Expanding The Vision

By Arlene Goldbard

Many thanks to my fellow bloggers for providing abundant inspiration! The big questions of cultural policy are so vital and matter so much, yet they are seldom publicly discussed even by the people who care most. Who are we as a people? What do we want to remembered for, our vast creativity, or our prodigious ability to punish? How are our answers reflected in the way we do (or don’t) nurture community cultural life?

I was moved by Eboni Senai Hawkins’ beautiful essay on making public space for art. “Dance demands a kinesthetic empathy, a way of experiencing art bodily simply by watching,” she wrote, remarking that “Such empathy has the potential to pierce the layers of urban existence and bring together Oakland’s diverse yet self-segregated neighborhoods.”

Some of the most powerful arguments for art’s public purpose are coming to us now from science, supporting that point. Neuroscientists have have found “mirror neurons” in the human brain. When we observe someone else (or imagine ourselves) experiencing a feeling or performing an action, these nerve cells are activated very much as if we had performed the same actions with our own bodies. Mirror neurons enable understanding of other people’s perceptions, actions, and feelings.

But while this ability to feel empathy is encoded in our physical beings, empathy does not automatically infuse our own life-choices, any more than possesssing the physical equipment for dancing or singing means we will actually do either. Moving from the latent capacity to the practice of compassion must be learned. When we sit in a darkened theater, opening our minds and hearts to stories very different from our own, the tears, laughter, or perplexity we feel activates our motor neurons, setting that learning in motion.

Kenji C. Liu’s essay on art as a human right asks powerfully important questions, such as this:

The ability to work together for a beautiful and just world while being free from economic calculus and quantifiable value is not in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but perhaps it should be. Would our cultural strategies and policies benefit if we framed this kind of “freed art” as a human right and necessary for true democracy, just like education and freedom?

I’m always amazed that the right to culture is rooted in the simplest language of Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” It seems so innocuous, but as has often been noted, the authors are unlikely to have understood what it would actually take to embody the right to participate freely. I think of the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, now incommunicado in detention in an undisclosed location. Imagine what would be required to grant him that right, and we begin to see the challenge.

I wish more US-based artists and advocates would become familiar with the remarkable policy statements the rest of the world is adopting. Read the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, for instance, and ponder why the U.S. has not signed it.

Randolph Belle’s thoughtful and moving post on what you might call race-blindness in Oakland’s development (if you don’t want to call it racism, outright) points to indicators that can’t be ignored:

….Every African American cultural invention has been subsumed into the larger culture to a point where the source is no longer recognizable, and Oakland, as a traditional center of Black culture and one of a number of “Chocolate Cities” around the country is a petri dish for cultural change. Consider this—Yoshi’s produced a jazz compilation with no Black artists, later apologizing and calling it an oversight. The First Amendment and the Serenader, where the best live blues, jazz and R&B could be heard, are distant memories. Rap can be heard in every corner of the planet, but as a thoroughly co-opted artform, I find nothing redeeming in what’s been deemed commercially viable. No consideration was given to the importance and historical significance of the Lorraine Hansberry Theater when the Academy of Art, (ironically), evicted them from their long time home….

Morally, the challenge he raises brings to mind Martin Luther King’s statement, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

In policy terms, I think Randolph Belle has it right: we know in our bones that cultural meaning and cultural fabric are central to lived experience. No one can deny the significance of the examples he cited. Every city has a reservoir of such stories: long-established neighborhoods leveled to make way for sports stadiums or freeways or red-carpet performing arts centers, leaving untold human damage in their wake.

As a result of long and diligent pressure, environmental impact assessment is demanded when a city wants to remove older structures or build new ones. The underlying idea is that the well-being of plants, animals, and aquifers should be a consideration, not just dollars and cents. Imagine for a moment that Oakland and every public entity had to produce a cultural impact study, assessing the effect that proposed actions would have on social fabric and community cultural life. Imagine how different our cities could look today if this had been required—and heeded and enforced—in the heyday of “urban removal.”

Imagine.

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Arlene Goldbard is a writer, speaker, consultant and cultural activist whose focus is the intersection of culture, politics and spirituality. Her blog and other writings may be downloaded from her Web site: www.arlenegoldbard.com. She was born in New York and grew up near San Francisco. Her most recent book, New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development was published by New Village Press in November 2006. She is also co-author of Community, Culture and Globalization, an international anthology published by the Rockefeller Foundation, Crossroads: Reflections on the Politics of Culture, and Clarity, a novel. Her essays have been published in In Motion Magazine, Art in America, Theatre, Tikkun, and many other journals. She has addressed many academic and community audiences in the U.S. and Europe, on topics ranging from the ethics of community arts practice to the development of integral organizations. She has provided advice and counsel to hundreds of community-based organizations, independent media groups, and public and private funders and policymakers including the Rockefeller Foundation, the Independent Television Service, Appalshop and dozens of others. She is currently writing a new book on art’s public purpose. She serves as President of the Board of Directors of The Shalom Center.

Don’t miss Reframing the Arts : Advocating for the Public Culture at Oakland Museum of California (OMCA)on Saturday, April 16! Register here.

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2 Comments

  1. Kiley Arroyo wrote:

    Cultural policy must move away from being built upon the traditional definition of culture, to adopt a more balanced view that includes both culture forms and the individual capabilities needed to participate in the cultural realm. Doing so will strengthen the role of culture in policy making more widely. This does not diminish the importance of cultural expertise and institutions, but rather sets them in a new context in which one cultural form does not have priority over another. Public cultural agencies have long been among the smallest of government departments, both in terms of budget and the importance attached to them. Further cuts to these budgets threaten to decimate what power and influence they have completely. However, because culture influences several areas of policy far beyond what is currently thought of as it’s domain, its importance must be reflected through both funding increases and a more nuanced understanding of the opportunities it provides.

    Where are we?
    California, like most states in the U.S., lacks coherent cultural policy to guide the strategic development of the field and maximize investments at both state and local levels. However, our state does have a wide-variety of public policies in place that create environments that affect which cultural goods and practices are generated. Without coherent cultural policies California’s cultural realm is left lacking the critical roadmap needed to guide its strategic development. But before comprehensive policies can be developed, we’ll need to evaluate what culture is and how it operates in contemporary society. Without a thorough understanding of its unique attributes, forms and impacts – policy debates will remain weak and scattershot.

    The financial crisis has inspired dramatic shifts in the way individuals create, consume and engage with culture. The social sector as a whole is facing funding cuts on a scale unseen in recent history. As markets are disrupted, so is the public’s cultural education. But every cloud has a silver lining, right? The challenges presented by today’s operating environment should be perceived as an opportunity for a fresh start. What’s interesting is that the ‘new normal’ underscores a more long-standing need for practitioners to evaluate the purposes, functions and potential impacts of cultural policy.

    What role does cultural policy play and why does it matter?
    Social, economic and technological changes have brought the importance of culture to the fore, which has implications across governmental policy. Engagement with cultural forms sits at the heart of the new economy, both as products in themselves and as stimuli to creative enterprise and enhanced social justice. Digital technologies have empowered individuals to access, share and create cultural expressions in astonishing ways, beyond the confines of the traditional cultural sector. As a result, people are in closer and more intense contact with a wider array of ideas than ever before. This presents unique opportunities and distinct challenges for contemporary society. Meeting these challenges will require the cultivation of new individual capabilities, which means new responsibility for cultural policy. New policies will need to focus on developing the competencies that allow individuals to participate in shaping society and interpreting the expressions of others. This will require new thinking about the forms and functions of the agencies currently responsible for he cultural realm.

  2. continued.... wrote:

    Where do we start?
    Tinkering around the edges of current public policy and preserving traditional assumptions about what needs to be funded will not suffice, nor will outdated definitions of ‘culture’. The time is ripe for collective reflection. Those responsible for the traditional cultural realm must engage with new communities of practice, influence and expertise. We need to work actively with policy-makers across government departments to evaluate and prioritize what policy is for and what it seeks to achieve.

    Governmental relations with culture have long been a contentious issue, from the ‘arms-length’ model employed in Western Europe to the hands-off model often at play in the United States. Historically, culture and more specifically ‘the arts’ were applied as a societal lubricant, with the aim to civilize the irrational and uneducated masses. The legacy of this top-down perception of culture can still be found today in the disproportionate funding for large-scale institutions and funding rhetoric that supports narrow perceptions of what constitutes ‘artistic excellence’. Existing structures such as these should be but one of many accepted handmaidens to cultural experience.

    So perhaps we need to change the way we think about culture
    The efficacy of future policies will be built upon a clear and well-reasoned definition of what culture is and how it actually operates. But is can be quite challenging to define culture adequately, since it is in fact a living and ever-evolving thing. The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman attempted to defy this conundrum by defining culture as a concept, structure and as praxis. Others have called culture an elemental and fundamental part of our private and public lives. Still others have called culture the result of choices based on values and the sum of attitudes that reflect our personal histories and shared heritage. In any case, culture is clearly a formative part of society. For the purpose of this discussion I propose we perceive culture as both the behaviors and activities that result in cultural products and experiences and those outcomes themselves. In other words, as the cause and affect / the process and a product.

    The Nobel laureate Amartya Sen argues that a just society and individual well-being depends upon giving people the capabilities to lead the lives they want to lead. This holistic viewpoint has deep and profound cultural implications. Policy has traditionally focused on cultural forms rather than on the capabilities needed to participate in the cultural realm. Today’s spectrum of cultural activity from painting a picture to watching the opera online should not be seen as culture in and of themselves, but as providing individuals access to those opportunities. By distinguishing between these two concepts of culture, it becomes possible to articulate new cultural policy that is legitimate, relevant and actionable.

    So what?
    So lets dance!
    As Arlene has pointed out, culture is not synonymous with ‘the arts’; rather the arts are merely one (albeit potent) part of the broader field of culture, as is religion, language, design, foreign relations and technology. This more anthropological view of culture demonstrates that deep-seated significance of cultural activity in what it often termed the ‘cultural realm’. By reframing our focus away from traditional cultural forms, we expand the context for cultural activity and thus expose policy-makers to new opportunities, fresh perspectives and more diverse domains of influence and opportunity.

    Some ideas….

    What if we:

    1. Reinvented the California Arts Council as the Council for Cultural Expression? This radical new kind of public agency could focus solely on the importance of individual expression in the cultural realm. This body would be empowered to represent culture across government, creating new strategic alliances in and outside of government and identifying ways culture relates to different policy areas. Additionally, it would focus on providing individuals with opportunities to develop new capabilities within the cultural realm, rather than on forms in and of themselves. This council could administer seed funding, rather than grants – freeing creative organizations and individuals from the regime of targets and outdated for or non-profit business models. A cutting-edge incubator, dedicated to cultural R&D could support the Council’s work, providing data, longitudinal evidence, policy analysis and a new mélange of strategic recommendations.

    2. Developed a statewide cultural plan for the creatively vibrant state of California?

    3. Established state cultural organizations, to serve the diverse interests of people across California as a whole?

    In the end organizations don’t change and neither do sectors, people do. I encourage each of you to think about how you might adopt a more expansive view of culture in an effort to advance the creation of more relevant and actionable cultural policy in the future.

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