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In 1989, the American poet Dana Gioia lobbed a grenade into the cosy world of the US creative-writing industry. His essay, “Can Poetry Matter?”, spoke wittily and despairingly of “poets” graduating from courses who teach and produce fresh multitudes of versifiers, publish in the same magazines and reverently review one another’s books, most written in the same chopped-up free verse that has been the favoured form in the States since the 1950s.
Jay Parini admits in the opening line to his new book that “poetry doesn’t matter to most people”. Unfortunately, he doesn’t tell us why, or why it should, or what we should do about it. He gives us a tour of poetic theory, from Aristotle to Derrida, and chapters on metaphor, voice and language. He offers worthy sentiments. “The language of poetry can save us”: how, and from what? “Poetry is useful because it draws us closer to the earth.” But one of the reasons why people have turned away – only a couple of generations since Dylan Thomas and Robert Frost could pack halls in the US – is given by Parini’s admiring quotation from Mary Oliver: “There isn’t a place/ in this world that doesn’t/ sooner or later drown/ in the indigos of darkness”. The poem, Parini says, “invites comparison with such poems as John Donne’s ‘Death Be Not Proud’.” It may do, but not to its advantage.
So why does poetry matter? One reason is that many people still enjoy some sorts of poetry. The one sort they have never liked is the sort they are told to like. Parini falls into the error of assuming that “free” verse is somehow more genuine than formal. But some of the most gifted of American poets (Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht and Gioia himself) have used the controlled music and passion of formal measures. None is mentioned here.
It is obvious that Parini has a great love of poetry and regrets that more people do not share it, but his book might have had more impact as a polemical essay prefacing a powerful anthology of modern poems. Not to despair. Shakespeare still fills theatres and some contemporary poets have large and enthusiastic followings. The trouble, particularly in academic America, is that too many poets decided long ago that what they did was not for the general public, and that public, silently, but with some sorrow, agreed and went away.
Art is like that these days – available, reaching out, no longer content with sitting in quiet corners waiting for our epiphanies. Waiting is out, luring is in.
It is certainly working. Last Monday, 20,516 people visited the British Museum, and its annual figure is now at 6.03m, a step change from the 4.5m-5.5m visits of the past five years. Visits to national museums as a whole have risen about 16% over the past four years. Tate Modern had 100,000 visits over the Long Weekend and is running at 5.2m visitors a year. Other museums have had more spectacular leaps. The V&A jumped 138% in the five years to 2006, but this was primarily due to the ending of admission charges in 2001. Whatever the cause, the new reality is that art and heritage have taken on a central place in a leisure economy previously dominated by sport and Thorpe Park. In that role, for good or ill, art finds itself playing by different rules…
The metaphysics of art do not inhabit the contemporary vernacular. We don’t know what it is because we haven’t got the language. The fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square makes the point. We can’t agree what to put on it, so we hand it over to a succession of artists. Currently, it has Thomas Schütte’s Model for a Hotel 2007, which looks feeble from a distance. The next one is being chosen from a shortlist, only one of which, Anish Kapoor’s Sky Plinth, makes any attempt to engage with the space and the plinth itself. Bob and Roberta Smith’s Make Art, Not War is so glib, I can’t actually believe it’s seriously being considered. Empty, the plinth attests to the metaphysical void once inhabited by art.
Down at the Science Museum, I can barely move for the giant baby buggies. This is where you go with children on a rainy bank holiday. It has everything: interactivity, weird stuff and gee-whizzery on a huge scale. It does it well. No wonder – the current director is Chris Rapley, one of the best scientists we have. At the moment, however, there is an oddity lurking on the first floor. This is Listening Post, a work of art more than science, by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin. It consists of a wall of tiny dot-matrix screens, across which flow and shimmy fragments taken from internet chatrooms. The words are also spoken by a neutral voice. The work shifts through different themes and rhythms, giving it a symphonic aspect.
It is superb. The New York Times critic rightly said it suggested a chapel of the age of communication. It has two big problems, however. First, it is partly disturbing, suggesting loneliness and anxiety. Second, you need to sit there in the half-dark, quietly doing nothing, silent and still. That’s what I did and, in the midst of the buggy-infested Science Museum on a wet bank holiday Monday, I was – entirely and at last – alone.
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?
One more take on the now over-discussed topic of Aliza Shvarts’s senior project at Yale…
It is often said that great achievement requires in one’s formative years two teachers: a stern taskmaster who teaches the rules and an inspirational guru who teaches one to break the rules. But they must come in that order. Childhood training in Bach can prepare one to play free jazz and ballet instruction can prepare one to be a modern dancer, but it does not work the other way around. One cannot be liberated from fetters one has never worn; all one can do is to make pastiches of the liberations of others. And such seems to be the case with Ms. Shvarts.
In “My Life Among the Deathworks,” the sociologist Philip Rieff coined the term “deathworks” to describe works of art that celebrated creative destruction, and which posed “an all-out assault upon something vital to the established culture.” He argued that the principal artistic achievements of the 20th century were such deathworks, which, however lovely or brilliant, served primarily to negate or transgress the existing culture, rather than to affirm or celebrate it. He did not live to see Ms. Shvarts’s piece, but one suspects that he would have had much to say.
Mr. Rieff was especially interested in those who treated their bodies as an instrument of art, especially those who used them in masochistic or repugnant ways. By now, it is hardly an innovation to do so. Nearly two generations have passed since Chris Burden had a bullet fired into his body. It is even longer since the Italian artist Piero Manzoni sold tin cans charmingly labeled Merde d’artista, which contained exactly that. Even Ms. Shvarts’s central proposition — that the discomfort we feel at the word miscarriage is itself a species of linguistic oppression — is a relic of the highly politicized literary theory of the late 1980s. As she wrote in an op-ed published in last Friday’s Yale Daily News:
“The reality of miscarriage is very much a linguistic and political reality, an act of reading constructed by an act of naming — an authorial act. It is the intention of this piece to destabilize the locus of that authorial act, and in doing so, reclaim it from the heteronormative structures that seek to naturalize it.”
In other words, one must act to shatter the rigid lattice of categories that words impose upon us. Although the accompanying jargon is fashionable (or was a few years ago), it is essentially a portentous recycling of the idea behind Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 urinal, which became a “Fountain” when he declared it so.
Immaturity, self-importance and a certain confused earnestness will always loom large in student art work. But they will usually grow out of it. What of the schools that teach them? Undergraduate programs in art aspire to the status of professional programs that award MFA degrees, and there is often a sense that they too should encourage the making of sophisticated and challenging art, and as soon as possible. Yale, like most good programs, requires its students to achieve a certain facility in drawing, although nowhere near what it demanded in the 1930s, when aspiring artists spent roughly six hours a day in the studio painting and life drawing, and an additional three on Saturday.
Given the choice of this arduous training or the chance to proceed immediately to the making of art free of all traditional constraints, one can understand why all but a few students would take the latter. But it is not a choice that an undergraduate should be given. In this respect — and perhaps only in this respect — Ms. Shvarts is the victim in this story.
Wall Street Journal
Bruce Nauman describes his place in art this way:
“I think that it’s not knowing what’s coming or what art is supposed to be or how you’re supposed to go about being an artist that keeps it interesting. It’s going into the studio and finding out what seems to be available or not. It’s almost, in a sense, a philosophical kind of quest, but on the other hand the reason I became an artist was because I like to make things. Sometimes they help each other out, and sometimes they get in each other’s way.”
As the political theater season kicks into full swing in Iowa tonight, I’m struck by the pervasiveness of contrived events — events designed and delivered specifically to be reported on and YouTubed and blogged. Way back in the 1960s, historian Daniel Boorstin labeled these as ”pseudo-events,” voicing concern even then about their impact on our collective experience of community. As Boorstin defined it, a pseudo-event had the following characteristics (from The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America):
1. It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it. Typically, it is not a train wreck or an earthquake, but an interview.
2. It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced. Therefore, its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media. Its success is measured by how widely it is reported…
3. Its relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous. Its interest arises largely from this very ambiguity. Concerning a pseudo-event the question, ‘What does it mean?’ has a new dimension. While the news interest in a train wreck is in what happened and in the real consequences, the interest in an interview is always, in a sense, in whether it really happened and in what might have been the motives. Did the statement really mean what it said? Without some of this ambiguity a pseudo-event cannot be very interesting.
4. Usually it is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The hotel’s thirtieth-anniversary celebration, by saying that the hotel is a distinguished institution, actually makes it one.
We can all wring our hands at the fact that pseudo-events now comprise the large majority of our media experiences. But the more compelling question for me (at least for this blog) is how cultural managers should respond to the dominance of false reality. We are, after all, purveyors of contrived content — often meticulously planned, scripted, crafted, practiced, and delivered to exacting standards. What distinguishes our work from the larger social theater of politics, of marketing, of media?
Back in a 2000 essay in the New York Times, playwright Tom Donaghy called this very question for his peers in the live theater. In a world of reality television and ”realness” in the commercial media, what’s the unique and powerful role of live cultural experience? Thankfully, he answered his own question:
[It is theater’s singular power] to contemplate our collective reality; as audience, actor and story engage in an unspoken discussion of what reality is, how definitions of reality can be broadened. Theater affords this opportunity like no other medium, as actors and audiences breathe side by side, together engendering the spiritual and meditative power that that shared experience implies.
In the end, we’re all wielding the same tools to construct the experiences and events we offer to the world. The difference is in the intent and purpose with which we wield them.
The Artful Manager
The “cultural elite” brought up on opera and the higher arts, which supposedly turns up its nose at anything as vulgar as a pop song or mainstream television, does not exist, according to research published by Oxford University academics…
For this exercise, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, they divided people into four groups – univores, who only like popular culture; omnivores, who like everything from opera to soap opera; paucivores, who absorb very little culture; and inactives, who absorb practically none.
People’s education, income and social class were all taken into account but this study, unlike others of its kind, differentiated between “class” and “status”. An out-of-work aristocrat has class, without status, while there are bright people from poor backgrounds who have “status” but not “class”…
Class, as opposed to status, does not seem to have much effect on cultural tastes. “A substantial minority of members of the most advantaged social groups are univores or inactives,” the researchers found.
Dr Chan [of Oxford University] said: “Our work shows it’s education and social status, not social class that predict cultural consumption in the UK, and broadly comparable results were obtained from other countries too.”
In the 1950s, at the dawn of TV, the medium’s pioneers believed that television would be the great democratizer – exposing culture to the masses…Of course we all know it didn’t stay that way, and TV became the ultimate engine for gathering up huge audiences for something considerably different than the “high” culture originally envisioned.
But the fact that anyone thought that high culture would be the best use for this mass medium is interesting. When the National Endowment for the Arts was set up in the 1960s, its founders were thinking along the same lines. The biggest problem in American culture, they thought, was making great art available to everyone. Forty-plus years on, I think we can say that the arts-for-all crowd has succeeded spectacularly.
In 1950 there was only one full time orchestra in America. In 1965, there were only three state arts commissions. Now there are 18 full 52-week orchestras, and more than 3,000 arts commissions at the local and state levels. The 1990s were the biggest expansion of arts activity in American history; we went on a construction binge, building more than $25 billion worth of new museums, theatres, concert halls and cultural centers. Since 1990, almost one-third of all American museums have expanded their facilities. Major American museums such as the Met and the Museum of Modern Art are now so crowded the experience of visiting them has degraded.
The number of performing arts groups is up 48 percent since 1982. Last year American music schools graduated more than 14,000 students, and new fine art academies are popping up all over and overflowing with students. There are more than 250,000 choruses in America – that’s choruses, not people in choruses. That means that more than four million people a week are getting together to sing. There are at least that many book clubs. Opera attendance is up 40 percent since 1990…Culture is a $166 billion industry, accounts for 5.7 million jobs and is America’s top export…Going to the ballet or opera or museum is hardly an everyday experience for most Americans. But then, what is? Baseball might be experiencing record attendance, but wide swaths of the population are indifferent to it. TV may still dominate the average America’s entertainment diet, but what they’re watching has diversified.
I’m not making an argument that the arts are the new mass culture. I’m not even arguing that the audience for classical music rivals that for the pop star du jour. My point is this: Since most culture is defined in part by its relationships with the other cultures around it, if mass culture is losing its ability to gather huge audiences, and arts culture is growing, the relationship between the two needs some redefinition. In a crowd of pygmies, the arts have a different relationship to commercial culture and, I believe, the ramifications are significant.
The refreshing lack of dogmatism among the new generation of composers seems to have spread to audiences as well. The brilliant pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard segues from Beethoven to Boulez, from Liszt to Ligeti on the same program, and today’s audiences just follow along, open to everything. As Elliott Carter, the dean of modernist composers, approaches his 99th birthday, he keeps challenging us with complex and ingenious new scores and is cheered by young and old at every premiere.
New York Times