Is Artistic Authority Being Eroded?

I was glancing at an interview with Arti Prashar on Arts Professional UK site as she departs her position at Spare Tyre Theatre Company. I had come for the title of the article, “Exit interview: ‘We’re asked to follow a business model that just doesn’t work'” but it was something else that really caught my attention.

She says,

“…I began to observe, slowly but surely, that the authority of artists was being eroded. I wasn’t having that, so I negotiated becoming the Artistic Director and CEO.”

It struck me that she felt she needed to become CEO in order to retain authority. (Her first 8 years at Spare Tyre was as Artistic Director.) It made me wonder if this was the case globally outside of the UK. I suspect it is.

I have discussed the problems with the sentiment that “arts should be run more like a business,” in a number of blog posts over the years. I wonder now if that concept, combined with the sense that artists should be more business minded might be contributing to the erosion of artists’ authority.

Artists should definitely be knowledgeable enough to monitor the health of their own careers so that their work is not exploited by others. But if an artist is not perceived as possessing authority in their own realm independent of their business acumen, that is troubling.

Prashar doesn’t give specific examples of how she felt artists’ authority was being eroded. As I thought about how this problem might manifest, I began to wonder if this was actually related to the question of why we value art.

If an artist doesn’t feel they have the authority to say a work has value on its own, but needs to cite relevance in connection with social and political movements to convince others it has value, that may be just as problematic as economic impact and ability to raise test scores being the only rationale for granting funding.

You may be thinking that these elements are all important for getting people to participate in an event or other opportunity. People need to either perceive something is relevant to them or is worth their time and money as part of their decision to be present.

But can an artist walk into a room and say this thing is important and worth doing and be believed simply based on their authority as an artist? If not, why?

Is it because we have come to doubt or suspect their authority to make that statement despite 15 years of practice?

If I walk in and say the same thing is important and worth doing because 1000 people will pay $50, do you doubt my authority to make that statement? Do you think to inquire how much experience I have in making these predictions if I am waving a spreadsheet around instead of a violin bow?

Seeing Our Stories Told: The Hero At The End of Your Story Is The Victim At The Start of Mine

I saw a movie this weekend which embodied so much of what we talk about when we discuss empowering people to tell their stories and prominently displaying their stories.

In documentary Liyana, South African storyteller Gcina Mhlophe works with orphans in Swaziland to create a story as a way to help them process their trauma. As they go to work on creating the story, it is depicted in a gorgeous storybook illustration/animation. (Much to my surprise, there isn’t a print book. They are working on turning into a graphic novel.)

The film cuts back and forth between the animation, the orphans working with the storyteller, and telling Liyana’s story to interviewers. It is difficult to say which is more animated since the children (looking to be between 6-9 years old) narrate the action of the story with expansive gestures and vocalized sound effects.

The storyteller guides the children through a process that one might use in a U.S. classroom as part of a multi-disciplinary approach to instruction. (Unfortunately, a school in the U.S. would have to use “multi-disciplinary” as a rationale for engaging in such a time intensive project.)

Once they decide to name their hero Liyana, they assemble a picture of her from a collection of magazines. The children create animals out of mud (with much greater skill than I did as a kid) to represent the bull that accompanies Liyana on her quest to retrieve her twin brothers and the hyenas and crocodiles which threaten them on their journey. The illustration of the imaginary final monster closely resembles something they created from discarded metal found near the orphanage.

Unfortunately, Liyana’s life is a reflection of that of the orphans. Her father beats her mother and then both parents die of complications of the HIV virus, leaving her and her twin brothers in the care of their grandmother. We are told that of the 1.2 million people living in Swaziland, 200,000 are infected with HIV. Later we see the orphans being tested for the virus at a clinic.

Near the end, the children talk about how real life does not have a happy ending like many stories do. Part of me was hoping they had been coached to say that or things had been edited in that manner but I suspect that was a lesson they had already learned too well in their young lives.

Earlier in the movie, the storyteller asks them to decide why Liyana must leave her grandmother to make a journey. The first suggestion was that grandmother was sick and Liyana had to get medicine but the vote ultimately favored robbers came and kidnapped her twin brothers. I was wondering why they would choose the more severe of the two options when we learned the orphanage had recently been the target of a violent robbery. There were audible gasps and groans in the theater as the orphans calmly talked about how the robbers came in, held Liyana down and abused her.

It was a beautiful example of storytelling and story making. In addition to the more traumatic elements the process was meant to help the orphans deal with, you could easily identify the association between elements of the story and their lives.

Liyana is accompanied on her quest by a noble bull because the orphans care for cows and chickens. A grove of mango trees represented a life of ease that tempted Liyana from completing her quest because the orphans reveled in climbing mango trees and letting the juice run down their faces. It was the voice of a peacock sounding like Liyana’s grandmother that got her back on task.

I don’t want to give it away, but if there was anything that illustrated the value of people telling and seeing their own stories, it was the ending. For the children and the audience, it was a happy ending because it reflected an idealized vision of lives they could lead.

But in the U.S. the same basic scenario is synonymous with misery and is the starting point of many stories that the hero seeks to overcome. If the same storytelling program was run with orphans in the U.S. there would be a very different ending.


Arts Not An Indulgence When So Many Social Justice Issues Need Attention

Apparently Vu Le of Nonprofit AF blog spoke at Association of California Symphony Orchestras last week. (those lucky dogs) In his post this week, he addresses the question about whether arts and culture have value when there are so many health and social justice problems that need to be attention. As the executive director of a social justice non-profit, he knows very well just how much organizations like his need funding and attention.

He says yes, arts and culture definitely play an important role in society and helping to address the problems we face. He mentions that as an immigrant from Vietnam, both music and art saved his life and made him feel valuable when he was doing poorly in school due to his lack of English literacy.

“I began to look forward to the art projects. For so long I had sucked at everything that required English, including gym (I could not understand the rules of various activities, like volleyball). With art, I felt competent and respected and sure of myself. My being good at something changed the way the other kids saw me. Art motivated me to continue to learn, to explore. It gave me confidence. It kept me in school.”

In blog posts throughout the years, I have often pointed out that people turn to art, music, theater, etc to help them cope with tragedy and difficulty in their lives. But of course, as a person in the arts, I am predisposed to look for those connections. So I was happy to read that Le had observed similar situations.

He is definitely aware of all the places arts and cultural organizations fall short of serving all segments of their communities. But he disputes the argument that the arts are indulgent in when there is such need in the world and expresses gratitude for the work arts practitioners do.  As long as the following excerpt is, a number of his expressions of gratitude are edited out so it is worth reading the whole post just for that.

I’m telling you these stories because when there is so much going on, so many problems to solve, sometimes we think of art and music as indulgent. Who has time for singing and dancing and stained-glass snowflakes when kids are starving or locked in cages? By thinking this way, we forget about art and music’s power to heal, mobilize, build community, and so much more.


Art and music are critical in our work for social justice, as frequently they are the only things that can reach people, that can provide comfort or generate the visceral, raw emotions needed for social change. After the election in 2016, when many families and children were terrified, Families of Color Seattle gathered the kids and used art—having the kids draw themselves as superheroes, for example—to help them process their feelings. And this year protesters in Hong Kong, are singing “Do You Hear the People Sing” from Les Miserables as they do a sit-in at the airport.

Yes, there are plenty of things to improve on. Art and music are not always accessible to marginalized communities. Resources are not equitably distributed to artists of color, artists with disability, LGBTQ artists. And in public schools, art and music programs are always the first to get cut, and the schools with the most low-income kids and kids of color are disproportionately affected. Symphonies, orchestras, ballets, and other art forms continue to struggle with diversity and community engagement.

While we work on those challenges, though, let’s take a moment to appreciate the organizations and professionals who are creating art and music, whose skills and dedication bring beauty and hope and happiness to a world sorely in need of it.

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ VR Headsets

On Saturday, the Knight Foundation will be issuing a call “for ideas exploring how arts institutions can present immersive experiences to engage audiences” (disclosure: Knight Foundation has funded projects for my day job and supports tons of stuff in my community.)

In the announcement, Knight Foundation staffer Chris Barr writes about how virtual and augmented reality is already being used by arts organizations on an experimental basis.

From digital overlays of  museum spaces and VR interpretations of surreal landscapes, to artistic interpretations of climate change and digital recreations of fragile Cuban sculpture, artists, museums and other arts institutions are experimenting with these emerging technologies.

What they are looking for is projects in which technologists, companies and artists will partner with museums and performing arts organizations to explore some of the following ideas:

We hope to find innovative uses for this technology, new approaches for moving audiences through these experiences, and opportunities to engage new and diverse audiences.

How can these technologies help us reach new people? How do we make the experience before, during and after putting on a headset delightful? How do we service these experiences efficiently? How should these experiences be distributed and exhibited? How can this new form of storytelling be used for more inclusive stories? How can we use immersive tech to expand the reach of the arts beyond physical locations?

One thing I appreciated was that in asking how to make the experience before, during and after delightful,  they seem to understand that it is the entire experience and not just the technology that provides value.

As much as many of us, myself included, might resent the way the growing prevalence of technology/media is encroaching upon and competing with our practice, this is an opportunity to proactively be part of a conversation and effort at the genesis of the concept and application. The alternative is the current situation where you react to the emergence of a technology or trend.

Which is not to say that anything one might contribute to won’t quickly evolve and be used in a manner you hadn’t intended or conceived. How many of us knew a boxy cellphone would evolve to the point it replaced a watch, iPod, television and even voice conversations are moving to the margins.

When I saw the mention of “putting on a headset” in the passage I cited above, I chuckled because I suspect (and hope) that people will blow the concept of headset based delivery out of the water with the ideas they have.

If you are looking for some context or jumping off points for your own ideas, I have written about a number of projects associated with augmented reality in the past couple years, as well as projects in the Knight Foundation Prototype Fund

If you have an idea germinating,  guidelines will be posted on the Knight Foundation website on July 27. You can sign up for the July 30 informational webinar now.

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