A little over a year ago, I wrote a series of three essays about a perceived generation gap between people my age and younger activist artists (click here to find the first; the others come right after). This past weekend, I attended a gathering of a few dozen people across the generations, so I want to revisit the topic.
The meeting celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Caribbean Cultural Center and other long-lived groups in its cohort of cultural organizations grounded in their communities’ quest for self-determination and self-expression. The final event was a panel discussion billed as “new leaders discussing the future of the field,” offered by three brilliant and dedicated activists not much more than half my age. All the work they described was important, interesting and from what I could see, executed with skill and care. I found myself most intrigued by the way two young women described their intentions.
Both were stupendously articulate, so much so that I caught myself floating on the seamless music of their words; I had to bring myself down to earth to focus on their meanings. There is a certain flavor of postmodern cultural discourse that has now seeped into non-academic speech: people “engage” markets, they “contest” dominant attitudes—these non-specific verbs recur, suggesting some form of action without actually specifying what it might be. I wondered as I listened: what activities are actually involved? How is participating in a market by buying or selling things different from “engaging” it? How is “contesting” different from, say, protesting or espousing alternatives? Nouns, too, are elusive: undocumented immigrants were described as having “no relationship with the state.” I tried to imagine this. It seems to me they have a quite specific relationship: living in some degree of fear of being apprehended and jailed or deported, whereas I surmise what is meant is that they have no positive, constructive or helpful relationship.
I am fascinated by this hyper-articulate allusive speech, which seems to embody the postmodern idea that the listener (or reader in the case of the written word) constructs the text, that the speaker or writer offers something like a kit or resource that may be variously assembled. It gives the speaker a great deal of freedom, like Humpty Dumpty, who said this on the other side of the looking-glass: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.” The listener is invited to form a general sense of agreement, with no need to pin anything down, which might invite conflict. It has tremendous appeal.
Nevertheless, a little conflict popped up around the question of whether these activist artists ought to work through nonprofit corporations. I was extremely glad to hear the younger generation voicing a complaint shared by many of their elders: that the dominant corporate model imposed on not-for-profit organizations by funders and policymakers can distort their work. For example, mention was made of the pervasive expectation that groups will fill the boards of directors mandated by law for tax-exempt corporations with bankers, corporate executives and individuals possessing marketing or other skills purported to lift the organization out of poverty or obscurity. In my generation, there are many stories of organizations that swallowed this program and wound up spitting out governing bodies of people who lacked passionate commitment to their work or were even hostile and undermining to their core purposes.
Some younger activists expressed Interest in alternative forms of organization—individual social entrepreneurship, collectives, cooperatives, for-profit and hybrid enterprises, as well as working independently, a kind of free agency. They also displayed characteristic skepticism (by which I mean I behaved the same way at the same stage of my own life) that their elders might have anything to teach about such things. When I said I had quite a lot of information to share about collectives and co-ops, the reply was that they hadn’t been able to find a consultant of sufficient standing to help them make the case with funders that alternatives were equally viable and legitimate organizational approaches. After three decades of independent consulting along these lines, I had to stop for a moment and consider whether I really might be chopped liver after all.
The dialogue exposed each generation’s characteristic pitfalls. My cohort tends to be romantic or idealistic about the public sector, despite decades of discouragement. Many of us will never abandon the hope that government will at some future time act for the public interest in cultural development. We are distressed that some of our generation, having attained positions of power, seem to have abandoned that quest: one ironic element at the meeting was the way some individuals with important jobs in educational or cultural institutions counseled others to abandon the lost cause of proposing, agitating and pressing for public cultural subvention. It appears they have absorbed the current government’s propaganda, coming to believe that the right is in permanent possession of the state, acting on some presumed consensus that government is intrinsically bad. But my friends and I believe that democracy can be rehabilitated, having adopted that view as children, reading between the lines of our civics texts, or young people, inspired by the civil rights and peace movements of our youth.
Some of us were nostalgic for past struggles; through rosy glasses, difficulties recede and modest gains come to seem like triumphs. (Or maybe that rosy glow was nothing more than nostalgia for our youth.)
Many in the younger generation talk a militantly anti-capitalist line, pointing to overwhelming excesses of greed and exploitation, an appalling willingness to see human lives as collateral damage in the quest for profit. But in some deeply ironic way, the generation born into Reaganism seems to have bought into its romanticization of markets. One panelist spoke of feeling it might be best to support her work through a day job, getting “a clean paycheck and health insurance” and doing her activism in her free time. How does this notion of a “clean” paycheck mesh with a critique of capitalism? I see that money carries degrees of contamination (many progressive groups wouldn’t accept a grant from a weapons manufacturer if one were offered, but would take money from, say, an entertainment company). But “clean” money? I don’t think so.
One younger activist asserted that long-time activists facing low salaries and few benefits in the nonprofit sector would be better cared-for in the corporate sector, where it was assumed they’d have health insurance, for instance. The nonprofit sector was described as unstable (true, but carrying the false implication that stability is to be found along another path). It appears these younger people have internalized the idea that today’s corporate marketplace is truly efficient in ensuring the distribution of society’s basic goods. But this is at least as idealized a view as my persistent hope for government (more so, I think). Judged on the facts, the real story of the corporate economy is filled with extremes: a few huge winners, a great many marginal enterprises, and no more than an even chance of decent working conditions, if that.
Nassim Taleb, whose views on randomness are having quite an influence on my own thinking, has noted that
Of the five hundred largest U.S. companies in 1957, only seventy-four were still part of that select group, the Standard and Poor’s 500, forty years later. Only a few had disappeared in mergers; the rest either shrank or went bust.
Analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data typically turns up a failure rate among new businesses of one-third to one-half in the first two years of existence. We hear about the big failures, like Enron, and if they are big enough the media also cover some of the human cost—the lost investments, pensions, jobs and benefits. In fact, employed workers as a class are losing health insurance: 74.4 percent of employed adults had it in 2000, but by 2004 the figure had dropped to 70.7 percent. Corporations surround themselves with the trappings of stability, touting their own solidity through advertisements designed to create trust, employing countless forecasters and planners to create the illusion that they are more insulated from luck and ineptitude than the rest of us. But every study of their track records (not many are done, as that would upset the applecart, but Taleb cites them in The Black Swan) proves they are poor predictors and easy prey.
One thing that impresses me greatly about the younger generation of arts activists is that despite extremely challenging social conditions, they seem able to focus on achievable goals, rejoice in their accomplishments, and remain focused on getting things done.
My guess is that arts activism will continue for some time to be a mix of public and private, nonprofit corporations and collectives, social entrepreneurship and organizational creativity, young and old, from many backgrounds and social conditions. I am encouraged that the next generation seems so intent on thinking through their choices, rather than falling automatically into them. Especially because the normative idea that corporations are the best form of organization is beginning to fray around the edges, I think critical views coming from them could have a more positive influence than have my generation’s protests.
I suppose it’s romantic of me to wish both sides of our dialogue were a little more concrete and grounded in fact. But I do.