February 2014
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Executive Director's Column
Talking about Art
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Executive Director's Column
Talking about Art
Jonathan Katz

I've participated in several strategic forums on the future of the arts and arts education. One was convened by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and another by the Cultural Data Project with sponsorship from Bloomberg Philanthropies; a third was part of the Arts Education Partnership planning process. In each, there was discussion of the fact that there is all too often a difference between what the word art means to those who steward and advocate for the arts and what it means to others.

I was reminded how useful it is to remember that the word art means many different things to different people, depending on what they have experienced and how their experiences have been framed to them. Art can be understood as: 

  • a visual, performance-based, literary or media product; an artifact such as a painting or a play
  • the market and market value of artifacts
  • the industry that produces one or more kinds of artifact or sensory experience as its product
  • the sensory competencies and artifacts used by workers to produce any goods and services
  • a distinctive kind of sensory engagement with an artifact, such as that of an audience, reader or collector
  • a creative process of sensory exploration, such as composing or choreography
  • a set of competencies that might be studied in an academic curriculum, including skills such as creating, performing, appreciating and criticizing, as well as areas of knowledge, such as history, biography and aesthetic theory
  • applying sensory competencies to problem solving, such as design, architecture and environmental planning
  • the history of the forms, traditions and conventions of visual, performance-based, literary and media expression
  • communal/community experience creating or interacting with visual, performance-based, literary or media artifacts

Any of these meanings in any combination may be what someone who says the word art means to convey. Any of these meanings may be something a given individual has experienced, has not experienced, has experienced by another name, recalls as a positive experience or recalls as a negative experience.

As advocates, it's important to remind ourselves of the many referents the word art can have so we can identify the kind of art the individuals who make up our stewards, our authorizers and our constituents have the collective will to support. Also, for some individuals, a bad experience or association with one kind of art can accidentally result in the rejection of other kinds that would otherwise be perceived as favorable or that have not yet been experienced. If we don't clarify what we are talking about precisely, we run the risk of missing opportunities to find common values.

In various places and circumstances, we will have to make calculated decisions about whether we can—through basic education or other means—familiarize people with favorable experiences they recognize as "art" or can find other vocabulary to sustain the public value of all the wonderful meaning that the arts can bring to our individual, family and community lives. It is not unusual for the focus groups and polling that precede public referenda for tax support of arts and other cultural organizations, such as libraries, or other causes, such as the conservation of natural resources, to find that the word arts will not get a favorable response from voters. We hear of surveys where people who go to performances in parks, frequent art museums, and attend school musicals and plays answer that they do not participate in the arts. In some states, leaders of the state arts agency have determined that their purpose and public value will be better perceived if they are conveyed by words other than art.

Princeton sociologist Paul DiMaggio has described compellingly "the process by which urban elites forged an institutional system embodying their ideas about the high arts" between 1850 and 1900.* His analysis of the emerging wealthy class of Americans adopting certain European artistic traditions as their own, part of their aspiration to the equivalence of royalty, goes a long way toward explaining why, after a century and a half, many Americans express the sense that "art" is not familiar, comfortable or meant for them. To this I would add the evolution of traditions of art from realism and lyricism (easily understood by unschooled as well as schooled observers) to more esoteric, abstract, dissonant and self-referential aesthetics that challenge long-established notions of verisimilitude, harmony of parts and beauty.

We will have to learn to communicate more effectively the particular contribution of the arts and arts learning to creativity, problem solving, imagination and innovation, just as we have gotten better at communicating the particular contribution of the arts to prosperity and, with the recent adoption by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) of its new Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account, to U.S. gross domestic product (see slides and resources from NASAA's recent web seminar on this BEA initiative with the National Endowment for the Arts [NEA]).

We also must pay attention to the practical and sometimes political consequences of definitions. A "fine arts" curriculum requirement has been defined universally to mean music, visual art, drama and dance so that the standard offering of an English-language arts class cannot be passed off as providing an arts education. This is perfectly understandable, but it means that if we want our children to learn poetry and other genres of creative writing, a fine arts requirement will not get that job done; we have to fight that battle for inclusion within the English-language arts standards. Researchers and funders commonly refer to the "benchmark arts," by which they generally mean the more traditional forms of participation in the arts that are reflected in the longest-standing NEA program areas and which have been the focus of NEA Survey of Public Participation in the Arts studies since 1982, such as jazz and classical music concerts, opera, plays, ballet, and visits to art museums or galleries. Again, there are practicalities that have led to this usage, but they can pose challenges for those proposing study and funding of media arts, folk and non-European art forms, and multi-arts expression.

I've come to believe that our strategic program and operations planning has much less chance of success without complementary communication planning, which includes strategic choice of vocabulary, slogan and logo. For instance, I think that the goal of appropriate value and resources for arts learning in American education will be realized only when language becomes commonplace that recognizes the reality that numeracy, literacy and sensory imagery are each essential symbol systems and means of understanding and expression through which students learn everything, and are therefore of comparable importance. I also think that while our slogan for the goal of American education is "college and career preparation" and not "college, career and civic preparation," it will continue to be easy for educators to undervalue the role of the arts in empowering the development of individual voices—that essential preparation for participation in a democracy. Asking what language can help us achieve our goals and what language will indicate we are achieving our goals is a valuable exercise. As always, your comments, questions and suggestions are welcome.

* DiMaggio, Paul. "Cultural Entrepreneurship in Nineteenth-Century Boston: The Creation of an Organizational Base for High Culture in America," Media, Culture and Society, 1982, 4, 33-50.
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