Friday, October 20, 2006

The Arts in California's Future

Last month, the James Irvine Foundation issued a working paper entitled, “Critical Issues Facing the Arts in California.” This study is step one in a project designed to examine “the forces, trends, and challenges facing California’s arts sector today.” The project is potentially a turning point for the arts in California. The foundation is seeking public comment via a website, where a copy of the working paper can be downloaded. The deadline for comments is 10/31/06.

The working paper is crammed with statistics of interest, and it highlights a number of significant social, economic, and political factors that affect the arts. The focus is on the situation of non-profit arts organizations.

While there is much to praise in this document, there are certain aspects that leave me uneasy. A few points that trouble me:

1. The report uses the word “consumer” to describe a person interested in the arts. This signals the intrusion of a market mentality that is evident in much of the report’s discussions. The notions of “art lover” and “citizen” do not appear. The consumer lingo misconceives the role that the arts actually play in people’s lives. It neglects the spiritual and social impulses that are at the core of the art experience.

2. Similarly, the report makes repeated reference to the arts world as a “sector.” This is denatured at best, and at worst it turns the arts into just another worry point in an industrial economy, like the automobile industry or the upsurge in hedge funds. Any human activity has an economic dimension but that doesn’t mean that the economic lens is the best way to view every one of them.

3. The report’s economic slant on the arts seems like a strategy to avoid discussion of the non-economic functions of the arts, which would move into sticky areas such as “purpose” and “meaning” and “value.” The report tries to be agnostic about the very qualities that lure people into the arts. Sometimes the attempt to be hard-headed results in a failure be clear-headed. I don’t believe that the project can grasp the situation clearly if the core values of the arts are not articulated.

4. The report shows a lamentable sense of passivity toward the social and economic forces that impinge on the arts. The arts world is pictured to be on the run from market-oriented gorgons that thunder through the land. Survival is sought through imitation, in a variant of the Stockholm Syndrome. This discounts the strength of the arts and of arts advocates.

5. The report says nothing about aesthetic standards. No doubt this is another instance of avoiding a sticky wicket. I believe on the contrary that the all fundamental issues need to be discussed in order to achieve success. The prudery that has developed around certain topics, a legacy of Sixties politics, needs to be overcome.

6. It may seem like a minor point, but the report says nothing about the role of critics in the arts. I think history has shown that independent criticism is valuable as a record of events and even more as a spur to interest and discussion. The presence and quality of arts criticism is uneven across California and in some instances quite poor.

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