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June 14, 2007

The new world

by Greg Sandow

I'm not always fond of these conversations, even though the book that provokes this one seems pretty interesting.

But I'm wary of all the pontificating arts people do, including me. We've all got opinions, but do we ground our opinions in facts? By facts, I don't just mean anecdotes, or the occasional study, but instead a truly accurate, thorough view of what's really going on in the world.

Case in point: Barry Schwarz's essay in the book, unfortunately not available for download from the blog site. I'm afraid I have to disagree with Alan Brown (hi, Alan). To me, Schwarz's piece was mostly sound and fury, with nothing much underneath. Schwarz worries that we now have too much cultural choice, and that therefore we'll only choose the culture that we like, ignoring things that we ought to know about, or that might challenge us.

And his authority for this? Nothing but studies, which appear to show that people faced - under certain limited conditions -- with too many choices end up choosing fewer things, instead of more. But what actually happens out in the real world, and especially when people make cultural choices? (Which, as Schwarz himself notes, almost none of the studies deal with.)

And here the mountain disgorges a very tiny mouse. His students, Schwarz says (he teaches at Swarthmore), don't make critical judgments about the movies they see.This is his only real-world example of the problems he sees. I can't argue with his experience (or with what he thinks is his experience), but as a global observation -- or something we're meant to expand into one -- this is just crazy. People make critical judgments about everything these days, more than they ever did, and beyond doubt a lot more publicly. A few weeks ago, as I amused myself by watching one of the really tacky movies the SciFi Channel produces, I went on the IMDB movie website, and found well over a hundred posts about exactly how bad the movie was, some of them written in considerable detail.

A far, far better approach: the chapter by Henry Jenkins and Vanessa Bertozzi. Here we learn what's really happening. It's raw data. We don't yet know what it means. But teens are finding their own kind of art -- recording songs on their computers, using oddball sounds they themselves invent. (And then getting a record deal, and going on tour.) Or they're writing and drawing comic books about pivotal things in their lives. (And getting their work published.)

Or they're inventing things that can't be classified, because they're so new:

Fourteen year-old Antonia...wears a different "look" to school everyday....Her love for the Harry Potter books led to a major Hogwarts phase. For an entire year, she wore British school uniforms to her Massachusetts public school. Now Antonia reads the webcomic Megatokyo and uses its imagery for her patterns.While she has become more active in meeting people with common interests online and at conventions, her main outlet is high school. Antonia finds the jeers and dirty looks of her classmates "amusing" and enjoys playing with people's expectations in an environment that often defines people through their external appearances. Because of her level of self-reflection, one could see her activity as performance art....Antonia goes online to learn more about periods, genres, or media properties that she wants to emulate through her work. She wants to master every detail of these imaginary worlds, and as she does so, she moves from the specific details--the colors of a herald, the buttons on a coat, the Japanese droopy socks--towards a larger understanding of the cultural traditions that shaped those details.

This -- from everything I've seen -- really does show us the new world that's emerging, This past fall, my wife (Anne Midgette, the New York Times music critic) and I spent a few days in residence at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio. We were asked to sit in on a meeting of an interdisciplinary faculty committee, charged with inventing a new core arts curriculum.

And the people on this committee talked very much like Jenkins and Bertozzi. They were dazzled by their students -- students who might not respond to traditional ways of teaching the arts, but were self-motivated, full of projects of their own, and eager to learn everything they could, to make those projects work.( I'll add that it's well-known -- an old story by now -- that college students, in introductory music classes, actively resist learning about classical music. Their teachers might just as well try to teach them Latin. But this doesn't mean that kids are unmusical. Just the opposite -- they're making their own music, on a scale we've never seen before.)

I'll leap to a grand proclamation. (See? I can't resist pontificating.) The arts -- as traditionally understood -- are over. It just doesn't make sense, any more, to talk about some grand collection of plays and music and poems and paintings, which uniquely express our human condition, which stand apart from everyday life, and which we all ought to learn about. We're learning about ourselves in many other ways now; we're forging the uncreated conscience of our race (to use Joyce's phrase from the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) in many other places.

And in fact arts studies take a defensive, even alarmist tone these days. (See, for instance, the Wallace Foundation/RAND Corporation study, Gifts of the Muse, or the scathing study of arts organizations and their failure to involve younger people, from the Hewlett Foundation.) Where do we fit? What's our future? How can we prove that the arts still matter? (The book we're masticating here is surely another example.)

The truth, I'm afraid, is that we don't matter all that much, and that we've become an interest group, angling for support and market share, almost as if we were a failing corporation (Kodak, maybe, trying to survive after coming far too late to digital photography).

But art survives. God, does it ever! It takes new forms. And along with these new forms, the old forms will coexist. And surely mingle. We don't know what the future of all this will be; it's too early to tell. We might be entering an age when art isn't removed from everyday life, as it wasn't in traditional African culture, and wasn't in our own 18th century, when the very notion of a work of art (as we understand that today) didn't really exist. (See Lydia Goehr's book The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works for an astounding view of that history, as it applies to music.) But to think we're in trouble, just because not enough people care about our kind of art, is point of view that's wildly restrictive -- and, I think, transparently self-interested.

Posted by gsandow at June 14, 2007 10:41 AM


I don't have the arts' authority to pontificate either but I have observed a change from Art (capital A) as a product to art as a personal action. I think I'm seeing more art as verb than as noun.(?) The DIY approach to self expression through the arts seems to indicate (once again no stats or hard evidence)a desire to take ownership of the arts experiance on a personal level. It appears that it is not enough to live an arts life vicariously through the market blessed luminaries. Does this mean the definition of engagement is changing (or returning to a past approach)? I don't know.

Posted by: Tony Reynolds at June 14, 2007 1:46 PM

I haven't read this book, but in my capacity at an arts organization, I read a lot of studies. The Australian Council put one out a couple of months ago, surveying the arts education body of research. The gist of it is, out of the well over 10,000 major scholarly papers they found, only 3 or 4 show some causality in empirically verifiable studies. The rest can be boiled down to thinly disguised advocacy pieces with questionable research standards. Furthermore, they contend, the abundance of shoddy research methods puts a stigma on the entire field of research.
It seems to me that the arts community looks for, sponsors and celebrates studies that justify its current level of support, or just its very existence. This may not be without good reason but that's not how scientific experimentation is designed to work. As a community, if we're really interested in research, we need to be prepared to face the hard reality that the benefits of the arts may not be empirically verifiable (but neither is how good a peach tastes. It obviously depends on who's consuming it) or - even worse - that certain arts may be verifiable but others aren't. Drama might be great for English but painting could have no verifiable value.
Are we, as a community, ready to conduct that brand of hard research? If so, I haven't seen it. And I've been looking.
I'm not of the camp that thinks research in the arts is unnecessary because 'the arts have intrinsic value that doesn't need to be justified.' That would be nice but its legitimacy just isn't that popular right now. I believe that research in the arts needs a higher standard. It's not enough to show a relationship. If you can't verifiably demonstrate causality, then all you have is anecdotal evidence. If all you have is a survey of opinion, that's not fact, it's just opinion (which may not correspond to actual choice). And my goodness, it's easy to rally the troops with and alarmist call (see the Hewlett Foundation study), predicting the future demise of the arts but it feels like you're trying to sell me something and I don't equate that with formidable research; how people feel about the future is no indication of what will happen. Besides, we have to be careful: paranoia isn't entirely outside of the realm of common artistic behavior. No more fortune cookie reports!

Posted by: Franco at June 14, 2007 3:29 PM

I think your vision of the future may be right. It resonates with my reality, at least..."We might be entering an age when art isn't removed from everyday life, as it wasn't in traditional African culture, and wasn't in our own 18th century, when the very notion of a work of art (as we understand that today) didn't really exist." Add to it that we may have arrived at the age of La Raza Cosmica (Vasconcelos), and things could get pretty interesting. Heck, they already are. Not sure what part critics will play, but they will play. I am glad that even though you loathe these conversations, you are having them. It gives critics a place to play -- and, as Peter Brook said, "To work takes much play."

Thanks, Sasha!

And it's not just that you agree with me. You help make me happy to be here. And you're a breath of fresh air.

Posted by: Sasha Anawalt at June 14, 2007 11:44 PM

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