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March 09, 2005

Expressive logic, and the garage band sensibility

I’m thrilled we’re all talking about instrumental arts-support logic. I’ve tracked this instrumental logic back to Walt Whitman and up through the culture wars (in my book Is Art Good For Us?) and I really believe it is ultimately harmful to our cause. It’s a dream come true for me to have so many smart, arts-dedicated people exploring the implicit and explicit claims we’ve been making. As Andrew points out, understanding the consequences of the language we choose is important work….thanks so much to all of you. This is (alas!) my last post for the week—I’m away from the Internet for spring break starting tomorrow. So one final entry:

Assuming that our common cause is fostering and sharing the arts that we love, how do we best make our case? I want us to give up instrumental logic, and adopt a more expressive logic in support of the arts. Expressive logic is based not on extrinsic or intrinsic benefits, but on the value of aesthetic experience. If we adopt it, we’ll have a much easier time getting non-arts types to try our favorite forms. But to adopt expressive perspectives, we’ll have to let go of our self-serving assumptions about the powers of art to uplift, refine, transform, empower etc.

If we are to adopt expressive logic, and define the arts as public goods, like parks and libraries (nice connection, Jim) then we need to explore how and why the arts, natural spaces and information collections offer us valuable, worthwhile experiences. Historically, the presumed instrumental value of public parks and libraries was what got them funded--both were seen as ways to assimilate and uplift immigrants and the unwashed masses. Such hopes may have helped convince philanthropists in the late 19th century, but libraries and parks (at least here in the heartland) are too often dismissed as “frills,” compared with other social services. I’m all for the arts, for parks and for libraries, but not because I think they will uplift, civilize or refine anyone. They are good things that I love, and I want to make them happen, and I will support them when they do, and I yearn to share them with my fellow citizens.

Which brings me to the garage band model of cultural performance. Sometimes you don’t need to be widely popular or prosperous to exist and do well. All you have to do is keep things really cheap. My husband has a small theatre company here in Tulsa that has successfully staged four oddball plays a year for the past five years. He started it with $2000 and he still has $2000 in the bank, which he uses to stage mostly terrific shows that need no more than about 25 people per night (at $10 a person) to break even. Some shows lose money, some make it, but he has never assumed that he needed or deserved extra funding to put on the stuff that he likes, and that other local theatre companies can’t or won’t do. His is the garage band model for theatre, and it offers quirky but high quality cultural experiences to all participants.

The most frequent question he gets when people call for tickets is “what should I wear?” A subset of them ask about food, and most have clearly have never heard of a black box theater. But when they show up for Beckett or Havel, they find out that there’s something other than musical dinner theater, or Our Town that can be called theatre. And they don’t have to wear fancy clothes, and even weird sounding plays done by local actors can be worth going to.

Obviously symphonies and operas can’t be garage bands (of course we shouldn’t be lumping museums with orchestras with local theater groups, as has already been pointed out). But we need to remember that garage bands (and many forms of fine art) don’t need a very big audience to exist and to continue. Maybe we shouldn’t spend so much of our energies seeking revenue streams to help us grow bigger and more popular and more prosperous. Maybe we should just keep doing our oddball stuff in our own passionate ways, and do our best to help other people see why we’re so dedicated to the cultural forms we call "the arts."

The RAND report mentions in passing the role that the arts play in the creation and maintenance of social identity. Instrumental logic too easily fosters an elitist and pedantic identity for the arts, an identity that rightly puts off all kinds of people. Expressive logic, and a garage band sensibility, fosters an arts identity that is more open, democratic, egalitarian and experimental. With it, the arts can become more welcoming and inclusive, without commercializing or pandering. And that can only help the arts—and all of us--from here on in.

Again, my thanks to everyone posting. It’s been great to be able to think out loud in such good company.

Posted by jjensen at March 9, 2005 09:58 AM


It is interesting how we refer to arts groups as “non-profits,” as if the arts can only be described for what they are not. In Europe, most orchestras, opera companies, theater troupes, and ballet companies are owned and operated by governments. I’ve seldom heard Europeans refer to arts groups as “non-profits.” It’s a curiously American way of thinking. We view the arts as if they were something inherently crippled, like one-winged birds.

Most of our arts administrators rise in the profession because they are especially adept at working with these crippled, one-winged birds. Under the American system, which will always be ineffective and under-funded, it is inevitable that capital funds will have to be used for operating expenses. It is inevitable that “periods of contraction” will be recurrent, because the arts will always be starved.

Experimental arts forms will inevitably be problematic, because there will never be adequate funds for even traditional genres. In Europe, funding experimental art is not considered a significant problem, because money is at hand. Many opera houses have dedicated experimental studios. New music groups, such as the Ensemble Intercontemperain in Paris are, owned by the government. The Ensemble Modern in Germany is owned by its members, but is largely subsidized by the state.

Do American arts administrators actually contribute to the long-term problems of funding because they cannot admit that the American system itself is fundamentally flawed? They have developed their careers as doctors for one-winged birds. If the system changed, they and their expertise would no longer be as relevant.

We need these administrators for now, but we might consider eventually getting a bird with two wings -- an adequate system of public funding.

In the meantime, let’s watch the doctors for one-winged birds at work.

William Osborne

Posted by: William Osborne at March 9, 2005 11:00 AM

A week or so ago, Artsjournal linked to a Wired article that talked about people almost having an intrinsic need for art/beauty/meaning/purpose in their lives. I quoted the following bit in my blog:

For companies and entrepreneurs, it's no longer enough to create a product, a service, or an experience that's reasonably priced and adequately functional. In an age of abundance, consumers demand something more. Check out your bathroom. If you're like a few million Americans, you've got a Michael Graves toilet brush or a Karim Rashid trash can that you bought at Target. Try explaining a designer garbage pail to the left side of your brain! Or consider illumination. Electric lighting was rare a century ago, but now it's commonplace. Yet in the US, candles are a $2 billion a year business - for reasons that stretch beyond the logical need for luminosity to a prosperous country's more inchoate desire for pleasure and transcendence.

Liberated by this prosperity but not fulfilled by it, more people are searching for meaning. From the mainstream embrace of such once-exotic practices as yoga and meditation to the rise of spirituality in the workplace to the influence of evangelism in pop culture and politics, the quest for meaning and purpose has become an integral part of everyday life.

And just recently I saw a great illustration of this as Target Stores rolled out their "Design for All" campaign. They know they can't compete with WalMart on price, but they are plugging in to this craving people have. You can probably buy most of the same stuff at WalMart, but their message is, you will feel better about yourself if you shop here.

Now how the arts can manage to position themselves in the same manner against the convienence of cable TV, DVDs mailed to your home and all the rest, I don't quite know.

If you think back to Maslow's Hierarchy of Need, you know that safety issues like infant mortality will never be superceded by self-actualization activities like the arts, and it is silly to try as has been pointed out. At the same time, those needs Maslow cites are sort of hard wired into the human brain.

While I agree with Phil Kennicott that the current political/social environment may be making people who might have previously been just unfamiliar with the arts into people who are predisposed to view the topic with hate, they too have these deep seated needs. The closest they may ever come to supporting the arts is by attempting to fulfill the need by buying products at Target which in turn supports the arts. (I believe that was one of Ben Cameron's jobs prior to joining TCG.)

I hate to engage in idealistic speculation that implies the utopian theoretical can be translated into the practical so here is what I think might be a doable suggestion which extends Joli's thoughts-

Perhaps the entree for answering this need for potential audiences is the garage band approach rather than the massive performing arts center. Maybe organzations should be putting their money into storefront theatres and stand alone black boxes where insecurities about dress code and ettiquette aren't as big an issue because everyone is wearing jeans. (We tell people they don't necessarily have to dress up, but then they arrive at the venue and the veteran attendees are looking snazzy which gives a contradictory message.)

Once people feel comfortable and good about themselves, then you point out that if they enjoyed this, maybe they want to try the mainstage over on 6th Street--or just keep coming back.

The alternative venue doesn't necessarily need to be run by one organization. All the arts organizations of a community might go in and share the costs and use it as sort of an outreach facility. Theatre companies the first two weekends of the month, snippets of opera on the third, chamber music on the fourth.

Posted by: Joe Patti at March 9, 2005 11:50 AM

Re Arguments for the arts: nothing is better than the arts.

“My superiority to nothing has often been remarked upon.” A negative assessment the arts often fail to achieve. Why? As more of us are believing it is: first that the arts have been conceived wrongly in public discussion, and; second that research has been wrongly focused. Asking the wrong questions; delivering predictable answers; and achieving status quo results.

Many people I have talked to recently concur that the old arguments for the arts have not worked. But when stressed, the old arguments surface again: arguments which central agencies (ie treasury departments) can deflate, and which the man in the street finds unconvincing if not irrelevant.

The momentum to a new research universe is welcome. What is art, what does it mean, to whom, and, why, if at all, does it need extrinsic support. I like (some) art. My emphasis as a personal and social observer is on not what art is, but what art does, and what art does is to me the place of ‘culture’ in society: culture in life is the impact (“consumption”) of art. In Canada at least culture bureaucrats are not responsible for impact, they are responsible for supply (typically in response to American supply). This may have to do with art, it has nothing to do with culture.

I think you cannot (or should not) fiddle with art. What I sense someone should be studying is “culture” – the consumption, the role of art, which does involve pubic policy, public policy not just as direct or indirect financial support, but recognition, endorsement, if not exhortation.

The role of arts and arts participation is a focal case in point. The 1970s were full with the projection of the age of leisure and the promise of the age of culture. A more educated populace was to leave sports and movies and run to museums and performing arts. In light of the decline of the baby boom baby shampoo was history!

Instead, twenty years later, movies are booming, baby shampoo has been rebranded, and the arts are seeing stagnant audience figures. In some cases the old arts with the old arguments are bailing a sinking ship. Per capita public spending on museums and art galleries in Canada has increased three-fold in real terms over the past generation: per capita attendance has increased not one iota. My conjecture is the role museums might want to play is being played, just not by museums. The culture policy research world has been reflecting, I guess, the rear-mirror approach to seeing the present and the future.

Art may still be significant to people, “the arts” are increasingly less so. This raises a key evaluation factor: for how many people do the arts have to be important, for art to be important? Why, as is reflexively raised by those from the arts, do the arts have to be uniquely important? (If so, can you demonstrate it: if not re-formulating the arts in society with other partners would seem the logical consequence.)

My personal belief is it is not bums in seats but brains in motion that matter, and these do not have to be all brains in motion, let alone the spurious indicator of value of lots of bums in seats.

I also conjecture the affiliation with other humanistic services, while needed, is also irrelevant. Health assures life; education assures a job; police assure security – they all work to guarantee a physical life exists. Culture works to make that life worth living. Not on the same spreadsheet in my view.

P.S. taking your book to Italy!

Posted by: terry cheney at March 9, 2005 12:49 PM

I think Joli's onto something profound and maybe radical in her call for a more passionate, expressive approach to arts advocacy, even if it wasn't quite clear yet whether she was talking about advocacy or the practice and presentation of art, or both (advocacy by infectious example). In a meeting last week with an art museum director about audience development, I suggested that the curators be brought into the conversation about how the museum hopes to be experienced and how it might work to engage a broader range of people in the aesthetic experiences it offers. No dice. The institutional responsibility for engagement has been marginalized in the museum hierarchy to the education and marketing departments. The underlying assumption, I guess, is that the art itself is what's supposed to do the engaging, not the personality of the museum.

But in fact the people who find the typical art museum somehow uninspiring or academic, and who therefore don't make the effort to go often, much less join or donate, might respond very differently to a more palpable, human passion on the museum's part about what it displays. Something similar can be said of orchestras, where in most cases the musicians barely acknowledge the audience, wear anachronistic dress (but without the theatrical flair we associate with costumes), and evince few outward signs of enjoyment. At the risk of reading Joli's post reductively, we might say that "expressive logic" can best be understood in light of its much more common opposite: professionalism.

Maybe that's why I can't get Schiller out of my head this week, reading you bloggerati. In his "Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man," the poet-playwright-philosopher describes the impulse toward art, or at any rate toward beauty, as a "play drive," an attempt to harmonize the competing modes of sensual and rational experience. Through this kind of play we experience a more complete intuition about ourselves and achieve, if only temporarily, freedom from some of the tensions that make us most human. (Okay, now I'm reading Schiller reductively, but you get the idea.) Talk about intrinsic benefits--how did the Rand authors miss, or dismiss, Schiller?

Along with Joli's thoughts about expression and passion, this play idea gives us another context for thinking about how the arts present themselves to both audiences and funders. If the arts don't think of themselves as a species of play and enjoyment, as a special class of fun (and this blog suggests that they don't, at least not in the current anxious climate), then it's going to be an uphill battle on both fronts. It may seem counterintuitive, but I would bet that the task of convincing a congressman to support the arts would be easier, not harder, if that arts community presented itself as providing a worthy or even necessary human pleasure instead of trying to prove its value on the basis of the current, deadly-earnest social science grounds. I say this for two reasons: first, the chances would be much greater that the congressman would already be a fan of the arts himself (which several postings have noted is rarely the case these days), and second, the arts advocates would be able to point to audience engagement and maybe even demand for access to the arts. In other words, to borrow Joli's painful metaphor, art wouldn't be spinach anymore.

How do you get a principal violist or a Renaissance art curator to become more expressive and communicate her passion more directly and immediately to her audience? And what would have to change about the concert or the gallery (not the music itself or the art itself)? Real questions, but worth answering, if only as a thought-experiment. We'll never know whether there's a larger audience for the arts, or a larger role for it to play in society, until we get it out of its own way.

Peter Linett
Slover Linett Strategies
Audience research and planning for the mission-driven world.

Posted by: Peter Linett at March 10, 2005 09:07 PM

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