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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.”


Eric Booth
Springboard for the Arts