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Is there a Better Case for the Arts?
A Public Conversation Among People Who Care

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March 08, 2005

Packaging, Zeal and Varieties of Aesthetic Experiences

In his wonderful essay, “The Loss of the Creature,” Walker Percy raises the problem of symbolic packaging—he says we must learn how to wrest meaning from experiences that inevitably come to us prepackaged (and therefore lost to us) by our assumptions and expectations.

The smothering of artistic experience via symbolic packaging may be what we are up to when we seek ever-more persuasive arguments for the arts. Doug’s starting question could be restated: “what is the best—most effective or convincing--packaging for arts experiences?” The emerging answer in this discussion is that it may be extrinsic economic and civic benefits for some audiences, and intrinsic cognitive or emotional effects for other audiences, but with problems if we choose one over the other.

What I want to suggest here is that we simply stop wrapping up the arts in any benefits packaging whatsoever. In other words, maybe the packaging is causing the problems. As Adrian argues, it has fostered cultural expansion that ultimately weakens the non-profit sector. As Bill points out, it always makes us come off as missionaries trying to convert the great unwashed. By extrinsic and intrinsic logic, various arts experiences are defined as “good for you”—and by implication “better for you” than other kinds of popular or commercial cultural experiences. This instrumental logic is always insulting to the vast numbers of people who usually choose and enjoy non-art forms.

I want us, instead, to focus on aesthetic experience itself, and to acknowledge how aesthetic experiences are available in all levels and kinds of culture. As John Dewey pointed out long ago, the fine arts aren’t the only routes to aesthetic experiences. If what we want is to broaden and deepen the varieties of aesthetic experience for others, then our concerns should be with enhancing access across groups and styles and hierarchies.

I want us to become willing to call ourselves arts fans or arts enthusiasts, thereby recognizing that our zeal for our chosen forms is akin to the zeal other people have for their non-art forms of engagement. And then it becomes our job to demonstrate to non-arts types what is so delightful, engaging and wonderful about the stuff we love. It’s up to us to share our enthusiasms, rather than to keep offering potential customers an ever-shifting package of imagined benefits.

If we let go of the “benefits packaging” we let go of our role as self-appointed missionaries, and we are out of the business of offering social, civic, cognitive or emotional medicine--or snake oil. Instead, we are sharing our arts zeal with all the passion and energy we can muster. And that allows us to contribute much more honestly and directly to a rich, diverse and respectful cultural mix.

Posted by jjensen at March 8, 2005 11:05 AM


The effective case for the non-profit arts may not, in the end be made by what we say or even write, but by what we do---our actions toward our communities, and our behavior with our fellow cultural workers.

The latest study about outcomes and impact; the newest forms of audience enrichment; and the neatly packaged “vision 2010” are mere surrogates for one simple step.

To turn to one another and explore a few simple questions together…

1. Why are my ushers poorly informed and inconsiderate?

2. Why do my Board members abdicate the very responsibilities I need so desperately for them to accept?

3. Why do we spend more than we have, and then expect others to endorse the practice by giving even more?

4. How did ‘zany’ enter our vocabulary and creep onto the poster and the self mailer, and why must every drama we do have to ‘explore the human condition?’

5. Why should I expect my staff and artists to stay with the company…and become better and better at what they do… without my appropriating resources for their professional development and training?

6. How does being not-for-profit let me off the hook from being adaptive, nimble, and entrepreneurial?

7. Since when is thinking creatively relegated to the artists, and not an expectation of us all---artists, administrators, and trustees alike?

8. When will the doing of art return as our core purpose, and changing communities, fixing education, and altering the local and national economies be relegated to the periphery---or better yet, be assigned to others who are better equipped?

9. When will we learn that true leadership for the new century is found in the authority we give away, and not in the power we hoard?

10. How might we better understand and move through our internal conflicts together, as shutting everything down seems somehow beneath us both?

Whatever the cause, whatever the worth of that cause---and support for the arts is deemed by most to be worthy---it is action that ultimately persuades the fence sitter. We continually self-sabotage our organizational and field-wide credibility by ignoring these and other, even better, questions.

Posted by: Levi Bandanna at March 8, 2005 01:42 PM

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Director of the Curb Center, Former Chair, NEA more

Joli Jensen
Professor, University of Tulsa, Author: "Is Art Good for Us?" more

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Glenn Lowry
Director, Museum of Modern Art more

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Director, Bolz Center, University of Wisconsin more

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Gifts of the MuseGifts of the Muse
Free access to the full RAND study at the core of this conversation, funded by the Wallace Foundation. An executive summary is also available. Other Wallace Foundation publications and reports are available through its Knowledge Center.

Top arts researchers will come together to present and dissect the latest data at Measuring the Muse, an unprecedented National Arts Journalism Program-Alliance for the Arts conference at Columbia University.

The Values Study
A collaborative effort of 20 Connecticut arts organizations, the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, and facilitator/author Alan S. Brown. The effort trained arts leaders to interview key members of their constituency, to discover what they valued about the creative experience -- in their own words. The process was sponsored by The Wallace Foundation's State Arts Partnerships for Cultural Participation (START) Program.

Valuing Culture
An initiative of London-based think tank, Demos. This effort brought cultural and policy leaders together to discuss the public value of culture in the UK. Resources include (with a downloadable briefing report by Adrian Ellis), a collection of speeches from the event in June 2003, and a summary report by John Holden called Capturing Cultural Value.

The Arts and Economic Prosperity
The 2002 report and related resources assessing the economic impact of America's nonprofit arts industry, based on surveys of 3,000 nonprofit arts organizations and more than 40,000 attendees at arts events in 91 cities in 33 states, plus the District of Columbia.

The Value of the Performing Arts in Ten Communities
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