We are the Movers and Shakers of the World Forever, It Seems

My position in this debate was stated most eloquently by a man who studied frogs for a living, as quoted by a Welsh fighter pilot and re-purposed by an Oatmeal company hoping to launch a new candy bar. His name was William O’Shaughnessy. And he said,

We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams.
World-losers and world-forsakers,
Upon whom the pale moon gleams;
Yet we are the movers and shakers,
Of the world forever, it seems.

With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world’s great cities,
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire’s glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample an empire down.

We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself with our mirth;
And o’erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world’s worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.

-Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy

And yes, my first exposure to this extraordinary piece of writing was when Gene Wilder hummed it, nearly under his breath, in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

And therein lies my strange journey to the “lead” side of this debate.

First, a confession. I am a die hard “follow”-er. I couldn’t agree more that there is something deeply, deadly classist, patronizing and insulting about the arguments presented  that imply that listening to one’s audience can only lead to creating bad (or at least shallow) art. Or that an organization’s job is to simply take whatever springs, fully formed, from an artist’s head and slap the right “marketing” on it and it will automatically find an audience. It reduces the artist’s impulse to the role of the gatekeeper, filtering out the “bad” in search of some pure ideal of “good” that the “audience” must then be educated to appropriately appreciate. And it reduces the “audience” to a passive, dull, “mob” and of whom we artmakers must be vaguely embarrassed. We must serve them, but only while making sure they understand we are above them. It conceives of the audience as a kind of monolith, needing  to be tamed or improved, rather than a collection of individuals whose life experiences and curiousity combine to bring them to the moment of intersection with a work of art.

This subtle, pervasive contempt for the audience is killing our institutions. This belief that only the “right sort” has earned the right to critique our artistic product ignores the (apparently uncomfortable) fact that each and every audience member is already critiquing, moment to moment, every work of art they experience. And they always have.

I do not believe there is an initiation ritual or an educational pedigree required for a person to be transformed by their encounter with art. I do not believe that a work of art has to be old, or prestigious, or anointed by the right sort of critic to create the subtle alchemy of experience that, to paraphrase O’Shaughnessy, “moves and shakes the world” one performance at a time. And I believe context matters. The Nutcracker was a flop in Europe before it became the most profoundly popular ballet in America. Josephine Baker was told she was “too skinny and too dark” for American audiences before she became an extraordinary success in France. And each of these examples are easy to discount as being “populist” or low-brow, although each have been a gateway for millions of people to encounter an art form that later became an essential element of their aesthetic lives.

Just as a cult classic movie adaptation of a slightly creepy children’s book ultimately led me to the poem written by a 19th century herpetologist that has become my life’s mission statement.

Incidentally, do you know what inspired the making of the film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? The director’s 10 year old daughter had read the book and asked her dad to make a film of it with the help of her producer “uncle” Dave. Of course the film would not have happened if Quaker Oats hadn’t been trying to break into the candy bar business…

There is always a delicate dance of inspiration, discovery, feedback, resources and promotion required to take a creative impulse like Roald Dahl’s or William O’Shaughnessy’s and transform it into the packaged, presented event that we call an artistic success. And to discount the role of that 10 year old girl (or Quaker Oats, for that matter) in the process of creation that resulted in my discovery of my own aesthetic mission statement is to woefully misunderstand the artmaking process.

So why am I not on the “follow” side of this debate?

Because, as Chief Justice Potter pointed out in the 1964 Supreme Court ruling about obscenity: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it …”

Our audience cannot tell us in advance what experiences will transform them. But they will know it when they see it. We as artmakers cannot set out to create an experience that will “transform.” But we must be capable of recognizing it when it takes place.

Our audience requires us to go places they cannot, with a depth and a perception that their daily lives don’t allow time for. We are specifically tasked to sift and juxtapose the artifacts of culture in search of new meanings, new architectures for the “fabulous stor[ies]” out of which we will fashion an “empire’s glory.”

And to do that we must wander “desolate streams” and take odd tangents against the stream of mass culture upon occasion. We must seek the wilds so that we may discover untrodden paths. That is the only way of creating something that can truly  “prophesy… to the old of the new world’s worth.”

We must imagine (like O’Shaughnessy)  the worlds the audience cannot (yet). By doing so we call them powerfully in to being and create the future, not just of our art forms, but of culture itself. Acts of creation must be wild, or else they will never discover the untrodden territory that will transform society.

But that does not mean we should to ignore the experiences and images of the present moment, or of the community we serve.

As artmakers we have the duty to seek the wild. But we have the responsibility to present the relevant.

Our institutions are curatorial by nature. Curation is all to often reduced to the discovery and promotion of that which is “excellent.” Excellence is insufficient. As artmakers and art presenters we have a responsibility to select, not only the art that is excellent, but also the art that will most essentially address the present moment in the lives of the unique community that we serve.

That is how we fulfill our role as creators of the future of culture. There are times when the present moment can best be served by a 19th century poet. And other moments that may best be served by a ’70s children’s story. Our history can inspire our present to create our future. But it is the curatorial task of the  moment to select which histories, in service of what future.

To identify the artistic needs of this moment we must both seek the wild and rub up against the experience and perspectives shaping our community right now. To lead, we must listen hard to our community to help us define the questions of the moment. And then present the answer that only the dreammaker can provide.


About Trisha Mead

Trisha Mead has written 2 posts in this blog.

Trisha Mead works to develop new audiences for the arts through a variety of channels in Portland Oregon. As President of the Portland Area Theatre Alliance she founded the Fertile Ground Festival of New Work, a citywide festival or world premiere performance that takes place the last week of January each year and ranges from dance to theater to puppetry to film, all created or commissioned in Portland Oregon. Currently she works as the Director of Marketing and Communications for Oregon Ballet Theatre, after having worked in Marketing and PR at Portland Center Stage and Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland Oregon. She regularly contributes to the blog and conversation at 2amtheatre.com and was selected to be an official blogger for the New Play Institute Convening “From Scarcity to Abundance” in January of 2011 at Arena Stage in Washington, DC. At that event she had the weird but wonderful experience of being quoted out of context by the NY Times art blog in response to Rocco Landesman’s controversial remarks on the “oversupply” of arts producers in the U.S. Once upon a time, she also considered herself a theater artist, directing plays under the auspices of Mt Hood Repertory Theatre’s American Classics Festival where she was the Associate Artistic Director.


  1. Niel DePonte says

    Are “lead” or “follow” my only choices?

    There are so many voices to be heard during this debate, and many who would reject both of these words to define their “purpose” in the community. Take the Creative Artist. Unlike the Political Artist, or the Satirical Artist, they may not even consider the creation of their work leading or following, just creating! If I write a piece of “absolute music”, music written out of self-expression without regard to program or politic, who is anyone to say I did so to either lead or follow? I wrote the piece because I needed to write it. That’s all. That’s not leading…I had no intention to lead. I may not even have had an intention to do anything but create!

    Now, the need to FORMALLY AND PUBLICLY critique and analyze my intention (or determine if I am trying to lead or follow) is an invention of the media. Human beings have their own assessment models for their arts experiences and tend to follow them quite carefully…if they like something they come back for more and if they don’t, they don’t. I don’t think they stop and wonder if they are being challenged (led) or if they are this week’s arts-lemming headed for the cliffs (following in the worst way!).

    The key question for me is, “Is the audience at all curious about what the POSSIBILITIES are within an art form, and are they interested in comparing and contrasting the difference between the perception of what was possible IN THE PAST with what is possible NOW?” Those who feel that “good” art is “relational” in nature (i.e. any one moment of experience should have some discernible relationship to the next moment of experience) might find this an endlessly interesting comparative process and, by default, require institutions to both lead and follow such that they may continue their personal comparative exploration.

    Frankly, I feel that ArtsJournal is really asking, “Should arts organizations discover what the public wants and deliver it, or decide what the public needs to know about the arts and educate them?” In trying to answer that question I rather think there should be some sort of “truth in advertising” clause in the documentation required to receive the IRS 501(c)3 non-profit tax exempt status that all arts organizations need to raise money. Each organization should have a code attached to each piece of marketing material, sort of like the PG13 movie ratings, that describes the upcoming performance as “intended to show you what’s new in the genre” (I.N. would be good here), “intended to have you bask in the familiar and comfortable” (I.F. could work here), “intended to maximize popular appeal and make money” (What about $IMP). In an attempt to tie this messy thread together I might say that in this way arts organizations could both lead and follow – appealing to differing audience demographics and desires.

    What worries me about the arts in America is not found in opining on the leading vs. following thread. What worries me is that a country that purports to celebrate innovation and originality has a corporate, and therefore political, culture that is rooted in the concept that new ideas that lead to making money are to be raised to honorific heights beyond those ideas that inspire the human spirit, or cause one to reflect on serious choices around the subjects of morality or ethics. Corporate America and its bought and paid for electronic media identify as the minimum standard of public acceptability that which lies at the median of human attraction; half the people like what they see and half do not. They then promote those ideas that generate the most profit, even if the median wage earner cannot afford that product or service, and then they positively go ape—- over anything that the MAJORITY of consumers in the 18-39 year-old age group is willing to purchase no matter it’s usefulness or its impact on society and culture. Is this why we nearly deified Steve Jobs when he died – he had a knack of creating devices that we all wanted and making a lot of money for Apple and stockholders? I mean I thought Jobs was brilliant, but all that media coverage? How does our American culture of celebrity building and “branding” play into our perception of what to value and where to spend our disposable income (pay for art vs. i-phone? Is the i-phone art?). And will John Adams get as much coverage when he dies?

    What of the brilliant idea (or artistic product) that attracts an educated minority to it? Perhaps this is the true value of art. Perhaps art is the place where ideas that fall below the median-attractiveness-to-humans-line go to live? And if we present these ideas to the public, are we then leading? And is that a good thing?

    Perhaps it is the arts organizations role role to discern not what is good or bad art, or even popular or profitable art, but what is IMPORTANT art; TIMELY art; VALUABLE art; REPRESENTATIVE art; UNDERSERVED art; HIDDEN art. Arts organizations must find the balance between serving the art form and the artists, and serving the public.

    Who needs what from us as arts organizations? Perhaps this is a better question to examine down the road.

    • MiJin Hong says

      An enjoyable read, thanks.

      This struck me:
      “Our audience requires us to go places they cannot, with a depth and a perception that their daily lives don’t allow time for. We are specifically tasked to sift and juxtapose the artifacts of culture in search of new meanings, new architectures for the ‘fabulous stor[ies]’ out of which we will fashion an ’empire’s glory.'”

      On a personal note, I agree. Life as it is, I depend on discerning voices to make choices on how I spend my time and engage with the world around me. Credible sources matter, reputation matters, and, yes expertise is valued. This doesn’t mean voices cannot be critiqued (a process I use to make meaning for myself). So it occurs to me, institutional voices open to critique may have real opportunities here. More food for thought under Diane Ragsdale blog, “If this is leading, what is following?”