AJ Logo


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

« The public view | Main | The Big Begged Question »

March 07, 2005

The enemy?

I'm joining the conversation a bit late, from a hotel room in Boston--a city that should give comfort to anyone who despairs of maintaining a large and vibrant arts community. But already I'm reading language that I find striking. A reader, Peter Ellenstein, writes "we attempted to justify our existence on our enemies' terms..." And Jim Kelly reminds us of the difficulty of making and funding art in a community that reflects the current "red state, blue state" political and cultural divisions of the United States. I wonder if this is evidence for something big shifting in the way people who love art are thinking about people who don't, and vice versa. In the past, the "non art" population was generally considered to be a bit of a blank slate, a body of people who would most likely love art if only they had access to, and education in, the arts. It was a passive body of people who needed motivation, perhaps through arguments, or simply exposure. But what if they're not passive in the face of the arts, but openly hostile? What if Mr. Ellenstein's word--enemy--is what we're dealing with? We try so hard to avoid condescension that we're all careful to avoid descriptions of the target audience that in any way belittle it. And though I ask this question, I'm hesitant to openly embrace its implications. It's all too easy to demonize, all too easy to forego the efort at understanding. But maybe, just as an experiment, we should contemplate the possibility that some significant proportion of people in this country aren't just suffering from arts deprivation, but are rather hostile to the very kinds of things that others find so richly rewarding in art. If so, it really doesn't matter if you try to entice them with the intrinsic or instrumental values of art. And open hostility is something very different from the usual sense of the non art crowd as vaguely anit-intellectual. The problem is art, with its invitation to independence, ambiguity and vulernability.

Posted by pkennicott at March 7, 2005 01:57 PM


"The problem is art, with its invitation to independence, ambiguity and vulernability."

I agree with many of Peter Ellenstein's points about hostility to artistic endeavors in the present day. The response quoted above, though, doesn't necessarily mesh. A lot of great art is unambiguous and highly charged. People with opposing political and/or religious views can and will be turned off. Others may be against the concept on general principle. It is likely arrogant to assume that these two categories of people just need to be educated. Perhaps they've heard the arguments and not been moved. A sound triage strategy would be to accept this and focus on the people who might be receptive. No one seems to know how large this group is, though.

Another more frustrating question is what we mean by making a case for "The Arts" in the first place. Art galleries, museums, dance companies, small to large theatres, and major symphonies may have superficially the same problems of low and graying turnouts. But, do they necessarily have the same solutions? Their motivations, goals, methods of dissemination, and economics are not the same.

Ravi Narasimhan
Redondo Beach, CA

Posted by: Ravi Narasimhan at March 7, 2005 07:30 PM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

This weeklong weblog is now closed, but will remain on-line as an archive of our conversation. In addition, the entries and reader comments are available for download in Adobe Acrobat format, suitable for reading on-screen or printing. You will need the free Acrobat reader software to open the files below:

Participant Entries (~880K, pdf)
Full text of the posts of our 11 invited participants.
Reader Comments (~900K, pdf)
Full text of reader comments posted to the site.

Is there a better case to be made for the arts? more...

· Weblog Home
· The Question
· Participant Bios
· Reader Comments

Developed in partnership with
The Wallace Foundation

rss feed
(rss 2.0)

Ben Cameron
Executive director of Theatre Communications Group more

Adrian Ellis
Managing consultant of AEA Consulting more

Bill Ivey
Director of the Curb Center, Former Chair, NEA more

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

Jim Kelly
Director, 4Culture, Seattle, WA more

Phil Kennicott
Culture critic, Washington Post more

Glenn Lowry
Director, Museum of Modern Art more

Robert L. Lynch
President, Americans for the Arts more

Violinist more

Andrew Taylor
Director, Bolz Center, University of Wisconsin more

Russell Willis Taylor
President, National Arts Strategies more

Doug McLennan
Editor, ArtsJournal.com

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
A project of the Performing Arts Research Coalition, researched by the Urban Institute, exploring measures of value in specific cities across the United States. Reports are available for download.

Copyright ©
2005 ArtsJournal. All Rights Reserved