Sunday, August 9, 2009

Are the Arts for Everybody?

Posting has been lax at this end for a number of reasons. One are the three professional websites; another is the book launch; lastly is my reading FSG's Breakthroughs in Shared Measurement, which gave me so much damn information that I haven't had the chance to process it all and post away on it, since I think it's going to be the core of what the Thriving Arts Report started sparking in my mind.

Before I get to FSG (I'm still neck-deep in sifting through my notes, and I only ever got a third of the way into my notes of Florida's Rise of the Creative Class), I'd like to take a moment to look over Createquity's Arts Policy Library, namely his first summary of Gifts of the Muse.

Before I launch into this, I would like to point out that although I have purchased the book Gifts of the Muse, I haven't gotten it to read yet, so my response is not to the book, but rather to Ian's response to the book. I'll report back once I've read it about whether I find it to be accurate. I trust it to be.

There is a central problem working in this book, though, as Ian describes it:

The one major gaffe I found in Gifts has to do with a central premise: that the intrinsic benefits the authors identify are distinguished from instrumental benefits by virtue of their uniqueness to the arts. McCarthy et. al. [the authors] state that the intrinsic benefits are “inherent in the arts experience” and include “a distinctive type of pleasure and emotional stimulation.” The inference, it seems, is that the reason people participate in the arts in the first place (and the reason, therefore, to subsidize them) is because they can’t get these kinds of benefits anywhere else. Or at least that is the position implied by the authors’ withering criticism of the instrumental benefits literature for not considering the opportunity costs of supporting the arts to achieve broader policy goals.

In the course of their discussion of the intrinsic benefits, though, the authors let slip an interesting quote from one of the few sources directly cited in the chapter. It’s buried in a footnote on page 46, so the casual reader could be forgiven for missing it. But it casts a profound shadow over the entire discussion of intrinsic benefits. The footnote is drawn from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity: Flow and the Discovery of Psychology and Invention, and is as follows:

"When people are working creatively in the areas of their expertise, whether arts or nuclear physics, their various everyday frustrations and anxieties are replaced by a sense of bliss. That joy comes from what they describe as “designing or discovering something new” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997, p. 108)"

So nuclear physics counts too, eh? Indeed, elsewhere on the page, McCarthy et al. write “[Csikszentmihalyi]’s study of creativity is based on interviews with 91 exceptionally creative people from the arts, sciences, business, and government, [and] argues that we have underrated the role of pleasure in creativity of all kinds. His subjects all talk about the joy and excitement of the act of creation itself. But that enjoyment comes with the achievement of excellence in a certain activity rather than from the direct pursuit of pleasure.”

There's a terribly worrying, but nonetheless accurate question, which is: what is it that is unique about arts? Ian continues:

The entire chapter on participation patterns—everything from gateway experiences to frequent participation—could have written about any of a million hobbies and Pro-Am activities, from gardening to stamp collecting to astronomy to cooking and beyond. But curiously, the one “intrinsic” benefit that truly is unique to the arts—the creation of a space in society for experimentation and imagination for its own sake—is never mentioned. Nor is the capacity for communication between artists, either in the same generation or across generations, which allows them to cultivate a common language and heritage of aesthetic expression that is specifically about art itself.

Unfortunately, even the benefits that Ian describes don't seem to me to be completely unique to the arts. A space for experimentation and imagination for its own space--I saw that at the Williamsburg Cupcake Cook-off (an event I highly recommend, by the way). Communication within artists is unique to art, but only because of the stipulation that they be artists. If you're a foodie, you've joined a community of food-enthusiasts who also foster communication and culture and etc, that gives a "common language and heritage of aesthetic expressio0n that is specifically about art itself.


Obviously, I like the arts, I don't think they're vestigal. I, as of yet, have not found anything unique about art that can be gotten nowhere else. It's just a different form of pursuing those goals. A different language.

To return to Ian for a moment, to his final conclusion:

I guess what I’m trying to say is that maybe the arts aren’t for everybody—and maybe that’s okay. We should be glad that they produce all of these various benefits for some people, especially those who might have a hard time getting those benefits elsewhere, and equally happy that there are many opportunities for individuals who don’t connect to the arts to express their creativity and strive for excellence and seek to understand the world around them in other contexts. ... I don’t necessarily agree that the goal should be “to bring as many people as possible into engagement with their culture through meaningful experiences of the arts.” I don’t see how that represents success, unless that’s what those people want for themselves.

It's very true that the arts are not for everybody. But creativity is.

See, one of the mistakes we do get lured into is considering creativity to be the arts. As Richard Florida points out with some very compelling personal anecdotes about his father's manufacturing firm, creativity can be found in every line of work.

What has driven people away from creativity is the concept that it is something only artists can do. What we should be focusing on is the availability of creative environments, in which arts is a prominent but not a sole component. The arts should be something that everybody can do but not should do.

For instance: a group of my friends have created a brand-new sport called Circle Rules Football. Do you know how much more fun I would have had in physical education if we'd tried inventing a sport? My best subjects were English, Theater, and History, because I got the opportunity to be creative in each of those (yes I got to be creative in History. I don't know who else gets that opportunity). In high school, I wound up being very good at math, because we tackled math with creativity at that point.

I will be writing a submission to 20 under 40 tackling this subject: we've gotten to the point where we treat the arts like a trade, and thus we focus on the skills of art rather than the creativity of art. Can you imagine that I learned how to play the piano for five years and never listened to classical music? I never got the opportunity to write anything, to improvise--to do anything other than mechanically replicate the song at hand.

Theresa Rebeck has an essay on Lark Theatre's blog entitled "Can Craft and Creativity Live On The Same Stage?" I agree with her that the answer is yes, craft and creativity have to work together. But my problem with a lot of arts programs and arts education is a lack of exploration of creativity.

Partially that's because, as Gifts of the Muse and other publications make painfully clear, we still have a long way to go in terms of developing the language and information to analyze what exactly that means.

But we can do it. If anyone has read Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed, there is a passage wherein he describes the artistic literacy programs in Peru. That's the direction to go: treating creativity as a language that crosses alphabets, and learning how to converse in that language.

Once we get into this "arts as a language" mode, the instrumental versus intrinsic benefits argument will become more moot. What are English's benefits: instrumental or intrinsic? There are strong arguments to be made for both, although both are exceedingly difficult to quantify.