How Do We Make People Care (Again)?

Untitled image by urbanmystic on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

In March, arts advocate Arlene Goldbard spoke at the Association of Performing Arts Service Organizations conference in Austin. Goldbard believes we need to start using a more empowered (and less-numbers-based) vocabulary for arguing for the value of the arts. At one point she noted:

“The best argument for arts education is that children today practice endlessly interacting with machines, developing a certain type of cognitive facility. But without the opportunity that arts education affords to face human stories in all their diversity and particularity, to experience emotional responses in a safe space and rehearse one’s reactions, to feel compassion and imagine alternative worlds, their emotional and moral development will never keep pace.”

Later, she noted:

“Students today are preparing for jobs and social roles that have not even been imagined yet. They cannot be trained in the narrow sense for jobs that do not yet exist.”

Arts education, with its ability to instill social skills, empathy, intellectual development, and critical thinking allows students more ability to adapt as those as-yet-unknown jobs and roles reveal themselves over time.  But we all already know that, she says, but instead of talking about that stuff we know, we shrink away and fall back into the world of data, tables, and numbers that we feel decision makers want to hear.

And let’s be honest, it’s not really working.  Starting in the mid 1980s, on the tail of the passage of Prop 13 in California, the public at large started to make a demonstrable shift away from valuing the arts.  The number of eighteen-year-olds claiming to have received any arts education has declined, and precipitously, every year since 1985.

This isn’t new info, and it probably has been rehashed better than I could in many other blogs across the ether, but the sum of it is that we are up against a mightily fractured world being run by a series of generations who have, by and large, had little or no sustained education in (or using) the arts, and who consequently are acting like people that don’t care about a looming loss simply because that loss has never been personally felt.

It’s a hard place in which to find ourselves, a shrinking minority in a country with very little love for something that has been framed (by both them and us) as a luxury, a “want” instead of a “need.”   

At the same conference, Tom Kaiden, the head of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, shared his organization’s shorthand for effective advocacy – “Stories + Data = Truth.”

Taken in context with Goldbard’s arguments, and looking at it from the point of view of a community-level service organization, my main takeaway was that the nature and power of our arguments are being called into question, and the fact that we often flee from our inherent artistic skills as storyteller in favor of flat statistics and numbers has become problematic.

This thing we love, this art, is so personal and intimate that it is difficult to talk about in terms of value, leading us to focus on extrinsic and instrumental benefits (those things that sit next to, or two steps away from, the immediate internal impact of the experience of art on the audience) instead of the fundamental, indefatigable transformative power of art.

Which of course we do because we haven’t had a whole ton of success talking about the fundamental, indefatigable transformative power of art, because the people we are usually talking to are numbers people, graphs people, and — perhaps most fundamentally — people whose constituents simply don’t take much time to care about the transformative power of art.

The gap between data and anecdote is profound and frustrating, so wide as to make them seem at times like two separate languages – one the common tongue of our legislators and funders, the other the natural way we speak to each other and think about ourselves and our value.

Toward the end of her speech, Goldbard returned to the theme of speaking from our truest place. She said, “Our power to persuade is at its height when there is absolute congruence between the story we tell ourselves and the world, when there isn’t a hair’s breadth of distance between what we know and what we represent.”

If we are to carry forward new arguments about arts and arts education that veer less from our natural inclinations as storytellers, I believe we need to construct a bridge between data and story and use it to take skeptics along with us.

I wonder what it would take to generate an impulse to ask for more art from the general population.

I wonder how much, or how long, we would have to talk and demonstrate and proselytize before we saw an uptick.

I’ll tell you, though, that news like this, the newly-released monograph from the NEA outlining the drastically deteriorating state of arts education in America, particularly for African-Americans and Hispanics, makes me think we’ve got to be very careful not to simply cede the ground to a growing population of people who have never found a place for this thing we love so much.

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