Excerpts of my letter to Drew McManus (much of which is covered in the entry prior to this) and his answers appear today on Adaptistration.
This weekend I came across a couple articles that illustrate the effect of national cultural policy upon a nation. The first was an article from the Minnesota Star-Tribune entitled “Music Education Permeates Finnish Society.” Essentially the article attributes all the exposure and value placed on classical music by the Finns as the reason why there is such a high concentration of musical talent there despite having a national population only slightly larger than Minnesota’s. My favorite part of the article is a comment by an American visitor that he watched 3 television channels one evening. Two had concerts and the third was carrying a debate about whether to build another orchestra hall. In a couple of articles I have quoted, the authors have said orchestras should stop blaming the disappearance of music education from schools as a reason for falling attendance. On the other hand, clearly education and exposure can’t hurt attendance.
The second article I came across was discussing the effect of focusing cultural policy on diversity. While the piece refers to British policy, I saw a number of parallels with the US cultural landscape. As much as I believe diversity is going to be a major influence on cultural programming in the US, I take this article as a warning about the negative aspects.
In the article, “Art for Inclusion’s Sake”, the author, Josie Appleton, believes that by rejecting the old methods for approaching art, current policy has also discarded some valuable principles. The author illustrates this by tracing cultural policy from the 19th century. She notes that Parliment was motivated to fund the creation of the National Gallery by the idea that exposure to the finer things would defuse the unrest among the masses. “In 1841, a Commons select committee saw art as a ‘means of moral and intellectual improvement for the people’. The view was that ‘men cease to become mob when they get a taste’. The National Gallery, said Peel, would help by ‘cementing those bonds of union between the richer and poorer orders of the state’.” The National Gallery was therefore placed centrally in London so that both rich and poor would have easy access.
She notes that the elite was acting in its own self-interest to avoid rebellion and were presenting objects that exemplified their ideal of beauty but there was also an egalitarian sentiment. There was a presumption that everyone possessed the intellect to enjoy and understand the art pieces regardless of social standing or ethnic background.
However, in the 1960s and 70s, the idea that there was a universally shared ideal of beauty began to erode. The concept instead was:
All claims to cultural value were merely the personal opinions of a white middle-class male elite, foisted on to the population in order to maintain power structures. A cultural democracy, by these terms, was a society in which everybody was able to express their opinion and create according to their taste. Only by getting rid of value judgements could culture serve everybody’s needs.
As the 80s arrived, the onus was on cultural institutions to justify their existence in economic terms. This is still very much a factor in the US where organizations justify the value in regard to how much money they bring to the community by their operations and via what patrons spend on food, lodging and gas when they visit. Even the current mania to become one of Richard Florida’s Creative Communities is more about bringing economic prosperity rather than an excitement about how much beauty and truth will enter one’s life as cultural activities become available.
During this time, Appleton says, there was such a push to have art mean as many things to as many people as possible, art lost its meaning altogether.
If you value a painting only because it can tackle unemployment or improve self-esteem, then you have no idea what it is really worth. It’s all about context, about the way in which you are using the painting, rather than the painting itself. ‘Cultural diversity’ policy blossomed as an expression of this situation. Uncertain about how to evaluate artefacts, cultural institutions celebrate difference as an end in itself. ‘Diversity’ here is really a metaphor for cultural disorientation.
She notes that museums have begun putting pieces by the Old Master’s into storage and have started asking people to bring in objects from their own lives and are putting them on display. The aim is to provide a sense of worth to a person by acknowledging that their belongings have some value. “Because cultural institutions no longer believe in cultural value, their collections of Rembrandt and Constable look shamefully narrow and exclusive. By collecting the most everyday things from the most marginalised in society, museums are engaging in self-admonishment, castigating themselves for once being so high and mighty.”
She notes that by using piece of art and artifacts define personal meaning, museums are actually working counter to diversity. If an object is used to learn more about ourselves, we aren’t learning anything about the others who made it, what their lives were like and how they contributed to our current existence. It is self-centered rather than contributing to empathy with people different from ourselves.
This result almost sounds like Orwellian newspeak–“Self-Centeredness is Diversity.” It is this along with an unintentional disempowerment of the participant I see as most worrisome and something to be wary of as arts organizations move into the future. Appleton says:
“This policy also has a low view of its visitors. The assumption is that visitors are uninterested in or unable to learn about the world. Each person is seen as trapped within his or her own private bubble, in constant need of affirmation and recognition. The idea seems to be that if people fail to see their reflection in exhibitions they will feel worthless and excluded…The image is of people wandering around aimlessly, unsure of their right to exist until their family photographs are valued by the museum. With this view of their visitors, it’s no surprise that museums have put the Great Masters in the backroom.”
Another criticism she has for diversity focused policy is that it shifts the criteria for success away from attracting large crowds to attracting large crowds with a certain color skin. For example, “Islamic art is not valued for its intricate, proportioned design, or because it provides us with an insight into one of the great historic civilisations; it is valued because it gets the right kind of punters through the doors.” She asserts that this engenders a segregationist mentality that demeans the intellect and curiousity of different racial groups by assuming they are only interested in collections that reflect their background and experience and wouldn’t understand or care for pieces connected to other traditions.
The situation in England provides some lessons for arts organizations in the US. In a pursuit of diversifying and expanding our audiences, we certainly need to provide a product that is accessible and appealing to our communities on more than a token basis. The most enthusiastic audiences are those who have a relative performing. The problem isn’t just that we can’t possibly present something that has some personal relevance to everyone in the audience. The problem is also that when people come to see their relatives, they aren’t paying attention to how well the show is done or thinking about the themes it is communicating. You aren’t engaged in audience building activities when you program with an eye to pleasing niches. The niche disappears from the seats when the element significant to them disappears from the stage.
This is why education programs like Drew McManus’ docent proposal are so important. Audiences need to be provided with insights into the value contributed by all the nieces and nephews involved with a piece. As the public is able to make choices on television, radio, and the internet that reinforce an increasingly narrow worldview, the arts may end up being the last forum in which a dialogue about wider issues can be presented.