April 18, 2011

More on supply and demand: The arts need a definition that’s not negative

In my last post, I wrote that the supply and demand debate that’s still simmering in the arts has raised fundamental questions about what we mean by “the arts.” In fact, these days every conversation in the arts field, from how to measure impact and how to harness the participatory energy to what kinds of facilities we should be building, seems to lead back to those questions. The arts are in a definitional crisis. And that’s a good thing.

The phenomenal growth of the nonprofit arts sector that began in the US in the late 1950s and 1960s was fueled in part by macro trends like rising postwar education and income levels and tax policies that led many well-off people to set up foundations. But of course it was also driven by cultural imperatives, and in retrospect it’s pretty clear that among these was a strong desire to be a counterweight to popular culture, which was coming into its own at around the same time and taking on a subversive, youthful energy that made traditionalists nervous. (I remember my grandfather curtly dismissing the Beatles as “noise.” The Beatles!)

This was a negative identity, premised on oppositions rather than intrinsic attributes. The arts were non-commercial, non-profit, “high” culture as distinct from “low.” It’s almost as if the purpose of the arts, as that category came to be defined, was to be an antidote to the rest of culture: civilized because everything else was increasingly uncivil; elegant and “serious” because everything else was coarse and frivolous; formal because everything else seemed to be coming loose.

In a way, the negative identity was nothing new: composers had been writing atonal scores and artists painting non-representational canvases since the Modernist era began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in part to distinguish their work from more vernacular forms. But the divergence of popular culture and the arts in the latter half of the 20th century ran deeper; it became a kind of aesthetically-based class structure, or rather many structures: dance companies, regional theaters, art museums, chamber music festivals, poetry societies, and so on.

And clearly that identity worked well, at least for several decades. As researcher Nick Rabkin points out in his recent NEA paper on arts education [pdf], demand in the 60s and 70s grew right along with, or maybe even drove, the increasing supply of nonprofit arts organizations. We built it, and they did come. And we kept building it because they were coming.

Obviously the negative definition is still working for some audiences and some organizations. I’ll occasionally hear a symphony trustee or an art museum curator lovingly describe their institutions in just those oppositional ways.

But it’s clearly not working for everyone. We’re still building it, but they’re no longer coming in those numbers. (We don’t know when the peak in attendance was, but it was probably before the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation began in 1982.) What changed? Among other things, the assumptions and mindset on which the oppositional definition was premised. ...


The negative identity had worked in part because, in the ’60s and ’70s, the lines between popular culture and the arts were easier to draw and everyone placed them in more or less the same spot. Leonard Bernstein may have been a popularizer who dabbled in Broadway and jazz, but you never wondered how to categorize him. And while John Lennon may have been admired by some “serious” musical and cultural figures, you knew which side of the tracks he lived on.

But look what a few decades of postmodernism can do. Distinctions between high and low, serious and frivolous have been totally blurred, the concepts themselves mashed up. Julliard-trained composers ignore the old genre boundaries, collaborating with indie rock musicians on chamber pieces. Formality itself feels dated. And the technology revolution has decentralized creative production and put it back where it historically resided: in the rank and file of the population, not in the hands of a small priestly class of creators and curators.

So the worldview in which the arts’ oppositional identity made sense is no longer widely held. Which leaves the arts vulnerable to exactly the kinds of economic, advocacy, policy, and audience challenges we’re now seeing. Is there an alternative identity waiting in the wings? I’m not sure, but that’s what people like Bill Ivey and Diane Ragsdale have been working toward with “expressive life.” That’s exactly what we need: a positive way of defining “the arts,” not in opposition or even contrast to something else but as a broad sphere of natural, pleasurable human activity having to do with creativity, imagination, and communication.

The rub, of course, will be that word “broad,” because if we define the arts in a way that embraces the whole raft of popular and niche culture and all kinds of personal or social creative expression, we’re going to have to radically rethink what an “arts organization” looks like, not to mention how we fund them, evaluate them, justify and advocate for them, and help them reach and serve audiences.

It’ll be scary. But at least we’ll be asking the right question, which at the moment is: Demand for what?


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