Intimations of spring (my first in the Midwest) are everywhere. It’s been amazingly warm, with passers-by in shirtsleeves. Yesterday on my walk I saw thick green clumps of narcissus and daffodil thrusting through the earth. The tips of branches that had very recently looked dead have now swollen into buds, smooth or fuzzy according to their kind. Each bud is a promise, but people tell me that March sometimes breaks them: snow is predicted for Saturday, with lows in the teens. The world is full of potential, but the right conditions are needed to bring it to fruition.
Lately, I have begun to harbor the suspicion that a ripening I have anticipated for decades may at last be ready to arrive. Signs are everywhere of the quickening of activist energy among artists and their allies. It seems possible that enough attention will accrue to questions of culture and democracy to tip them into visibility in policy debates in the U.S. But will conditions support the fulfillment of that possibility?
From a talk by writer Malcolm Gladwell at the Philadelphia Free Library, I just learned a new expression that seems apt: “capitalization of talent.” Gladwell uses this to mean the degree to which human potential is actualized under particular circumstances. For instance, drawing on a story from Michael Lewis’s book about football prodigy Michael Oher, Gladwell learns that only one out of six kids offered athletic scholarships in Oher’s Memphis neighborhood actually use them to go on to college. He concludes that the local school system isn’t going a great job of capitalizing athletic talent.
Gladwell notes that ability is more or less evenly distributed in all societies: there are as many geniuses born in tenements or on farms as in mansions. But mostly, the successes are those whose gifts are noticed and cultivated (as were Oher’s, when he was taken under the wing of a family that spotted and nurtured his talent); those who are the recipients of some form of advantage, overt or hidden; and those who benefit from cultural attitudes that prize the diligent application of effort to one’s aims.
By various means, Gladwell shows how seeming meritocracies are actually something quite different. For instance, he describes how kids are grouped in school into classes that encompass a whole year’s worth of growth and development: a third-grader born in January, just after the cut-off point for admission to his age-class, is likely to be taller, heavier and more adept at fine motor skills than a classmate born the following October. If he is singled out as a more able athlete than his classmates and supported with intensive coaching and other special attentions, whatever talents he possesses will be more likely to develop—while the kid with the October birthday, whose potential may be just as great, has far less chance of succeeding without that extra help and recognition.
As is his wont, Gladwell constructs convincing if perhaps too-pat arguments. But even if swallowing his entire thesis entails a grain of salt, I like the way it contradicts a growing orthodoxy founded on repugnant concepts of genetic meritocracy. If as a society we really believe the pervasive propaganda that success is the product of our genes, that lets us off the hook for responsibilities like addressing poverty and privilege, like providing each child with equal support—which is perhaps why such deterministic explanations are so appealing to people who want to preserve their own entitlement to privilege.
What I love about things like this is the way they can reshuffle the deck of received opinion. New thoughts swell and bud, stretching their delicate branches into the light of day. Possibilities sprout.
Listening to Gladwell, I thought about the capitalization of ideas as well as talents. The ideas that seize popular imagination or attract substantial investment of energy and resources are not necessarily the best. Luck plays a large role, to be sure. But it appears there is another ingredient that pertains to both kinds of capitalization—talent and ideas—and that is the recognition of possibility.
Every insurgent idea starts out with a daunting task: to convincingly contradict the conventional wisdom asserting the inevitability and permanence of things as they are, instead persuading people to invest in a new way of seeing that actualizes new possibilities. You have to be dedicated and determined (say, like Barack Obama) to persevere successfully against “what everyone knows” to be possible. Most new ideas die on the vine, not because they are worthless, but because in the competition for notice—due perhaps to timing or luck or the premature discouragement of their adherents—they did not receive the assistance needed to garner a critical mass of attention.
The idea that captured my heart many years ago concerns the centrality of culture to community life, individual development and social democracy. The sounds and images that engage us, the stories that form our lives and communities, the things we choose to preserve and present to the world, the way we create our environments—these things and countless others like them seem to me to be of overwhelming importance in shaping human societies and the actions taken in their names.
I want to see community artists thriving in every corner of the nation, helping to create film, theater, dance, visual arts work that illuminates our lives, helping people find and portray their own histories and imagined futures, nurturing creative talent wherever it appears, devising containers for real public dialogue about the things that matter most.
I want people to recognize that cultural production and distributions systems are the product of human decisions that can be revised: there is nothing “natural” or inevitable about the organization of broadcast and cable television in this country, for instance. What we have—and what most of us treat as a constant companion and natural fact—is what you get when strong commercial forces press their will on a compliant and neglectful public sector. What I want instead might be seen as full cultural capitalization: the actualization, in the public sphere, with artists as full partners, of whatever supports resilient communities, cross-cultural understanding, social imagination and personal creativity.
But first, we have to believe change is possible, and that is the problem.
Most of the mediating institutions of American society treat manifestations of culture as trivial concerns: entertainments, decorations, dispensable frivolities. Despite the fact that most Americans embed their days in a matrix of music and moving images, despite the fact that telling and receiving stories is one of our chief human occupations, despite the fact that billions of dollars are exchanged each month in the creation and consumption of the products of commercial culture, despite the fact the cultural impacts of public-policy decisions are profound and ubiquitous, our elected leaders have failed to recognize the public interest in culture. Schools continue to cut arts classes and activities, public cultural subvention at federal, state and local levels never amounts to more than a few dollars a person, and unless someone commits an outrageous offense against perceived good taste, as by publishing a cartoon or presenting a comedy routine that delivers a powerful insult, it has so far been impossible to start a serious national conversation about culture and the democratic public interest.
I perceive the difficulties: culture can be a diffuse concept. When you’re up against received ideas, it’s hard for people to wrap their minds around the possibility of an alternative view. It’s often necessary to define terms and state the basics before you get to the meat of a cultural perspective, and that makes it even more challenging to capture attention. And then there’s the demoralization factor: a lot of people look at the massive cultural-industrial complex colonizing our time and space and find themselves unable even to imagine changing it.
Just lately, though, I’ve glimpsed a few budding hopes. I’ve written several times about how the idea of a “new WPA” for artists and communities is gaining ground. Meetings are being called here and there to give serious consideration to art and culture as part of national recovery. Signs of spring are gathering.
Orthodoxies are being challenged. For instance, I have been talking for some time about the damage done by funders forcing arts organizations to emulate private-sector corporations, holding up business as a model for all social organization. I grew used to being a lone voice on the subject, but recently, Charlie Humphrey wrote an angry, funny and heartfelt screed that makes the point very well.
The dire economic situation has some people rethinking the nature of work, of value. Perhaps they will recognize that what has come to be called the “knowledge economy” is actually a cultural economy. It’s not just bits and bytes of data that are supporting jobs these days: without the imagination and artistry to devise and convey the words, sounds and images that fill our hard disks and iPods, Web 2.0 would be dead in the water. To nurture the wellsprings of culture—to create the conditions that give every bud in the orchard a fair chance to sprout—social goods need support: schools with really well-rounded and excellent programs; public libraries; community centers where people can learn, share and create; public spaces like parks and gardens that enable conviviality so crucial to civil society; creative support and distribution systems that redress the imbalances of the marketplace, supporting all kinds of arts work, not just the things that make mega-millions. Culture is a garden; you have to feed and water every plant to create the conditions that produce the best blooms.
With the kind counsel of friends, I’ve been putting together some ideas about a new forum for cultural activism where some of this blossoming energy can converge and multiply. It’s too soon to say whether my bud of an idea will burst into flower. Are the conditions right? I’m trying to find out. But as I do, I think about all the good ideas that seemed hopelessly marginal at first, then, when nurtured with a gathering sense of possibility, began to bloom.
After decades of allegiance to the distorted view that relegates culture to the sidelines, we can’t blame our policy-makers for not getting it. Culture is everybody’s business, and it’s up to us to make it clear: No recovery can succeed and last without cultural recovery. It’s that simple.