Note: This is the third in a rapid series addressing the current crisis in arts funding and how to head off future crises. Here’s a combined link to all three. After this, I return to my normal rhythm of posting an essay once or twice a week.
My two previous essays focused first on the deeper meanings of current threats to defund public arts agencies, and then on how to respond to the immediate crisis they represent. This one takes up the long-term challenge: how to transform our understanding of the public interest in culture, such that it stops being treated like an expendable frill and begins to be seen for its true value, as the source and nourishment of our empathy and imagination, the key to our resilience, and the crucible in which we forge our values, identity, and community.
In other words, how can we break out of the cramped, pint-sized version of the public interest in art that now holds sway, and begin claiming the public space culture deserves?
Because it’s impossible in this money-driven political culture to compete with corporate and financial elites for legislative attention, this isn’t about convincing 545 members of Congress, but about generating a new understanding that infuses public discourse far beyond the nonprofit arts world.
Growing awareness of the public interest in culture isn’t specific to the United States. When I wrote recently about the liberation movements in Tunisia and Egypt, I pointed out how music, moving and still images and their viral nature played a big part in raising consciousness and activism. Specifics are emerging. For instance, read here about the work of North African hip hop artists from Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria; and here about the important role of visual artists in Egypt’s liberation.
In every corner of the globe, the evidence of culture’s power is gathering daily. Not everyone can see it yet, but that time is coming.
This is a big subject, far more than one essay can contain. You’ll find many of these ideas explored in talks available for download; in the workshops on “Reframing The Arts” I’ve been offering around the country); and soon, I hope, in the new book I’m writing. But the underlying challenge can be expressed in a few words: how can we effect a paradigm shift in popular understanding of culture? That must begin by exploring the too-small ideas that now constrain our understanding.
Try a quick experiment: turn to the person next to you and ask what images pop to mind when the phrase “the arts” is spoken. Unless that person happens to be part of the nonprofit arts industry, with a prepared answer ready to go, dollars to donuts, those mental images will include some of the following: red carpets, ballet dancers, a black-tie orchestra, velvet curtains, an opera diva, marble halls, white people having genteel fun in an atmosphere of refinement and cultivation.
“The arts” as a concept has been jammed into a frame that is all about entitlement and privilege. When the arts funding debate heats up—which usually happens only when there’s an immediate threat like the current controversy over defunding public arts agencies (which I wrote about in the first two parts of this series)—that frame distorts the picture. In terms of resources and ambitions, this country’s public arts system is one of the weakest on the planet. But even with its deficiencies, in reality, not-for-profit community-based groups rely proportionately more on public support than do the prestige arts, which have far greater access to both box-office income and private donors. The bulk of public money goes to organizations that fit the entitlement and privilege frame, to be sure; but a considerable amount also goes to neighborhood and rural organizations, to artists’ spaces, media workshops, music schools, and to artists who work in schools, prisons, hospitals, senior centers, and other community settings.
The entitlement and privilege frame obscures that nuance and diversity, though. So when major cuts are threatened and mainstream arts advocates begin exhorting people to write letters, make phone calls, and sign petitions, the whole campaign sounds to many like the direct beneficiaries of an elite special interest lobbying for the continuation of their own privilege at public expense.
This distortion is rooted in the way our minds work. It happens because concepts like “the arts” are embedded in frames that tell us what information to focus on, the way a picture frame influences our view of the image it holds. In cognitive linguistics, frames are concepts—stories and images, metaphors and parables—that shape our perception and thereby, our thinking. In the political realm, people make even the most important decisions based as much on feelings as on facts, and more than facts, frames influence our feelings. Indeed, much to the chagrin of those who want to see political choices as the product of rational calculation, often the feelings evoked are so strong that the facts barely affect them.
To change the way an issue is seen, you must change the frame. The right has become especially adept at this: right-wing politicians were able to contaminate the idea of a tax on inherited wealth by renaming it the “death tax,” for instance. Tea Partiers have literally wrapped themselves in the flag to associate their movement with freedom from tyranny. Successful reframing resonates with deeply held values and stories, evoking familiar feelings and attaching them to new things: the Tea Partiers plugged into a readymade storehouse of Founding Fathers images, and that gave them a headstart in going viral.
Think of two different ways of framing a hot-button issue like same-sex marriage: show a gay couple at a family holiday dinner, surrounded by parents, siblings, and cousins, behaving exactly like everyone one; the frame says we are all the same, there’s no threat here. Now show them costumed like an X-rated bride and groom in a Gay Pride parade: the frame says that these people want to pollute what’s sacred, thumb their noses at family values. Each frame annexes strong pre-existing feelings and associations as a way to influence current opinion.
Once a frame is securely in place, it is nearly impossible to dislodge. Progressives were outraged when homophobes chose the frame “family values” for their 2008 California campaign to outlaw same-sex marriage. Take back family values, some opponents said. Let people know there are many ways to make a family. But focus-group research revealed that every time people heard the message “take back family values,” the established image of “family values” arose in their minds: a fifties sitcom Mom and Dad, two kids, white picket fence, church on Sundays followed by meatloaf and apple pie. Every attempt to reclaim the label only reinforced its co-optation by the right.
We can complain about the unfairness of “the arts” frame, but unfair or not, it is firmly entrenched. There’s really no choice but to face the fact that, as a bid for support, “the arts” sucks in so many ways.
It’s abstract, one step removed from things people really care about: many people who happily embrace words like music or movies, who sing or draw or love to dance, will respond negatively to the idea of “the arts”—Oh no, not me, you hear them say, I’m not into the arts. Ask that same person, “Do you like to dance?” or “Do you play an instrument?” and the answer will be “Yes,” with no evident awareness of contradiction.
That’s because they pick up on the exclusionary subtext. Many people who consider themselves part of “the arts” use that label to distinguish the work of subsidized organizations from commercial cultural industries and entertainments. An enormous industry generates multibillions each year from sales of music, movie tickets, video rentals, concert tickets, and the like; and enormous numbers take pleasure from making music, taking photographs, writing poems and songs, taking part in dance competitions and poetry slams, and so on.
Yet, except when they want to summon impressive figures about the scope of the cultural economy, mainstream arts advocates don’t mention any of this. There’s an embedded snobbery that presumes the superiority of nonprofit arts organizations and the work they support, a kneejerk dismissal of the rest. This discourse often has an air of unreality: I hear advocates saying that “the arts” are in decline, yet—to pick just one example—almost everyone I encounter integrates music into daily life, almost as a kind of medicine, self-prescribing the sounds and feelings that will support them through the day.
The wide gap that often opens between the world as seen from inside “the arts” frame and the world most people live in is hard to bridge. My favorite story about this unfolded years ago, at a conference presentation by the president of a major symphony orchestra. Full of enthusiasm, she described the orchestra’s in-school programs: small ensembles and individual musicians visited the classroom to demonstrate their instruments or play and explain bits of recorded music. “And some of these children,” she concluded, “have never heard music before!”
I’ve been seeing a series of PSAs from Americans for The Arts, a national arts advocacy organization, that promote canonical artists—Brahms, Van Gogh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Tchaikovsky—as if they were breakfast foods. The one I’ve seen most often, “Raisin Brahms,” is remarkable for its evident lack of awareness. A black family sits at breakfast. (Since all the artists are white, any nod in the direction of diversity must come from their admirers.) A white-bearded Johannes Brahms busts through the wall, riding a grand piano while touting his cereal fortified with “increased test scores and creative problem-solving.” Round-eyed and amazed, the two kids sprout their own long, silky, white beards. The tagline? “Feed your kids the arts.” Subtext, anyone?
The unconscious character of this embedded snobbery does nothing to soften its effects. People know when they are being condescended to; few would volunteer for the experience. Taste is taste, not objective reality or ultimate virtue. Personal taste is an artifact of social grouping as much as individual choices: mostly, we like what our friends like, or what is liked by those we admire or desire, or what places us in the same category as those who status we covet. Yet the world that calls itself “the arts” has generated endless justifications for the moral and aesthetic superiority of certain preferences. The resulting invidious snobbery attaching to “the arts” goes a long way to explain why people don’t come out in droves to lobby for arts funding. It isn’t a new phenomenon, either. Henry Lee Higginson founded the Boston Symphony Orchestra by exhorting his fellow plutocrats to “Educate, and save ourselves and our families and our money from the mobs!” The stink of that has persisted for 125 years.
Given that we don’t have the resources to win public policy victories with money, imitating the corporate and financial elites who are now bending the public sector to their will, the only possible path to success is to mobilize people power. To do that, we have to be able to move people. And “the arts” as a concept is virtually immobile, weighted down by lugging around a giant gilt frame of entitlement and privilege.
But it isn’t just a matter of changing the words: if the mindset remains unchanged, a new label won’t fix anything. What’s needed is a Great Reframing, one that turns the dominant view on its head.
As a society, we’ve given a very long run to the idea that only hard data—things that can be counted and measured—really matter. Things that seem soft in comparison—pleasure, heritage, community, imagination—are treated as nice extras, but non-essential, not worth much policy attention or public investment. This is what must be reversed.
There are signs that a reversal is developing. More and more people are recognizing the price we’ve paid for narrow vision. Whether you focus on a healthcare system that treats people like numbers, sacrificing the benefits (including cost savings) of whole-person preventive care; or on corporate, numbers-driven education that fails to give children the love and attention they need; or on the evolution of Incarceration Nation, in which we waste our commonwealth locking up vast numbers of people who should instead be treated for drug abuse or mental illness, the social and personal cost is killing us.
A society that reverses this mistake will give culture its true value, understanding that the way we shape our stories shapes our lives. Its healthcare system will be constructed to help people draw on their own heritage for resilience and support in taking preventive measures; doctors and nurses will elicit patients’ stories, forming partnerships to support healing; the family and community will be part of the system at every turn. Its education system will treat every pupil as an individual, finding the creative learning modes that draw out each child’s unique capabilities; arts-based methods will be used to infuse every subject with discovery and joy in learning; the goal will be to equip each student to choose and pursue the self-actualization that supports both individual development and good citizenship.
Its social policies will focus on enabling rather than prohibiting, using culture’s power to create community that can protect young people from being exploited and learning to exploit others. (See this hot-off-the-presses paper from New York State’s Controller, who points out that spending “[I]f only one child who would otherwise have become a career criminal is diverted from that path,” spending “$500,000 on a crime prevention program would have generated total present-value benefits of $1.5 million to $2.2 million.”) When community members transgress, those who are able to engage them will find alternatives to punishment, such as drug treatment, community service, and restorative justice, all grounded in the stories that create community and support healing.
Culture is the key to the creative, resilient, compassionate society. To enable the enlarged view of art’s public purpose this shift will bring about, several things are necessary:
We need to see the entire cultural landscape as a vast ecology in which every part is necessary to nourish and sustain the vibrancy of the whole; our interventions should seek balance. If the energy tilts in one direction, you get a museum culture: people resist the cultural change and synergy that create dynamism. They focus on protecting the past in a way that limits the future, like navigating with the rearview mirror. The very forces that can stimulate imagination and creativity—immigration, for instance, or cultural exchange, or cross-cultural collaboration—seem like threats. Or if the energy tilts toward the marketplace, you get an over-commoditized culture that seeks to maximize profit by selling the same cultural products to everyone. Diverse voices and minority experiences are suppressed by market forces; certain appetites are stimulated and temporarily satisfied over and over again, but very little is added to the stock of human imagination, empathy, or resilience.
Understanding the ecological character of culture can have practical as well as conceptual implications. I’ve written many times about alternative funding initiatives grounded in this understanding. For instance, even a small tax on advertising can generate billions to support live arts offerings; a tiny tax on recording media can support live music. Many municipalities recognize this underlying concept by taxing hotel rooms to benefit local arts activities that attract visitors. But the insight that each part of the cultural ecology can support the others has not been extended much beyond that.
We need to use the growing body of research that recognizes the role of artistic skills and creativity in human evolution, in healing damaged brains, in teaching young people empathy and imagination, in revitalizing the commercial sector, and much more. This research reveals demonstrable high-value personal and social benefits inherent in artmaking. As part of any sustained argument for the public interest in culture, they tell a much more engaging, powerful, and resonant story than assertions of economic impact, which reinforce the old-paradigm verity that only what can be counted counts. For details, visit the talks and speeches page of my Website to watch video of a talk at The Field in New York that spells this out, or download the text of “Art and The Public Good: Your Money Or Your Life,” a talk for the Alliance for Arts and Culture in Vancouver that explores the evidence.
We need to recognize the full range of interventions and initiatives that support cultural development, and not focus solely on direct grants to artists and organizations, but to reach far beyond them as well. Dedicated arts funding can be supplemented (and easily, exceeded) by initiatives that serve both artists and other community members. For instance, I’ve been championing the idea of a new WPA for a long time: a public service employment initiative like the massive program that was part of the 1930s New Deal or 1970s initiatives such as CETA. On YouTube, you’ll find three short videos arguing for this under the heading “Cultural Recovery.” Or scroll down here to find “A New WPA: Why a Sustainable Future Demands Cultural Recovery,” a talk I gave at the University of Chicago. With unemployment stuck at epic proportions (despite financial sector chat about recovery), more people are calling seriously for new public service jobs initiatives. Making common cause with people working in other fields can lift this issue into visibility. I recently spoke with the creator of the Job Party, a site promoting 15 million new public service jobs now, where you’ll see jobs for artists listed among many other categories.
About a year ago, I was part of a group of artists and activists who proposed a new five-point cultural policy, Art and The Public Purpose. It includes a new WPA and other key interventions, such as support for democratic media and unfettered internet access. But one of its most promising ideas was recognizing the power of culture and the work of artists to educate, mobilize, generate dialogue, and align people’s spirits with democratic policy goals in every part of the public sector:
In health, education, social services, employment and training, environment, transportation, community development, energy, international relations—every aspect of our democracy—our public sector can be more effective by infusing its work with the power of culture, forging partnerships with artists and organizations. National policy should mandate that every agency recognize cultural action as a valid instrument of the public good.
Imagine resident artists in each and every public program, humanizing the relationship between government and those it serves, extending impact by sharing stories, adding beauty and meaning to the dry numbers and factory-like practices of bureaucracy. Most public agencies could accomplish this right now, just by shifting money utterly wasted on leaflets no one reads and public information meetings no one cares to attend into arts activities that animate and engage. Compared to the relatively few direct grants public arts agencies now make, an initiative like this could be huge. Art and The Public Purpose didn’t take off as we hoped: people told us that they loved the ideas, but that they were so preoccupied with daily survival, they didn’t have the bandwidth to work on them. I don’t have to spell out the recipe for self-defeat in that cycle. Can it be broken now?
We need to clarify the goals of cultural policy. Right now, they are minuscule: channel some resources to artists and organizations deemed worthy according to criteria constrained by the existing boundaries of “the arts.” In reality, the goals are much, much larger. Isn’t it in the public interest to nurture creativity in all communities? Isn’t it intrinsic to real democracy to promote communication, understanding, and interaction across lines of race, ethnicity, gender, class? Shouldn’t we have a shared goal of bringing people out into the community and into dialogue, rather than allowing the passive couch-potato mode to dominate, with all its consequences for mental, physical, and civic health? Shouldn’t we care about engaging people in the development of their own communities, in strengthening the social and cultural fabric that sustains us in times of trouble?
Internationally, many think of cultural policy’s goal as social well-being, or social sustainability, seeing culture as a pillar of society, along with economic, social, and environmental development. Look at UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, for instance. Or they think in terms of cultural citizenship, a concept I find powerfully appealing. In a situation of true cultural citizenship, people learn about one another’s heritages, respect one another’s contributions to community life and public discourse, feel welcome in their own cities and towns. In a situation of true cultural citizenship, it is understood that all of us together craft the story that supports our collective resilience and ability to thrive—or else we fall prey to competing stories of triumphal superiority and bitter scapegoating, and in the end, no one thrives. There is much discussion of these ideas in my book, New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development.
If we understand these goals as broadly as fits the awesome power of culture, we start to think of initiatives that are very different from the dominant notion of targeting competitive grants to selected artists and organizations. We may think instead of interventions that benefit everyone, including artists.
For instance, one broad public policy initiative could be a guaranteed annual income (GAI), whereby any person can receive income supplements to bring the total to a livable level. The idea resembles a single-payer healthcare system: you eliminate the huge bureaucratic time and money expense of administering multiple programs and trying to disqualify applicants, and that significantly reduces overall costs. If this sounds like a radical left-wing idea, think again. In 1968, 1,200 economists (including John Kenneth Galbraith) called on Congress to introduce such a system. Daniel Patrick Moynihan published a book about it in 1973, citing the GAI proposal put forward by—wait for it—Richard Nixon! What if any artist or creative worker could cover a basic living this way? I know scores who would seize the opportunity to devote themselves to community service and creative renewal.
In fact, many have been doing something like this for years, in a sort of patchwork fashion. It’s an open secret of the nonprofit performing arts world that unemployment benefits have been a form of job subsidy: company members work on salary through the season, sustain themselves for a time through unemployment insurance, then repeat the cycle.
That’s just one idea, of course. Maybe the best entry-point will be a focus on arts-infused education; or providing accessible means of cultural participation—facilities, equipment, skilled artist-teachers—in every community; or promoting an arts-based organizational and business culture that jump-starts creativity (as I’m trying to do with new programs I’ve devised with a collaborator).
In truth, it’s all of these, a Great Reframing of the public interest in culture to clarify and highlight the benefits to every member of society, breaking out of the entitlement and privilege frame. The first step is to release the iron grip on arts advocates’ minds of our narrowly conceived cultural policy debate—which can be summarized as “NEA grants, yes or no?”—and enlarge our ideas to a scale that matches the real public interest and the real power of art.
In a moment of crisis, there’s always a big temptation to retract: keep your head down, ask for the minimum, go along to get along. Arts advocates have done that for three decades, and the result has been an obsequious posture of feigning gratitude for being punished less than might have been feared. Now is the time to be bold, to be daring, to make it new, to turn the old paradigm on its head. My contribution will include my new book, the essays and talks I create, and doing as many “reframing the arts” workshops as I can, to enlist people in crafting the new frame that will help lift us out of the permanent crisis. The next iteration is at the Association of Performing Arts Service Organizations annual conference in Austin in March. If you want to sponsor a workshop, please get in touch.
Whatever you do to aid the Great Reframing, the main point is to end our infatuation with the miniature hopes and constricted style of mainstream arts advocacy, and show up full-scale. The time comes to bid an outgrown love adieu. “I’m Afraid The Masquerade Is Over,” the great Carmen McRae.