Monday, October 8, 2007

"Food for the Soul"

This morning Raymond J. Learsy used his Huffington Post blog to file a report on the second National Arts Policy Roundtable, recently held at Robert Redford's Sundance Preserve. Here is his summary of the activities:

At the forefront of the discussions that lasted nearly two days, was the importance of arts to the future of the nation's competitiveness in a changing paradigm of global, economic, technical and social evolution and cultural change. That creativeness, or perhaps better understood, 'innovation,' is and will become a factor of singular significance to the quickly changing world of the 21st Century.

Under the visionary leadership of Robert L. Lynch, its CEO, a fundamental goal of the American for the Arts is the advocacy of arts education. Much of the focus of this gathering centered on the lack of arts and cultural engagement in our schools at virtually all levels. That this reality was impacting the creative capabilities of our workforce and risked our ability to compete effectively in a world where innovation critical thinking and its attendant attributes of flexibility, problem solving, innovation, entrepreneurship were not only growing exponentially in importance but were becoming key to commerce and success in a wired and in an ever flattening world. The discussions were fascinating and a comprehensive report will be issued in due course by the Americans for the Arts.

Anyone reading my blog probably knows how seriously I take the arts, particularly the performing arts; and, as a minor matter of personal history, I honestly cannot remember whether I learned to read books before or after I learned to read music. However, it is because I am so serious about the arts that it is very hard for me to respect any discussion of them that is so dominated by the newspeak (thank you, George Orwell) of a globalized world of work that we barely understand. (The ambiguity of that sentence is intentional: Because our comprehension of the world of work is so weak, our comprehension of the words we use to babble about it is totally impoverished.) The worst of those newspeak terms has to be "innovation," which should be evident by the flood of equally hollow terms that emerge in its wake in the second paragraph I selected to cite. This takes us to the next paragraph in Learsy's account:

Much of the discussion surrounded "the arts" as a viable tool that would help our workforce be more productive and adapted to the exigencies of 21st century. Questions raised were how to disseminate and inculcate this message to hierarchal groups and to enlist their help. That is to help persuade government and educational institutions to introduce arts education into the curriculum of our schools from kindergarten through college. So that indeed, the arts and its attendant creativity could become a mainstay of our educational experience and thereby helping us as a society to embrace the arts on both a personal and national level.

That first sentence is the real killer. Anyone who talks about "a viable tool that would help our workforce be more productive and adapted to the exigencies of 21st century" is talking about technology, at least subconsciously, if not explicitly. This is the language of solving problems; and the very suggestion that art solves problems is a naive misconception that, in the past, has sometimes had tragic consequences. My favorite example is the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. His supporters said that he sincerely believed that, if Hitler heard Beethoven's ninth enough times, he would finally come around to appreciate that universal brotherhood of man behind the text "Alle Menschen werden Brüder;" and, on the basis of my own probes into Furtwängler's life and work, I have no reason to doubt that sincerity.

Learsy provided a take on an interesting anecdote to conclude his post:

A story was repeated at the conference of an especially revealing moment experienced by staff member of the Americans for the Arts, Randy Cohen, its VP . It is worthy of retelling. The Americans for the Arts were visited by a delegation of Russians on a fact finding mission, to learn about the methodology of support for our arts institutions. The Russian delegation was responsible for the fiscal well-being of myriad institutions ranging from the Bolshoi, to Moscow's and regional theaters and museums. With Russia's expanding cultural programs, money, as everywhere in the cultural world was a problem. Asked by one their hosts, what were the ticket prices to the concert halls, theaters and museums under their organizational umbrella? They responded with a touch of pride, "well, about the cost of a cup of coffee." Aha, was the almost automatic response, "why not raise your ticket prices, after all they seem very low compared to ours."

At the end of the table, a rather burly Russian stood up, placing the palms of his hands on the table, hunched forward, and intoned "You must understand, in Russia art is food for our soul. We would never do anything to keep it from our people." Hello America, hello Washington, hello state capitols. Are you listening!?

That final question should be directed at the National Arts Policy Roundtable, itself, before firing it at the upper echelons of government. Was there anything in all that utilitarian language than indicated even the most rudimentary grasp of a concept like "food for the soul?" Indeed, I found it interesting that none of the participants in Learsy's account were practicing artists (with the possible exception of Robert Redford, who seemed to be serving more as host than as participant).

However, that "rather burly Russian" understood something else about "food for the soul" that goes far beyond the Roundtable's agenda. He spoke from a cultural context that appreciated that appreciation for the arts needs to be tightly coupled to the rest of the educational process. On the basis of Learsy's account, it appears that the Roundtable chose to overlook the ugly truth that we have a badly hemorrhaging educational system desperate to sacrifice as much as it can just to make ends meet; and the arts tend to be the first discipline to go when the budget gets cut down to the bone. Yes, I think it is wonderful that we have advocacy for arts education; but, unless those advocates make active and aggressive contributions to the healing of the entire educational system (which can feed the soul with not just the arts but all the other benefits of a liberal education), the points they make are likely to be perceived as gratuitous (at best) or elitist (at worst). Hello, Robert Lynch, are you listening?

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