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Images from brain research conducted by the Mind Research Network. While intelligence and skill are associated with the fast and efficient firing of neurons in the brain, subjects who tested high in creativity had thinner white matter and connecting axons that slow nerve traffic. In these images, the green tracks show the white matter being analyzed. The yellow and red spots show where creativity corresponds with slower nerve traffic. The blue areas show where “openness to experience,” associated with creativity, corresponds with slower nerve traffic. (Photo: Rex Jung)
Grab a timer and set it for one minute. Now list as many creative uses for a brick as you can imagine. Go.
The question is part of a classic test for creativity, a quality that scientists are trying for the first time to track in the brain.
They hope to figure out precisely which biochemicals, electrical impulses and regions were used when, say, Picasso painted “Guernica,” or Louise Nevelson assembled her wooden sculptures. Using M.R.I. technology, researchers are monitoring what goes on inside a person’s brain while he or she engages in a creative task.
Yet the images of signals flashing across frontal lobes have pushed scientists to re-examine the very way creativity is measured in a laboratory.
“Creativity is kind of like pornography — you know it when you see it,” said Rex Jung, a research scientist at the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque. Dr. Jung, an assistant research professor in the department of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, said his team was doing the first systematic research on the neurology of the creative process, including its relationship to personality and intelligence.
New York Times
Could the creative industries provide innovative models which will make this sector not just resilient in the current economic climate, but allow it to flourish?
There are economists who think this is happening already. Recent research from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta) suggests that the cultural sector will grow by 4% between 2009 and 2013 – double the estimate for the rest of the economy.
There are parts of this sector which are clearly feeling the effects of the recession, such as architecture and advertising. But others, like the video games industry, are burgeoning. There is a skills shortage, however, which means companies such as RealTime Worlds, in Dundee, run by Dave Jones (he created the original Grand Theft Auto), are having to look abroad for employees. Yet the currently available University courses on video games technology are over-subscribed. Surely, this is an area where the government should be looking to invest?
I’ve been talking to Lord Puttnam about this and he is a passionate advocate of investing in the creative industries. He thinks they are where young people want to work and argues that the government dismisses their potential at its peril. This goes to the heart of an argument that historically presents the arts community as whingeing luvvies. In fact, the reality is that the creative industries will by 2013 employ 1.3 million people and the wealth generated by these industries could reach £85 billion. It is the economic case for the arts that those in the creative industries need to make.
The National Campaign For The Arts has launched its arts manifesto today which includes a section on the economy: “To maximise the sector’s potential, governments should commit to investment over a longer funding cycle of five years, more in line with established business planning”. That’s one thing, but the creative industries also need to make a case for funding connected with private investment. If the state funding diminishes, so will private sponsorship, so it’s in the interests of the state to maintain investment.
The UK is uniquely good at creativity and innovation. Even in difficult times, institutions such as the National Theatre are innovating. Their NT Live project, which will project Racine’s Phedre with Helen Mirren, live into 70 cinema screens around the UK, creates a new model to increase audiences.
For many bold enough to say so, the creative industries can be part of the solution to get the economy out of recession.
We human beings have a long history of proposing theories to unify disparate truths. This yearning to find a transcendent meaning for separate bodies of evidence may be one of our distinguishing traits. You have probably noticed this impulse in your own life: a series of experiences prompts the sense that something is hidden in the bundle of them. Your inner smarts work on the challenge—rationally, via various unconscious processes, and even while sleeping. The “Aha!” moment of identifying the deeper pattern in the evidence is satisfying and joyful; it launches a whole new set of possibilities for you as a person, as an artist.
I see the separate disciplines and fields within the arts and arts learning in that light because, although they seem to comprise disparate bodies of truth, my gut tells me that meaningful, unifying, common truths await, hidden in plain sight. Truths, that when embraced, can change the status quo.
You would be hard pressed to argue that we are a unified field. Practitioners of different art forms just don’t think of themselves as part of a larger functional entity. Even though multidisciplinary performances and presentations are increasingly common, the various artistic tribes compete more often than they cooperate, believing that the concerns they share are less significant than the ones they face on their own. A regional theater company looks at a choral ensemble and does not see much resemblance; a string quartet looks at a small dance ensemble or a struggling art gallery and does not see itself mirrored there.
Likewise, the divisions within arts education never seem to resolve. We waste energy on the same familial tiffs we have had for decades: disciplinary instruction vs. arts integration, arts education for art’s sake vs. arts education to produce other benefits, certified arts instructors vs. teaching artists, in-school learning vs. all the learning that happens outside of school—and what about the granny who plays the ukulele? These old hostilities, prejudices, and cross-purposes persist within a culture of scarcity, eroding the expansive, inclusive impulses that got us into arts-learning in the first place.
As a consultant, I have had many opportunities to try to build local arts partnerships and consortia; the usual strategy is to identify common goals and thereby foster a joint commitment to actions that will lift all the organizational boats together. Sometimes progress is made, and there are inspiring examples of success in a few cities; more often, the separateness of the participants is palpable and pervasive, caution and distrust remain entrenched, and the proposed partners have no shared language. This last point takes a while to surface, and is hard to admit—each doesn’t really know what the other is talking about, or the separate fields don’t agree on some fundamental point. You don’t believe me? Try discussing with an artist from another discipline what you think creativity really is.
The current painful economic constriction may be the catalyst we need to change our habits of thinking and jump us out of our ruts. As Rahm Emmanuel said when he was appointed White House Chief of Staff: “A crisis is too good an opportunity to waste.”
Springboard for the Arts
In the late 1990s, [Lewis] Hyde began extending his lifelong project of examining “the public life of the imagination” into what had become newly topical territory: the “cultural commons.” The advent of Internet file-sharing services like Napster and Gnutella sparked urgent debates over how to strike a balance between public and private claims to creative work. For more than a decade, the so-called Copy Left — a diverse group of lawyers, activists, artists and intellectuals — has argued that new digital technologies are responsible for an unprecedented wave of innovation and that excessive legal restrictions should not be placed on, say, music remixes, image mashups or “read-write” sites like Wikipedia, where users create their own content. The Copy Left, or the “free culture movement,” as it is sometimes known, has articulated this position in part by drawing on the tradition of the medieval agricultural commons, the collective right of villagers, vassals and serfs —“commoners” — to make use of a plot of land. This analogy is also central to Hyde’s book in progress, which looks closely at how the tradition of the commons was transformed once it was brought from Europe to America.
For the Copy Left, as for Hyde, the last 20 years have witnessed a corporate “land grab” of information — often in the guise of protecting the work of individual artists — that has put a stranglehold on creativity, in increasingly bizarre ways. Over dinner not long ago, he told me about the legal fate of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Dickinson died in 1886, but it was not until 1955 that an “official” volume of her collected works was published, by Harvard University Press. The length of copyright terms has expanded substantially in the last century, and Harvard holds the exclusive right to Dickinson’s poems until 2050 — more than 160 years after they were first written. When the poet Robert Pinsky asked Harvard for permission to include a Dickinson poem in an article that he was writing for Slate about poetic insults, it refused, even for a fee. “Their feeling was that once the poem was online, they’d lose control of it,” Hyde told me.
In highlighting the absurd ways in which intellectual copyright has overreached, Hyde brings to mind such iconic Copy Left figures as Lawrence Lessig, a constitutional-law scholar at Stanford. Yet Hyde’s new book, which he allowed me to read in draft form (it is unfinished and untitled), addresses what he considers a more fundamental issue. We may believe there should be a limit on the market in cultural property, he argues, but that doesn’t mean that we have “a good public sense” of where to set that limit. Hyde’s book is, at its core, an attempt to help formulate that sense.
If this sounds like a heady goal, it is. But it is also eminently practical, and eminently American. For Hyde, redressing the balance between private (corporate, individual) and common (public) interests depends not just on effective policy but also on recovering the idea of the cultural commons as a deeply American concept. To that end, he excavates a history of the American imagination in which the emphasis is not on the lone genius (Thoreau scribbling hermetically in the Massachusetts woods) but on the anonymous pamphleteer, the inventor eager to share his discoveries. In an essay that offers a preview of his book (posted, fittingly, on his Web site), Hyde posits that the history of the commons and of the creative self are, in fact, twin histories. “The citizen called into being by a republic of freehold farms,” he writes, “is close cousin to the writer who built himself that cabin at Walden Pond. But along with such mainstream icons goes a shadow tradition, the one that made Jefferson skeptical of patents, the one that made even Thoreau argue late in life that every ‘town should have … a primitive forest …, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever,’ the one that led the framers of the Constitution to balance ‘exclusive right’ with ‘limited times.’ It is a tradition worth recovering.”
For nearly 10 years, Hyde has devoted himself to that task.
Daniel B. Smith
New York Times
I found a great video interview with Edsger Wybe Dijkstra. You have probably heard of Dijkstra’s algorithm. He invented it.
In the interview professor Edsger talks about his thoughts on software development. He compares two very different styles of programming – Mozart style of programming vs. Beethoven style of programming. When Mozart started to write, the composition was finished. He wrote manuscript in elegant handwriting in one go. Beethoven was a doubter and a struggler. He started writing before he finished the composition and then glued corrections onto the page. In one place he did it nine times. When they peeled them, the last version proved to be identical to the first one.
From the video one can understand that Edsger preferred Mozart’s style of programming. Not just programming, but Mozart style of doing things. He says that the most important thing has been the daily discipline of neatly writing down his thoughts.
His daily discipline lead to hundreds of crystal clear scientific papers, which have now been archived in EWD Archive.
At the beginning of video Dijkstra criticizes current software release methodology. He says that version 1.0 of should be the finished product…
Edsger Dijkstra’s quotes from video:
· Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.
· The competent programmer is fully aware of the limited size of his own skull. He therefore approaches his task in full humility and avoids clever tricks like the plague.
· We should not introduce errors through sloppiness but systematically keep them out.
· Program testing can convincingly show the presence of bugs but it is hopelessly inadequate to show their absence.
· Elegance is not a dispensable luxury but a factor that decides between success and failure.
Good coders code, great reuse
A major change to the urban environment over the last generation is the explosion of running. Once, you could walk down a street and not have people continually rushing by, practically knocking you over, and behaving – what’s more – as if they had the right to practically knock you over. Now you can’t. To run is an act of virtue. It’s almost a sacred rite.
Indoor public spaces, though, are still exempt from the cult of running. If you break into a sprint in a library or a church or an art gallery, somebody will probably try to stop you. So coming across Martin Creed’s Work No. 850 at Tate Britain, your first response is, naturally, surprise, with a slight added frisson of danger. You’re in a museum. This means a social rule is being broken.
As you may have heard, the Turner Prize-winning artist has arranged for relays of young runners, male and female, to pelt every 30 seconds, one at a time, as fast as possible, from one end of the central Duveen Gallery to the other, while avoiding visitors. Since the stretch is only 87 metres, there’s a pause before the next sprinter appears. And, on weekdays, when there aren’t many visitors, they have a straight-ish run.
If this was happening on a track or in a park, you probably wouldn’t give it much refection. But it’s happening in an art gallery, and so – beyond being surprised – it’s right to apply some artistic considerations, and see if they’re rewarded.
For example, you can pay attention to the work’s structure. You can notice that Work No. 850 involves fixed start- and end-points, and fixed time intervals, and maximum speed – but also a variable path between these points (depending on interposing visitors) and variable pauses between each run (depending on individual speeds). And, if you’re critically inclined, you can wonder whether this is a satisfying structure. Do the 30-second intervals set up a good rhythm? Would it be improved by slower speeds? Would a marked-out visitor-free path be better? How about just a single runner? Or, even if the arrangement is as good as it can be, does this very minimally shaped experience amount to all that much?
Perhaps you feel that, just by itself, it doesn’t. But don’t walk away yet. Try another artistic gambit. Go for the big one. Try asking: what does it mean? What’s it about? Ah, now we’re talking. At any rate, Tate Britain is talking, and talking fast.
As if to forestall any possible doubts, their publicity goes into interpretative overdrive. “Work No. 850 is about the purest expression of human vitality,” it says. “This investigation into the body celebrates physicality and the human spirit, the constant ebb and flow of nature.”
Wow! In 30 words, the work is packed with meaning. How could you have missed it? It’s about vitality. It investigates the body. It celebrates physicality. It’s a metaphor for the ebb and flow of nature. And look, there’s the human spirit, as well, hovering in the air just above our heads like the Holy Ghost…
Come now. This response is wholly whimsical. Work No. 850 isn’t about any of those things. True, it involves vitality and physicality. It also involves speed, youth, risk, surprise, the social practice of running, sex differences, breathing, being fit, avoiding obstacles, following rules, breaking rules, etc. But it doesn’t focus our attention on any of them, let alone offer any reflection upon them.
Sure, you can free associate. You can say it celebrates the ebb and flow of nature. But suppose I deny that. Suppose I say it exposes the futility of human routines. Who’s right? Nobody. The work just allows either response, and many many more.
Or tell me this: if it investigates and celebrates something, is its investigation serious or superficial? Is its celebration sincere or phoney? You have no idea. I have no idea. Because it doesn’t investigate or celebrate anything. The verbs just don’t apply.
Work No. 850, I would have thought, was a rather conspicuously meaningless artwork, and none the worse for that. It has its materials, human runners and the gallery space. It has its form. It doesn’t have themes or metaphors, and to seek them is to seriously misrecognise it. And the fact that, against the odds, Tate Britain insists on seeking them suggests that powerful forces are at work.
What we’re up against here are two of contemporary art’s guiding imperatives. Rule 1) Justification by meaning: the worth and interest of a work resides in what it’s about. Rule 2) Absolute freedom of interpretation: a work is “about” anything that can, at a pinch, be said about it.
In short, meanings are arbitrary, but compulsory. And this double bind holds almost universal sway. Whenever you learn that a work explores or investigates or raises questions about something, that it’s concerned with issues around this or notions of that or debates about the other, you know you’re in its grip.
It’s weird how people can’t resist. If you want to make art sound serious, this is simply the way you do it. Read any gallery wall-caption or leaflet or catalogue, and see how long it is before the writer commends the work solely on the basis of what it’s about. And then note how it is isn’t really about that at all.
Meaning comes first – even before the work itself. At some point in the near future Antony Gormley’s project One and Other will occupy the much-discussed fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. For 100 days, 24 hours a day, a succession of volunteers will stand, for an hour each, as living statues on the plinth-top.
What will happen exactly? Goodness knows. It’s anyone’s guess. But what will it mean? Oh, we know that already, for the artist himself has explained: “Through elevation onto the plinth and removal from common ground the subjective living body becomes both representation and representative, encouraging consideration of diversity, vulnerability and the individual in contemporary society”.
And in the circumstances, pre-emptive interpretation is only to be expected. When meanings are crucial but also completely out of control, the artist had better get his meanings in first. He must make it clear his work will encourage us to consider “diversity, vulnerability and the individual” – rather than other less uplifting things, like exhibitionist tendencies among the public or messianic tendencies among artists.
One and Other is another of those works that might mean anything or nothing. But because it’s art, not life, it has to mean something. In fact, that’s pretty well what defines the difference between them.
This spring, for instance, a gadget called the Telectroscope appeared by Tower Bridge in London. It offered the public a chance to peer at a live two-way broadband video link to a spot near Brooklyn Bridge, New York. It came with a cod history. Each screen was housed in a sci-fi structure, purporting to be the entrance to a rediscovered Victorian sub-Atlantic tunnel-telescope! Whatever, you could look and wave and express yourself at people 3,000 miles away.
Was it art? I thought not. I thought it was just a fascinating public amusement like the London Eye. But it turned out it was an artwork, made by a bona-fide artist called Paul St George, – a discovery that was, frankly, a disappointment.
It wasn’t just an experience that was interesting in all sorts of ways. It was going to be about something. It was going to be raising issues or asking questions. And sure enough, as St George’s website reveals, “his practice as an artist has always been concerned with questioning the relationship between the viewer and what is being viewed.” Oh no! Suddenly the whole thing got smaller.
That’s the problem with these meanings. They’re not just highly tenuous. They’re depressingly limiting. And we should put them aside. We should stop measuring art by its meaningfulness. We should heed the wise words of Susan Sontag, written almost 50 years ago in her essay “Against Interpretation”.
“Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back on content so that we can see the thing at all. The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art – and, by analogy, our own experience – more, rather than less, real to us.”
So let lookers look. Let standers stand. Let runners run.
Decades before Marjane Satrapi drew the first frame of her celebrated comic book memoir “Persepolis,” the Iranian satirist Ardeshir Mohassess, now 69, was making black-and-white drawings whose blend of humor and reportage made him a cult figure for artists and intellectuals in his country. With rich allusions to Persian miniatures, Western artists like Goya and episodes in Iranian history, Mr. Mohassess has depicted life in Iran before, during and after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The drawings have a fanciful yet descriptive line quality, comically exaggerating facial expressions while giving full weight to bullet holes and severed limbs. Some of the meanings may be lost on American viewers, but the artist’s deep suspicion of religious and political authority comes across clearly…
Unlike a Danish newspaper’s publication of cartoons portraying the Prophet Muhammed, Mr. Mohassess’s drawings have not inspired any riots. But they did attract the attention of the shah’s dreaded secret police in the 1970s. After receiving several warnings from the Iranian authorities Mr. Mohassess relocated to New York in 1976. The move was intended to be temporary, but the revolution of 1979 prompted a change of plans…
Artists, writers, teachers and free thinkers are among the oppressed. Ironic captions — “The convict’s execution coincided with the king’s birthday ceremonies,” for example, or “Members of a birth control seminar take a memorial picture” — pick up where Mr. Mohassess’s pen leaves off.
In one of the largest and most powerful works, a wedding has been interrupted by an oil truck crashing through the wall. The guests, some in chadors and others in Western clothing, seem to have been immobilized by this turn of events. The scene is farcical except for the bodies of the toppled bride and groom and the nooses dangling overhead.
Mr. Mohassess often works from photographs, lending his scenes of executions and “accidents” a grim authenticity. In an interview in the small exhibition catalog he admits to collecting “photographs of murderers and murdered people, a habit I have had since I was 7 or 8 years old.” He also collects images from the Qajar period, a source for the feathered and jeweled headdresses and embroidered tunics worn by the loutish royals and lackeys in his art.
Several drawings that Mr. Mohassess made after the revolution imbue single figures with disturbing symbolism. In “A Letter From Shiraz” (1982) a turbaned figure draws a picture of his own amputated feet; the upturned stumps of his legs serve as pedestals for them. The garden setting signifies “paradise on earth” in traditional Persian miniature painting; here it unites creation with self-mutilation…
Given that his work is found in newspapers and magazines as well as on gallery walls, Westerners might tend to think of Mr. Mohassess, in the simplest terms, as Iran’s answer to Saul Steinberg. His drawings have been published in The New York Times as well as in the Nation and Playboy. Yet they are more ambiguous than typical op-ed illustrations and more subtle than most political cartoons. In Mr. Mohassess’s works, the coded beauty of traditional Persian art comes face to face with the ugliness of successive autocratic regimes.
New York Times
Philip Guston, the Abstract Expressionist who late in life became a painter of dark, comic images, was a great as-if artist. He wanted, he said, “to paint things as if one had never seen them before, as if one had come from another planet.” He aspired “to paint as a cave man would.”
Of course Guston (1913-1980) was no troglodyte, with all due respect to the Geico cave men. He was an erudite cosmopolitan who revered Italian Renaissance painting and counted among his friends the novelist Philip Roth, the composer Morton Feldman and the poets Stanley Kunitz and Clark Coolidge, with whom he collaborated in the 1970s on drawings combining words and images.
Yet working from primal instinct was his driving fantasy. It animated both the abstraction of his 1950s and ’60s work and the cartoon-style representations of the 70s. And as a continuing impulse it gives a powerful autobiographical momentum to a spellbinding survey of Guston’s drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum…
The show skips the first chapter of Guston’s career, the politically charged, social-surrealist paintings and murals of the 1930s and ’40s. In so doing it gives a clearer picture of the continual struggle with abstraction and representation that defined his mature art.
Its earliest drawings have fragmentary images in them: a boy who might have been drawn by Ben Shahn in a congested room in “Untitled” from 1946; a vaguely theatrical tableau in “Study for ‘Tormentors’ ” from 1947-8.
Clocks, shoes, glasses and other objects can be discerned in drawings of the early ’50s, but abstract, linear improvisation prevails. Here Guston’s drive to eliminate artifice — to get rid of his abundant traditional skills — takes over.
Despite his efforts, however, the drawings look elegant. Skittery, scrawly and staccato lines in black ink with quill pen or brushes play on loosely gridded, Cubist scaffoldings, producing a kind of suavely roughed-up Chinese calligraphy. In the late ’50s and the first half of the ’60s, the lines become more willfully clumsy and irregular. The drawings parallel the trend in Guston’s painting from atmospheric fields of colorful marks in the ’50s, which earned him the label “Abstract Impressionist,” to smudgy gray paintings of lumpy shapes in the ’60s.
In 1966 Guston stopped painting and did nothing but draw for two years. He wanted, he said, “to clear the decks.” Here the impulse to get down to basics asserts itself in rigorously spare, black ink compositions: a single vertical mark at the top of a page; two vertical lines from top to bottom; a horizontal line meeting a vertical line; a sagging, flat-bottomed circle made with short strokes as though by a careful child. In such drawings it does look as if Guston were going back to the prehistoric origins of drawing.
Then a surprising thing happened. He started making cartoonish images: a jar of brushes, pens and pencils; open books with texts represented by rows of dashes; three people in Ku Klux Klan hoods and robes.
For two years Guston oscillated between abstraction and representation, a process whose transformative flow can best be appreciated in studio photographs showing scores of drawings sequentially pinned to the walls. He finally decided in favor of representation, and so, at the end of the decade, his famous last chapter began. That final phase, from 1970 to 1980, the year he died, is given its own room at the Morgan, and it is thrilling. Suddenly all the ideas and preoccupations that abstraction had no use for come pouring out in almost 50 works of joyful graphic invention.
It begins with images of the mysterious yet funny, conspiratorial Klansmen, who are said to be symbols of political protest but are, more likely, surrogates for Guston’s own enigmatic creative self. On the other hand, the monstrous caricature of Richard M. Nixon dragging a horribly swollen, phlebitis-afflicted leg is blatantly political. But if the drawings seem at first to open up to the world, they quickly shut us into the studio with his Guston mordant anxieties about art, eating, smoking, drinking and death. And then they open up again to visionary landscapes, dreams and nightmares.
Guston still drew like a cave man in these works, but instead of basic formal elements he made archetypal images in bold, wobbly lines and, in the case of a few paintings on paper or cardboard, colored them in dull reds, fleshy pinks, pale blues and dirty grays.
He told stories of Sisyphean ennui. The beat-up, bandaged head with the big sad eye gazing uphill; the boards with nails pounded into them; the empty shoes; the man smoking in bed, staring at the ceiling: these images exude that sense of futility that almost all artists must periodically endure.
Sometimes there is the relief of simple pleasures: a pile of cherries, a sandwich, sitting with one’s wife and looking out the window at the sunset. And then there is the junk-covered hillside with the gravestone at its foot presciently marked P. G. 1980.
Today the drawings don’t look as shockingly crude as they did to critics in the 1970s. They look like the work of a brilliant cartoonist knowingly inspired by “Mutt and Jeff,” “Krazy Kat” and other classic Sunday funnies. They may appear Neanderthal, but they are the products of a sophisticated performance, a kind of method acting. The mandarin playing the stumblebum with passionate, Brando-esque conviction.
New York Times
During the recent Association of Arts Administration Educators conference here in Madison, the increasing proficiency and professionalism around our collective conversation was both a source of pride, and a cause for pause. As a field of educators, researching and teaching cultural management and leadership, we’re clearly growing in reflection, connections, and success. But what if we’re doing so at a time when the profession, as we’ve defined it, is changing rapidly? What if we’re all getting increasingly proficient at a decreasingly relevant part of the ecosystem?
Consider, for example, the three-word phrase that often crops up at such conferences: ”professional arts organization.” This phrase captures, in shorthand, the specific category of cultural endeavor we tend to be discussing. Professional arts organizations require professional management, aesthetic integrity, curatorial control, and stable but responsive structures to hold them together while moving their mission forward. These are the standards that drive our teaching and learning about the field.
But each of those three words — ”professional,” ”arts,” and ”organization” — is in radical flux at the moment. That suggests that a phrase (and an assumption) combining all three could mean less and less in shorthand form.
This concern may come from my current reading matter, Clay Shirky’s new book Here Comes Everybody, about the increasing opportunities for collective action without traditional organizational structures — think Flickr or Wikipedia or iStockPhoto. But there’s something rumbling in the world that questions our basic assumptions about arts and cultural management. Let’s take a look at each word in the phrase, in reverse order:
The formal organization (social, commercial, political, etc.) evolved in response to a set of structural barriers to collective action. Work that required more than one or a few people to complete — highway systems, national defense, mass-produced goods, save-the-spotted-owl initiatives, performing arts touring networks, museums — created large problems of coordination, alignment of resources (enough money in one place under one decision system), and high transaction costs (everyone having to agree every time…exhausting). The organization resolved these challenges through formalized decision structures, consolidated resources, and persistent identity (for example, a corporation lives separately from its founders, and is endowed with many/most of the rights of an individual). There was a cost to this structure, to be sure. A significant portion of any organization’s energy is consumed by self-maintenance rather than delivering on its purpose. Since the option was to not do the thing at all, we figured the costs were acceptable and necessary.
With the evolution of digital communications networks and software, however, many of the original challenges that required an organization are gone or significantly reduced. Collective action is increasingly available to distributed groups who don’t even know each other by name, and may convene around a cause only to disburse thereafter. The cost of production and distribution has dropped to almost zero for many goods and services. Organizations are still necessary and essential parts of the mix, but they’re not the only (or even the optimal) solution to every question, as they once were.
There’s little need to go on about this particular word, which we all would agree is a fast-moving, increasingly amorphous creature. When we talk about ”arts” in the context of ”arts management” or ”arts organizations,” we still generally mean predominantly Western forms of expression, with an assumed emphasis on technical or aesthetic excellence. We don’t always mean this, of course. But if you nudge most conversations by professionals, you’ll find this assumption just beneath the surface. Evidence comes from the fact that we still add qualifiers to the word when we mean something other than the above: ”community arts,” ”amateur arts.”
Specialized organizations in specialized industries require specialized professionals — trained in the task by formal process or apprenticeship. Professionals earn the term when they are paid for their specialized work and when the nature and frame of their efforts are defined and evaluated by their peers rather than by their customers. Professional writers define what professional writers do. Professional doctors and realtors define the parameters and certifications for their peers.
But, again, what happens to the word ”professional” when works of comparable quality and skill can be conceived, produced, and distributed without expensive or centralized means of production? Flickr has millions of exceptional images, many shot by individuals with no formal training, expecting no pay, and unfiltered by a traditional gatekeeper (curator, publisher, agent).
When reproduction, distribution, and categorization were all difficult, as they were for the last five hundred years, we needed professionals to undertake those jobs, and we properly venerated those people for the service they performed. Now those tasks are simpler, and the earlier roles have in many cases become optional, and are sometimes obstacles to direct access, often putting the providers of the older service at odds with their erstwhile patrons.
So, am I suggesting that we abandon our foundational phrase ”professional arts organization”? Of course not. As long as there are complex processes, specialized physical requirements of expression (theaters, museums, even on-line forums), and a recognition of the value of extraordinary skill, vision, and voice, we will need organizations, professionals, and filtering systems to find, foster, and connect expressive works to the world.
But we may want to recalibrate our underlying assumptions as an industry (and as educators who hope to advance that industry and its goals) about the specific role of what we now call ”professional arts organizations.” These are a subset of a massive ecology available to us to achieve our larger purpose. If we stick too rigidly to our terms, we may become obstacles to the missions we claim to have.
The Artful Manager
The following comment by Dary appeared on Taylor’s posting and is a worthwhile continuation of the argument:
I actually just saw this guy speak at a… ahem… super-dorky “Web 2.0” Conference in San Francisco. He was really, really engaging and had some pretty cool viewpoints. One of his hypotheses is that our society as a whole is coming out of an age of collective intellectual inebriation much like society did prior to the Industrial Revolution. He told a story about how rampant gin was in 19th-century England – to the point where there were gin pushcarts like our current-day ice cream carts – and how society as a whole was just drunk and lazy for decades. And then it went out of fashion, people starting doing stuff, and we got the Industrial Revolution.
He makes the analogy of that gin-soaked drunkeness to the TV-soaked stupor of the past 50 years or so. He says now people are watching less television (which I haven’t checked the numbers on) and are spending more time applying actual brain power to such things as updating Wikipedia articles, tagging sites on del.icio.us and ma.gnolia, writing blogs, and twittering (brain power optional on that one).
His views are, of course, open to debate and there’s some intriguing counter-arguments to the seemingly pristine virtues of collective intelligence.
Anyway, in terms of how Shirky’s theories and the new communal web apply to Professional Arts Organizations, I’m not exactly sure what exactly you’re getting at. With “Organizations” the web makes it easier to schedule things and get in touch with people. Of course. You don’t really redefine anything with “Arts” in terms of this new landscape except to touch on the fact that Professionals think Amateurs are lame. And with “Professional”, you argue Web 2.0 makes it easier for non-professional artists to have their material discovered? Yes, of course, again. I dunno.
What’s more interesting to me is how a larger pool of available pieces of media changes society’s collective agreement on what is worthwhile and valuable in the arts and in general. Colbert jokes about “truthiness”, but it’s actual a valid point of philosophical debate within this new worldwide, social move to open up human knowledge. It’s especially pertinent to music I think, not just in terms of what a society consumes, but how they consume it. And I go back-and-forth between whether these new aspects are wonderful and free or troubling and insulting.
Ask someone how many concerts they’ve been to vs. how many YouTube videos of concerts/pieces they’ve watched in the past year- my ratio is deplorable! And the idea that it’s now easy to create music – for $500 you can build a moderately decent home studio and create recordings of moderately decent quality – so professionals aren’t as necessary anymore is worrisome.
It’s all happened so fast I don’t think people in general have really stopped to think about what this means for our society’s appreciation of the arts and value system for judging works.
So I’m thinking out loud, but clearly this is a contentious point for me. Thoughts?
Excerpts from an interview with Spiegel magazine and Olafur Eliasson:
Spiegel: And you are about to embark on your final victory march in America. No one will be able to overlook your four gigantic waterfalls, up to 40 meters (131 feet) high, in the East River.
Eliasson: Well, people who want to see everything will have to travel all the way across the city. We’re installing these waterfalls in very different parts of New York — under the Brooklyn Bridge, for example. The water will generate a true fog everywhere, and the pumps will be very loud. After all, real waterfalls make a lot of noise.
Spiegel: But why does the city need its own Niagara Falls?
Eliasson: I was interested in bringing life to a space that constitutes a non-space in New York, a space that simply doesn’t count. Wall Street is traditionally more important there that the water. In other words, I wanted to draw attention to something that has always been there and yet goes largely unnoticed.
Spiegel: Do you always emphasize strong sensations?
Eliasson: Yes, because physical experience makes a much deeper impression than a purely intellectual encounter. I can explain to you what it’s like to feel cold, but I can also have you feel the cold yourself through my art. My goal is to sensitize people to highly complex questions.
Eliasson: Reality is confusing. That’s what I want to demonstrate. There is no fixed interpretation of my works. Everyone experiences and understands them in his own way.
Eliasson: Christo is an amazing artist. But the way he exploits his projects and markets them so extremely, that’s not my style.
Spiegel: But you too have crossed the boundary into commercialism. For instance, you designed an “Art Car” for BMW.
Eliasson: Well, I do want to participate in the world, as it is. But look at it more closely: My art isn’t exactly market-friendly. Who buys a rainbow?
Spiegel: Still, do you have the feeling sometimes that you are getting your fingers dirty? Proximity to business is frowned upon in the art world.
Eliasson: This world of art and of museums can also be unbelievably elitist. But it isn’t a parallel world, where the laws of the market are somehow suspended. Artists don’t live in a space apart from politics and the market, and in many cases they even have very good strategies to market themselves. It would be hypocritical to claim otherwise. But believe me, my fingers are clean.
Spiegel: More than two million people went to see your “Weather Project,” a colossal sun sculpture, at the Tate Modern in London four years ago last winter. The minute an artist reaches large numbers of people, he is accused of going mainstream. Is that a problem for you?
Eliasson: Appealing to many people isn’t a problem for me. I don’t happen to be one of those people who climb up on their avant-garde stools and look down on others. We should stop nurturing this naïve cliché that says artists are beings from another planet. It wasn’t God himself who hung art in museums. And yet the museum directors create precisely this detached impression. It would be much more honest to talk about the many connections and influences, because they exist. The market exists, and so do ideologies.
Spiegel: Your art, which is in tune with nature, is often associated with your native Scandinavia and its landscape.
Eliasson: Yes, but this relationship should not be understood as a key to my art. The circumstances under which I grew up in Denmark are more important than nature: in a society that was shaped by pseudo-Protestantism, and by the ideals of the middle class and the welfare state. The individual was less important than the community. Recognizing this, identifying it as a source of tension, has influenced me. Besides, it is also typically Scandinavian to think: I am nothing, and nature is everything. Of course, I too had this attitude. My parents are Icelanders, and Iceland, which I visited regularly as a child, is a unique natural experience.