I have written about arrogance before, but in my last post (Cutting Back) I promised to keep my hand in when it seemed important. The topic of arrogance in our industry bears further consideration. As I said in Beware Arrogance, Arrogance, even unconscious arrogance, is a self-inflicted wound that can stop community engagement–the development of relationships with new communities–efforts in their tracks. So, if it is essential to substantially expand our base of support, our attitudes should be examined.
There are (at least) two kinds of arrogance: conscious and unconscious/unexamined. In the world of nonprofit arts there is usually an effort to hide the former. The latter is more widespread and arguably more pernicious. There are also two primary areas of focus for the arrogance: the art we present and the public that is not taking advantage of what we offer.
Conscious arrogance, which is almost never articulated except among “safe” gatherings of arts professionals or aficionados, comes out with respect to both the public and the art. “Art is for everyone” is paid lip service, but there are those (I leave to the reader whether “those” should be read as “some” or “many”) who do not honestly believe that what they present can truly be appreciated by “Bubba” or “Billie Sue.” As for the art, there is a deeply held belief that art of the European Aristocratic Cultural Tradition is superior to all other forms of creative expression.
At the same time, there are those who would be horrified to hear these things spoken and chagrined to believe that such assumptions were hidden away in their foundational beliefs. Yet, without realizing it, they often act upon them when selecting “target audiences” or works to present for “outreach” programs.
Let’s look at some of these assumptions:
Art of the European Aristocratic Cultural Tradition is superior to:
- All the arts of all other cultures
Of course, phrasing it that way shows how ludicrous the idea is. “All” is pretty damning in its arrogance. “Most” would not be much better. And if you use “some” then you must realize the need to use “some” with respect to EACT.
More to the point, for all of its admitted glories EACT art is not “the greatest” in all categories. In music (my area of expertise), while EACT has achieved great things in harmony, counterpoint, and a certain type of large-scale form, it is woefully simplistic in rhythm, improvisation, and “process” forms compared with music from other cultures. I trust this sort of analysis of relative strengths and weaknesses can be applied to cross-cultural comparisons in the other arts. There is much to be learned and valued in art with which we have little familiarity.
In addition, EACT cultural expression is not uniformly transcendent. There are plenty of works that have justifiably not stood the test of time and some that have (sort of) that might be better left behind. This is true of the body of work in all forms of cultural expression, and those from outside the culture are not in a position to judge which is which.
EACT art has much to commend it and much to offer. However, it is not the sole pinnacle of human achievement that some might think (consciously or not).
- All expressions of popular culture
Again, “all” covers a lot of territory. There are certainly countless examples of works from pop culture that are not, shall we say, “for the ages;” but remember, many of them are not meant to be. Fleeting entertainment is not a sin. However, having acknowledged that, it is not difficult to find examples that do provide catharsis, inspiration, and deep insight into the human condition. As a Beatles fan growing up, I am still stunned by the impact of “Eleanor Rigby” (to cite just one example). And it should be remembered that the careers of both Shakespeare and Dickens had deep roots in appealing to audiences made up of more than just the elites of their day.
This perspective is bad enough. However, even worse is an attitude that (even unconsciously) questions the capacity of the people we need to reach to appreciate our art. That’s where we will begin next time.
Jerry Yoshitomi says
When I first came into the field and I met our leadership, it seemed to me that ‘arrogance’ was a necessary personality trait to succeed in this field and that ‘humility’ was to be avoided.
Makes me wonder how much arrogance is at the table during ‘peer panel’ reviews?
Doug Borwick says