Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A New Arts Appreciation

On my summer reading list is a book that came out last year, Martha Nussbaum's Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. I'm reading it, among other books on the current crisis in education, not only because I am alarmed about this spring's harsh and ignorant treatment of teachers in response to state and local budget crises but also because of more recent threats to government support for the arts. We are living in an extraordinary time in which the humanities and fine arts are not only losing significant government funding support at the federal, state, and local levels but are being progressively diminished in public education in favor of more narrow degree-to-job vocational frameworks. 

Part of what's so sad is that we, as a society, lack a discourse for even valuing the arts and creativity in the first place. It seems far easier to talk about boosting science and engineering for the nation's economic health. As I heard on the news this evening, "scientists and engineers lead innovation in the economy and therefore we need to excite students about these subjects." This is the language of STEM, and somehow it seems to make sense to most Americans, whether or not they are themselves knowledgeable about the sciences. 

It's more difficult to talk about the arts in this way because of a perceived distance of the "arts" from the "economy," and an inability to understand what the arts are for, or how they relate to the accepted primacy of the bottom line. This is not a new problem in America. John Adams's elevated conception of the arts as growing out of the process of nation-building, from 1780 (“Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain”) was never really understood in his own time and was lost by the early 19th century. In the midst of the "market revolution" in the United States, engagement with the arts, whose commodification had always been problematic, became a suspicious life pursuit. Thus, for example, in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne worried about his ancestors' opinion of his chosen profession (‘A writer of story-books!...Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!’”). 

The STEAM initiative is a good start to creating a new discourse for the arts in already established frameworks of science and technology. What I want to suggest, in addition, is that we think carefully about what exactly we mean by that additional "A" for the "arts." Too many times, it seems to me, advocates for the arts education fall back on vocational frameworks of understanding. The assumption is that students will be making forms of music, visual art, drama and that such activity has demonstrated benefits for improving cognition and creative problem-solving. All well and good. But what is not often discussed is the social life of art, in which "audiencing" may be the primary activity. Audiencing is typically either dismissed as a mindless consumerism or left rather undefined as the end of the creative process. But recent studies in reception theory have shown the extent to which audiencing is itself creative, actively building community, shaping identity, and helping us to think about and respond to the changing world around us. I have written about this before in terms of music, but I think it is true for all the arts; understanding the arts only in terms of "authorship" prevents us from seeing its actual breadth and power.

There used to be a movement, in the early nineteenth century, that promoted arts appreciation, but it was rather classist in its mission of "uplift" and refinement. I am interested in a new movement that will more radically recognize the varieties of arts engagement. More fully valuing and including audience practices--across genres and tastes and cultures--in our discussions of the arts might better capture the arts' participatory function in daily life and make a stronger case for advocacy. As audience members, we are all engaged in art in one way or another. We listen to music on iPods, we admire the design of websites, we hang images in our homes, we laugh at each others' stories, we stand and look at buildings, we go to museums or concerts with friends, we talk together about tv shows, plays, musicals, movies, and novels. The arts cannot be so easily marginalized or dismissed if they are understood with a wider perspective that includes audiencing. That perspective would make cutting the arts not just an instance of cutting government support of esoteric studio classes or experimental drama (which some might wrongly see as not properly focused on making a living) but a more self-destructive diminishment of the participatory fabric of our daily lives, an erosion of the activities and actions that constitute the very environments in which we live and work, as well as our experiences and habits and identities.

Why is it that many are reluctant to cut, say, social security? It's because such a move would not only entail cutting a "government entitlement" but a deeply-embedded social institution. For better or worse (depending on your political persuasion), it has become a significant part of how Americans conceive and live their whole adult lives. I think there is an even stronger case for understanding the arts in this way, if we are willing to think more broadly about their definition and role and more boldly and consistently articulate that definition. Narrow ideas of artistic creativity and participation only enable those controlling wealth to rationalize cuts to arts education and to prioritize their own conceptions of what is significant in our society.

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