on several occasions about developments in the new field of "happiness" research).
Over the past decade or so, many of us came to understand that we were not on solid policy ground (or on the most defensible cultural terrain) in making economic arguments for the value of the arts. The RAND studies helped us think about the "intrinsic" values of the arts, drawing on diverse disciplines. "Expressive life" opens up an even more robust way of pursuing those questions. There's obviously much more to say about what we are learning about the place of the arts in human evolution, both inside the brain and in our social interactions. But my last word in the post is simply "Whoa!" [Does anyone know the name of Andy Devine's horse?]
P.S. to Marian -- If our creativity begins with utterances that become language that assume narrative form (and are perhaps accompanied by other narrative embellisments, song and dance), is there a tension between voice and heritage?
Andras asks what would be measured in determining the state of expressive life. I would make two points: First, this is not about selecting artists and art forms for special attention or support. My assumption is that in a more-coherent approach to the arts system we would still have agencies like the NEA that would gather expert opionion and dispatch checks (larger than those sent out these days, we would hope) to art making or preservation efforts deemed worthy. Government and philanthropic intervention in cultural vibrancy is important and, in an environment that honors expressive life as a public good, this part of the policy regime that deals with the arts should grow. But I don't think better coordination of policy affecting exprssive life should be about shaping content or picking winners and losers.
So the second, and to me more-critical point, is to bring some coordinated public-interest attention to the underlying structure, to the gatekeeping and pricing mechanisms that constitute the "rules of the cultural road" -- the laws, regulations, and practices that control access to heritage, to the tools of creativity, to the work of artists and arts organizations, and to bodies of shareable knowledge. Once we make the small leap of faith that believes an open system that enables access is "better" -- is a public good -- then there are plenty of things we can measure or count to see how different parts of the system are working.
So it's a bad thing if our copyright regime is so "heavy" that a classroom teacher is, for example, reluctant to produce a CD of classic African-American musical performances for student study because her school administration fears legal action. It's probably a good thing if a community features a number of neighborhood book stores. Likewise, it's probably good if there exists a mechanism to fund Internet connections for homes in poor neighborhoods, or that zoning restrictions are loose enough to make it easy for small Mexican restaurants to both sell beer and feature live music. It is probably good if the work of a symphony orchestra can be made widely available. If we take some time to list the many components that make up expressive life (and that process will be fascinating, fun, and not without argument), we will find many things that can be measured or counted, and many underlying policies or corporate practices that can be assessed and critiqued in relation to whether they open or clog the essential processes of creation, distribution, and consumption.
Now, the ultimate value -- the "big why" of all this -- requires another leap of faith. Andras quotes an arts leader: "Art makes better people." Artistic heritage and creativity are at the very center of expressive life, so this statement is not far off the mark. But how are we to justify or defend it?
A quick thought experiment:
Imagine a young man, reared in the Islamic faith in Nigeria. He's part of a well-to-do family, and with all best intentions, his father ships him off to a fine boarding school in England. He is devote, and struggles to fit in to an alien environment. Emails suggest he is lonely, without friends, and longs for a path to a meaningful life. He connects with an inspiring jihadist on the Internet, and leaves school on a path that leads to an attempted suicide bombing. Observers are stunned that a well-off, well educated youth make such choices. But imagine someone cut off from heritage and denied voice who finds a way to restore expressive life through devotion to a charismatic leader who offers a deep connection to heritage and an opportunity -- albeit a violent one -- to express his individual voice. Is the destruction, search for, and reconstruction of expressive life a useful lens in describing the terrorist impulse?
Or imagine American society reset to a persistantly-lower standard of living by the current recession. What is the pathway to quality of life in a post-consumerist democracy? A deeper connection with heritage and personal creativity -- a vibrant expressive life -- may not be the only alternative to materialism but it is a good one.
I've gone on too long. But art is at the center of expressive life, and it seems that expressive life, framed properly, does have an opportunity to aggressively claim a defining role in the lives of indivduals and communities: the kind of role meaningful to mainstream policy leaders. To state it simply, maybe art does make "better people?"
The expressive life agenda feels as much to me like the stuff of a broad social movement as it does a framework for policy analysis. The head of steam required for the policy analysis, the honing of performance indicators and the required assault on producer interests in policy-making is likely to occur only if there is, to use Bill's comment, 'an environment that honors expressive life as a public good.'
For this to happen, the agenda needs to be linked back to the debate about what constitutes a fulfilled life, expressive or otherwise, and whether social institutions are generally arranged in a way that permits that life to be led and that gives us all some gentle nudges in that direction, particularly in our formative years.
This - the good life, what it is and how you live it - was for centuries an overt topic of discussion and not just amongst philosophers and framers of constitutions but then sort of went underground a little under a century ago, resurfacing in self-help literature and a few academic books that were generally seen as eccentric and subjective within the value-neutral realm of social science (e.g. Tibor Skitovky's The Joyless Economy or Robert Lane's The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies). The burgeoning literature of 'happiness studies' is attempting to bring this together and link issues of self-actualization back to public policy - health, education etc.
But like the expressive life agenda with which it overlaps, the issue of how the long term interests of individuals are best promoted in a political economy that is dominated by producer interests is critical. It seems a long way from artsjournal.com territory and nearer to that of adbusters but it's where Bill is taking us. It's what political parties used to be for ...
There's clearly work to be done to ensure each citizen's right to find and express their voice, and to discover, experience, and remix the expressions around them. There's also work to be done in repurposing those cultural institutions who care to be repurposed as local and national stewards of such expression -- among other stewards. Whether language comes first or policy does is probably the wrong question. In truth, such things always move together.
My father, who's a physics professor, sent me the following quote when he read what I would be talking about this week. Seems to be a good sentiment to close my last post:
''...we cannot improve the language of any science without at the same time improving the science itself; neither can we, on the other hand, improve a science, without improving the language or nomenclature which belongs to it.''
A. Lavoisier, Traité Elémentaire de Chimie. William Creech, Edinburgh, 1790. Translated by Robert Kerr as The Elements of Chemistry, reprinted by Dover, 1965
This has been an enjoyable, stimulating conversation over the past five days and I suspect it will take a while for each of us to untangle its many threads in order to extract maximum value.
Great fun for me!
I agree with Adrian that consideration of expressive life must be part and parcel rethinking in new ways about quality of life generally, and that Robert Lane's and Richard Layard's and other's work on happiness will be important companions as we re-value heritage and voice. Many observers of quality of life are critics of consumer values, and I suspect that to elevate expressive life as a destination for smart public policy we will have to help deflate consumerism. Back when I was working in the Obama transition the economic situation looked so dire that a number of us on that team felt that the U.S. would be forced to rethink core values, as was the case in the 1930s, and consumerism might be pushed off its throne. Although that big reset didn't happen it still looks like a modest one is in play -- our standard of living is unlikely to return to credit-driven excess, and I suspect market fundamentalism is properly and fatally wounded. Perhaps the immediate value in defining expressive life boldly and specifically is to allow a new view of culture in society to stand in the wings ready to bolt onstage when old values and assumptions exit?
The quotation provided by Andrew's dad is apt; if we want to rename the cultural sector we must also reshape it. My argument, of course, has been that the pieces of a new model of culture in society are lying about, and we can make great progress by simply scooping up things like media policy, intellectual property, trade in cultural goods, international cultural engagement, and regulation of mergers and acquisitions to flesh out the content of our new term, expressive life.
Throughout Andras has reminded us of the limitations of our existing portfolio. Each of us, in one way or another, is an "arts person," and it is reasonable to ask if voices steeped in the nonprofit arts can suddenly stand up and advocate for changes in language and substance that will reshape the character of our field. This is especially problematic because the payoff to be derived from an ambitious, expressive-life frame is off in the future, while present concerns about deficits, endowment shrinkage, etc. is with leaders in our field every day. We will certainly have to enlist the help of the legal crew -- Larry Lessig, et al -- who are working to humanize the IP regime, focusing on law and the courts, and there are also dynamic potential partners in public interest media. And we can certainly find passionate allies among the librarians, archivists, and documentary producers who are vexed by the cumbersome, permission-based system that stands between present-day creativity and heritage art. But despite the presence of quite a few relevant fellow-travelers, it still feels that those of us in what we have called "the cultural sector," though focused on nonprofits and the fine arts, are still best equipped to lead. I hope we can find a way to pick up the challenge.
There is good, helpful argument coming down the pike. Lewis Hyde's soon-to-be published book on 18th-century American thought and the real character of copyright will undermine many of the scandalous arguments advanced today by corporate copyright maximalists, and Matha Bayles' forthcoming volume will clarify the character of the relationship between American export culture and the rest of the world. Both of these works will help define the content and boundaries of expressive life, and I'm sure others on this blog have valuable projects underway.
Though narrowly constructed, our familiar formulation of "The Arts" has experienced remarkable growth. Lately Bob Lynch, of AFTA, has been reminding us that, between 2003 and 2008, a new cultural nonprofit was created every three hours (!). That said, all of this growth in organizations and dollars -- through foundations, the NEA, corporate giving, private contributions -- has been in service of something that is basically viewed as an amenity. Thus, The Arts, as we've defined them, grow flush in times of perceived surplus, only to be cut back sharply when fiscal restraint forces centers of power to focus on "real" issues -- health care, the environment, education (but not arts ed). Gates Foundation priorities, mirrored by government and engaged by business, end up setting the boundaries within which "legitimate" efforts to advance quality of life are carried out. But we know that quality of life depends on more than those crude markers of well-being that Gates will fund, but old words and and old definitions are insufficient. To spend more decades flogging away on behalf of "The Arts" at this point feels futile. On the other hand, advancing Expressive Life at least affords the possiblity of marking an important new path to a high quality of life in our democracy.
Thanks to Doug for putting this blog together, and to each of our participants for your many, many thoughtful contributions.
We're having a big snow in Music City...An excellent opportunity to link brandy with contemplation!
BIll returns to the role of nonprofits in advancing the idea of expressive life. I agree: one thing this dialog has made abundantly clear is that for the idea to gain traction with policy makers, the first responsibility lies with us, who operate within the professional culture sector, to respect not only the idea of the cultural right to an expressive life, but also the individuals who pursue that right and the activities attendant upon that right. For the time being, anyway, the media and other purveyors of commercial culture will acknowledge those individuals to the degree that they are, or can be converted to being, consumers. It is the nonprofit cultural sector that has the already recognized responsibility to serve the public interest. and as such I believe that it is nonprofit cultural organizations that can and should be on the front lines of welcoming all kinds of creative individuals into the center of their missions and activities. The organizations who are thinking and acting most innovatively are already moving toward embracing this role.
PS to Jim: I expect there is always a tension between voice and heritage; indeed, exploring such tensions is exactly what narrative is good at doing.
I hope we can continue this conversation in other venues, it's a privilege to be in all your company.
Thanks to Marian for reminding us that the nonprofit sector remains a source of responsible adult leadership when it comes to questions of heritage, creativity, and the public interest.
Today arts managers, and just about everybody who cares about art, artists, and cultural vitality is talking about the need for a new approach and a new beginning. To me expressive life, with its suggestion of a more-inclusive cultural sector claiming a more-elemental role in democracy, offers a banner behind which smart, new arguments can proceed. I don't know when our Blogmeister will cut us off, but this is probably the time for final thoughts...
To paraphrase Marian: let's find an opportunity to keep this going...
And Nashville's snow is turning to freezing rain...
President Obama's appearance before the Republican congressional retreat was the best piece of political theater I've seen in years. (And I mean that as a compliment, since so much of leadership is theater.)
But most arts advocates seem incapable of reaching out in this fashion. For example, I suspect that the "we" in this blogathon is as blue as a Nav'i's backside. There are other political colors out there, folks.
The obvious first step is to reckon more honestly with the 1990s culture wars. That is, to recast the narrative so those years are not simply described as a time when mad-dog conservatives suddenly went berserk and began persecuting innocent painters, actors, musicians, and poets whose only offense was to uphold artistic freedom.
That's only half the story. The other half is a culture of transgression that valued art for no other quality than its willingness to violate widely held norms of decency, propriety, and civility. Soon American culture was consumed by a Hatfield-McCoy feud between between moralists who hated art and artists who hated morality.
My problem with "expressive life" is that instead of addressing this festering issue, it draws on the same anodyne language that has always been used by arts advocates and bureaucrats: a blend of 19th-century gentility and 20th-century boosterism. Why not emulate the president and put some grit under the wheels?
Late in my tenure as NEA chairman I awakened to the the truth that copyright extension, the DMCA, the demise of the USIA, and the 1996 Telecom Act had profoundly reshaped our cultural system, and no one from the "arts community" had been engaged in the runnup to these legislative, regulatory, and administrative transformations. What had passed for policy work in the arts during the Clinton administration had been about re-energizing the Arts Endowment, and while it was good to see the NEA budget grow again, the lack of interest in the system in which art gets created, distributed, consumed, and preserved was, to say the least, alarming.
Two reasons jump out at me: First, the policy arenas that define the US cultural system -- intellectual property, fair use, union contracts, media ownership, Internet opennesss and access, licensing agreements, mergers within the arts industries, the promotion of American entertainment products abroad, trademark, name-and-likeness rights -- are legalistic, technical, complex, and take both artists and nonprofit arts organizations into territory where few feel at ease. Also, I suspect that many fine arts nonprofits have viewed laws and regulations that determine the character of our cultural system as a slightly-distasteful necessity generated by the nasty "commercial" sector: thus hands off.
Second, when it comes to advocacy, there's no "there there" to push against. With copyright housed in the Library of Congress, trademark in its own department, mergers approved by Dept. of Justice and the FTC, movies and recordings promoted abroad by the Office of the US Trade Representative, nonprofit funding in the NEA, broadcasting with the FCC, the Internet with...Well, you get my point. We've evolved some very capable advocacy groups over the past decade (many represented in this blog), but at the end of the day, they can only nibble away at their designated issue. In the big picture no single entity in the arts has emerged to speak for the American people in addressing the big question of balancing market forces against the public's interest in a vibrant, open cultural life. Friends on this blog will not be surprised when they see me state again that we need a department of cultural affairs. Until we have a central hub that can engage the issues affecting America's expressive life the way the EPA centers environmental debate, we'll be punching pillows and the marketplace will rule.
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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