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.


Ian David Moss said...

These are really excellent points. I'd push back a little on the cupcake bake-off, only because in my opinion that would actually count as art, but I recognize my definition is more liberal than most. I agree with you that the only thing that makes the dialogue between artists unique to art is that it involves artists--so it's not such a compelling benefit as all that. (Though I do think that for the purposes of designing grant programs, it's an important one to consider, which is why I made sure to mention it.)

With regard to the criticism in your other post--about the thread of logic--I agree that the differential treatment of instrumental and intrinsic benefits is quite evident in the text, and if anything think you'll feel it even more acutely when you actually read the whole thing. The recommendation makes some sense if you accept their implicit premise that intrinsic benefits are universal: if they are, then developing participation and audiences are indeed the key to sustaining the arts over the long term, and more effective than focusing on instrumental benefits since those are only possible because of the intrinsic benefits. But there's absolutely no evidence that there is anything universal about the joy or pleasure of the arts, which makes their logical framework fall apart a bit as you point out.

Kira Campo said...

Staying with the theme of CREATIVITY:
Scott Walters' succinct comment in response to the Createquity Gifts post struck me as being completely on target. Namely, that the discussion might be enriched by emphasizing “CREATIVITY-as-process, rather than ART-as-product”.

When questions about creative expression arise ( for example "should the cupcake bake-off be included?") I myself tend to accept a very broad definition. Reading Eric Booth's "The Everyday Work of Art" I was able to fully embrace his assertion that any action can indeed become a form of creative expression, when close attention is being paid to aesthetic qualities.

Artists (who bring their creative vision into concert with their technical acumen, for the express purpose of realizing their vision) represent an invaluable pov: that of visionary. Their artmaking processes, coupled with frequent engagement with these processes, make artists necessary rolemodels for creative living. So perhaps it is artists who can best model the value choices that tend to enable a state of "flow".

Arguably, the values that are present in the highest levels of creative achievement are what inspire other manifestations of creative expression; manifestations small and large, both inside and OUTSIDE the cultural sector.

The cultural ecosystem, however, RELIES on the artist, so, in that sense, financial support of professional artists (and relevant programs and institutions) seems integral to fostering a citizenry that is truly capable of exploring the continuum of creative expression.

CultureFuture said...


To your first point, I have a couple of different definitions of art, some of which the cup-cake cookoff fall under. I guess the problem is how do we isolate what's specific to something we call "art" and what's specific to creativity at large--unless there is no wall, in which we should include more varied creativity in our studies. Is scientific research "art"? Is the application of creativity in scientific research similar in the intrinsic benefits it generates?

The problem is this: if we can find activities that have the same intrinsic benefits as art, but have different instrumental benefits (science, for instance), do we lose standing to direct energy towards art? I don't know.

As to your second point: well, that's the problem of not having read the full book. It's in the mail, believe it or not.

Kira: I agree with your point thoroughly, and I am interested in the creativity process. The question (which I don't have an answer to) is, are there different sorts of creativity with different effects, or are they all generally the same in terms of intrinsic and instrumental rewards?

Certainly the latter is not the case--there can be some very instrumentally negative forms of creativity, as the Financial Crisis demonstrates.

I haven't seen a lot of comparison between a variety of different creative acts--whether within what's normally called "art" or more varied.