Reposted from Barry's Blog.
Barry: You talk about giving “cultural impact (the impact of our actions on a community’s cultural fabric) standing in planning and policy decisions.” And you talk about something I heard you speak about some time ago – the idea of a Cultural Impact Report (as a companion to the Environmental Impact Report) requirement for building projects. I love that idea. How do we make that a reality?
Arlene: I love it too. There are so many horror-stories of culturally significant, vital neighborhoods destroyed to make way for things like downtown performing arts centers or stadiums that turn the city center into a ghost-town when they are dark. We sometimes halt construction to save an endangered bird or plant: let’s at least assess the damage our actions may do to cultural fabric. It wouldn’t always be a toggle switch: red-light or green-light a project. Sometimes compromises or remedial actions might emerge from an assessment. And I don’t know that it would be so hard to enact. I could draft the cultural impact assessment instrument right now. I see it working at the local level first in some progressive cities and then, when people see it in action, trickling up.
Barry: Your chapters on the relationship between art and healing, and the increasing awareness of that relationship, are particularly compelling. You note:
In an experiment at Yale Medical School, half the students took an introductory art history seminar, and that translated into significant improvement in their diagnostic skills. Nancy Adler, a painter and S. Bronfman Chair in Management at McGill University in Montreal, wrote that this is because learning to see art teaches people to see both the details and the patterns among details... Rather than simply making global assessments based on what they had expected to see, the art-trained medical students more accurately saw the actual condition of the patients. After only one year, the art-trained student doctors’ improvement in their diagnostic skills was more than 25 percent greater than that of their non-art trained colleagues. Based on the success of the experiment at Yale, more than 20 additional medical schools have added art history to their curriculum.
What specific things would you like to see develop in this arena that would help to move society towards the paradigm shift to the Republic of Stories? The character Lulu in The Wave works in a hospital where she is head of the Storytelling Corps. You describe Lulu’s work as:
The work of Lulu and her colleagues is conditioned on the understanding that every illness is in some sense unique to the person, and that every person is his or her own best ally in healing. Members of the storyteller corps greet patients upon intake (conditions permitting, of course: bullet wounds seldom allow room for pre-treatment stories). They invest enough time and attention to get to know each person, helping patients mine their own stories for their own best medicine.
What can we do to get hospitals and the medical profession to do this right now?
Arlene: As with the example Nancy Adler describes, these things are beginning to happen already. I also talk about Gottfried Schlaug and others’ work with music and healing; or new programs in narrative medicine. This is part of what I mean by perception playing a huge role in paradigm shift. I think the most important thing we can do is to notice that this new arena is already opening up, and to welcome and promote every example, so that forward-thinking people in medical professions feel supported in taking these art-infused methods up and begin to influence their colleagues and institutions. It’s an organic process, this type of change. I don’t think it’s as much about making it happen as allowing, supporting, and encouraging. Right now the most essential step is to notice and spread the word that it is not some distant dream, it is already happening.
Barry: What small steps do you advise people in the nonprofit arts take to move us towards the paradigm shift you envision – beyond the obvious challenge for each of us to imagine a better world?
Arlene: I’ve mentioned some of them already: we should stand up and ask questions that pull back the curtain on conventional answers, for instance. Institutional leaders should call out the embedded racial and economic injustice of the current funding system, and call for something better — not just work the system to their own advantage. I’d like to see us challenge politicians who use arts funding as a form of political speech, as a signpost to signal that they are serious about “cutting the frills.” I’d like to see us go back to those officials with lists of all the expensive military and other pork they’ve bought with our taxes, rather than pretending to believe the budget-cutting cover-stories they put out. Many of the small steps that would help amount to a refusal to pretend, to go along to get along. That takes courage, and many people involved in cultural development have been persuaded not to speak truth to power. We have to ask where it’s gotten us.
In The Culture of Possibility, I describe artists as an “indicator species” for social well-being, much as oysters are an indicator species for the health of oceans. I talk about the way artists are seen and treated in Corporation Nation, in contrast to the way they ought to be seen: as stem cells of the body politic, creating the many forms of beauty and meaning needed to support our resilience and create a sustainable future. So I also think it’s essential for arts organization leaders to consider their own treatment of artists in that light. To mention a small point: artists are often asked to contribute their services free to producing, presenting, or advocacy organizations with large budgets, whose own leaders make quite remarkable salaries. What does this say about valuing their work?
Barry: One area I may disagree with you is in the political arena. You say: “many arts advocates abandoned the importance of free expression, the personal and social need for beauty and meaning, and the social value of cultivating our intrinsic human desire to create, focusing instead on convincing opponents that art is really a clever strategy for raising test scores and tax revenues.” I know that there are many people who believe it is a titanic mistake to frame the value of the arts in economic terms; that doing so ignores and relegates the value of beauty as secondary to art and culture as a commodity, and I do accept your proposition that using economic and other non-intrinsic value of the arts arguments have not succeeded in affecting the paradigm change for which you argue. But it is almost as though you are suggesting that any argument that doesn’t accomplish such a paradigm shift is not only useless, but perhaps patently offensive. You take to task (and are pretty hard on) an American Arts advertising campaign that you feel promotes a single elitist frame of reference for the arts and fails to capture the essence of the value of art when you say:
In 2008, Americans for The Arts, a national arts advocacy organization, offered a series of public service announcements that promote canonical artists—Brahms, Van Gogh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Tchaikovsky—as if they were breakfast foods. The one I’ve seen most often, Raisin Brahms,62 is remarkable for its evident lack of awareness. An African American family sits at breakfast. (Since the starring artists are white, any nod in the direction of diversity must come from their admirers.) A white-bearded Johannes Brahms bursts through the wall riding a grand piano while touting his cereal fortified with “increased test scores and creative problem-solving.” Round-eyed and amazed, the two kids sprout their own long, silky, white beards. The tagline? “Feed your kids the arts.” Would you like a side of subtext with that?
The unconscious character of this encoded snobbery does nothing to soften its effects. People know when they are being condescended to; few choose to volunteer for the experience. Taste is taste, not objective reality or ultimate virtue. Personal taste is an artifact of social grouping as much as are individual choices: mostly, people like what their friends like, or what is liked by those they admire or desire, or what places them in the same category as those whose status they covet. Yet the world that calls itself “the arts” has generated endless justifications for the moral and aesthetic superiority of certain preferences. The resulting invidious snobbery attaching to “the arts” goes a long way to explain why people "don’t come out in droves to lobby for arts funding."
– while at the same time decrying the pathetic amount of funding for the National Endowment of the Arts.
I would argue that the absence, over the past decade or even two, of economic and other arguments for the arts, might very well have resulted, not just in a decline in the NEA’s budget, but maybe no NEA at all. And the result of that reality would have meant countless organizations that provide artists and the public with a real service would not have been able to do so, and that untold numbers of artists would not have been supported. Where is the logic and value in that? Don’t you sometimes have to just survive, to fight another day? Can you respond to that observation?
Arlene: As much as I might like to think I’d have enough influence to turn the entire tide of advocacy, I’m pretty sure many people will keep on with the old economic-impact arguments even though they haven’t worked, which is one of my main objections to them. When do you have enough information to declare a strategy failed and move on? In real dollars, the NEA is worth considerably less than half its value when Ronald Reagan took office. My observation is that many arts advocates are more comfortable continuing to fail in familiar ways than to try something new. If it feels like victory to have preserved less than half (again, in contrast to the boom in spending on prisons and wars, for instance), then it’s a Pyrrhic victory because it has cost us not only resources, but the moral high ground that comes from telling truth about the power of culture and creativity.
You’re suggesting that if these weak, secondary economic arguments hadn’t been made, arts funding would have been lost. But that presumes better arguments wouldn’t have been made in their stead. The enchantment with soft ideas like the economic multiplier effect makes us look weak and silly: sure, every theater ticket triggers expenditure on transportation or restaurants. But wrestling-matches and football-games trigger more; arts events have no special claim there. When we rely on weak arguments, we invite cuts, and that is what we’ve gotten.
Barry: Further on the topic of advocacy, you say at one point:
Advocates for public cultural investment cannot compete successfully in this money-driven political marketplace because they do not possess the vast economic power required. A campaign that consists of repeatedly inundating officials with assertions of art’s economic impact is not going to change that. The few elected officials who can be persuaded to act as forthright advocates will be those from safe, cosmopolitan districts; the rest will not jeopardize their seats by speaking out on an issue they do not see as critical to their support. The one possible path is mobilizing significant numbers to act, radically changing the way we and our fellow citizens see the public interest in art.
You and I have debated this point before. My contention is that we (the arts) are one of the very few interest groups that is actually capable of achieving that “vast economic power” – by our sheer numbers and by virtue of the fact that we could do benefits for arts lobbying (and if even 10% of all arts performance groups did one such benefit every two years with the proceeds going to lobbying – not advocacy – we could raise millions of dollars). We don’t do that. But we could. And that would allow us to compete with the other special interest groups that have that power. On the other hand, mobilizing a “significant number of citizens to radically change the way we see art” and thus moving us towards the paradigm shift seems to me a much more difficult endeavor. If we as a sector can’t even raise the money that we could, how can we possibly move the public to see the value of art? Or do you think engaging in the same tactics others who are successful in getting what they want from government would corrupt us and make us too much like the Corporate Nation that is part of the problem?
Arlene: I’m not so interested in purity as practicality. Most of the major, successful lobbies are driven by huge economic benefit for their supporters. Oil companies, tank and missile manufacturers, Big Pharma have vast sums of money to invest in persuading votes their way. These efforts are capital-intensive rather than labor-intensive: they aren’t driven by mobilizing popular support, but in effect, by buying candidates. You don’t have legions of citizens showing up in Washington to lobby for drug companies. The cultural sector doesn’t have comparable funds unless you lump in Hollywood, and Hollywood is notoriously indifferent to support for other cultural sectors. In the absence of millions to spend on lobbying, we can’t buy votes. Arts advocates have trouble activating huge numbers of people to support existing arts budgets precisely because of the elitist coloration of the whole discourse about “the arts.” People don’t see themselves in it. They don’t see their own real lives, needs, and interests at stake. To up the impact, that has to change.
Barry: You describe The Wave – your fictional work that complements The Culture of Possibility – as follows:
The Wave is speculative fiction. In 2023, a young journalist, Rebecca Price, writes a series of articles describing an emergent cultural change that has been gathering force over the previous decade (even longer, some of her informants say). She draws on a range of examples unfolding in New York City, where she lives. “The Wave,” her name for the Zeitgeist—the rising spirit of the times—catches on, entering common usage. In 2033, she is asked by an editor to revisit her findings and report again. The text includes notes to her editor, excerpts from the 2023 series, and new material she writes in 2033.
Who can know how the future will unfold? I claim no predictive powers. But I have been careful not to include anything in The Wave that could not be enacted in the next twenty years. My hope is that a glimpse of this possible world will spark other social imaginations, and that readers will be inspired to add to our collective dream of a future worth pursuing, one that can override the dystopian self-discouragement that has become our daily fare.
I must tell you that I was caught up in the work, and it brought to life some of your concepts in The Culture of Possibility, and for me, anyway, was a plausible description of how we might actually get to the paradigm shift that is the core of that book. Did you conceive of The Wave as always being a companion piece to the first book, or was it an afterthought? One of the catalysts that brought on the “wave” of new thinking about art and culture in the novel was Dr. Feelgood’s flagship store – an emporium nee kind of new spa / therapy almost, wherein people were helped with challenges in their lives by working directly with trained “Virtuosos” who guide them through the process of using various art pathways to deal with issues important to them. I love that. Why isn’t that approach included in the education of our children K-12?
Arlene: I’m with you, Barry: it should be. Actually, I’d originally thought of the two main sections of The Culture of Possibility as small, freestanding books – three little books in a slipcase, maybe. But I wanted the work to be accessible, and that would have driven the price up. My early readers thought that The Wave should stand alone as a way into the ideas for people who love to learn through stories, so I decided to do it that way. But it was always part of my concept to offer many doorways into this material, precisely because we are different and have many different ways of learning and understanding.
If I were an entrepreneur instead of a writer, I’d have opened a Dr. Feelgood’s store. Someone is going to do it, I bet!
Barry: One character in the book – Lulu, the roommate of protagonist Rebecca – works in hospitals and has dedicated her professional life to working with hospital patients. You describe her thusly:
She works at New York’s Bellevue Hospital. After seven years on the job, she’s a senior member of the hospital’s storyteller corps, charged with patient interaction. If someone you care about has been in the hospital the last few years, you know what I’m talking about. The work of Lulu and her colleagues is conditioned on the understanding that every illness is in some sense unique to the person, and that every person is his or her own best ally in healing. Members of the storyteller corps greet patients upon intake (conditions permitting, of course: bullet wounds seldom allow room for pre-treatment stories). They invest enough time and attention to get to know each person, helping patients mine their own stories for their own best medicine.
In a conversation between Rebecca, Lulu, and Lulu’s boyfriend Jacob, there is this exchange:
“Why should people listen to a stranger who believes he knows everything and they know nothing, who takes no time to listen to their stories, who cares nothing about the reality of their lives? Today, everyone understands that this is the way we learn.”
But we are a long, long way to getting to the point where people understand that this is how we learn. What do you think it will take to get to that point?
Arlene: I think we’re halfway there. Gandhi said, “A correct diagnosis is half the remedy.” I don’t know anyone who thinks that the way medical care is typically delivered now is optimal. We tend to steel ourselves for the indifferences and insults we’ll encounter in the healthcare system, even when we understand no one intends them, they’re byproducts of a broken system and often just as frustrating to medical professionals as to patients. There’s no solution without building in the time and attention to engage with the whole person: body, emotions, intellect, and spirit.
Because the current healthcare system is so money-driven, I’m guessing that most progress will be made when research results prove that costs are reduced when this kind of fully dimensional attention is paid to those suffering from illness. And that research is starting to emerge. Here too, asking the big questions will help, because so much talk of healthcare reform is about tinkering with complex details — pruning the leaves rather than addressing the roots. It’s the underlying concept that’s wrong — the paradigm of medical care — so that’s where change must take place, at the root of the problem.
Barry: Another character in the book, Lisa, the Principal of a school says this:
“When I was in school,” she told me, “these experiential modalities that used creative, artistic skills would be sequestered into one or two classes a week. If I could bring someone from my elementary school through time to Yung Wing today, they wouldn’t be able to tell me what class they were in: we use music and dance to study math, we make digital stories in science class and write poems about history. There are artists in every classroom, and every child has real opportunity to develop any strength he or she possesses. By the time I was in high school, teaching to the tests was the watchword, and most of our classroom hours were spent on rote tasks—quizzes, parroting back what we’d read in a book, drills. Everything was upside down. If someone was strongest as a kinetic learner, too bad. If someone had a great passion to interact with the world through visual images—the kid who filled the margins of his paper with drawings, for instance—that was a discipline problem, not a revelation of that child’s essence and opportunity.”
Where do you think a demand for this kind of change might come from – teachers? parents? administrators? government? or artists?
Arlene: Parents and teachers seem to be on the frontlines right now. There are stellar examples around the country of “arts integration” programs that seem to be having a huge impact despite reduced circumstances. I love seeing people like Diane Ravitch, who was so enamored with charter schools and testing, wake up and speak out. When they do, more and more people listen. The truth is that every artist, every administrator, is also a public citizen who has some stake in social goods such as education. So we all have roles to play too; we aren’t just sequestered off into pursuing public funding, which can seem like nothing more than lobbying by the beneficiaries for their own rewards. When we do step up in the public arena, practicing democracy, we ought to bring our special gifts of creativity, improvisation, resourcefulness, and innovation to the debate. Conventional politics – the meeting, the petition, the position paper – are so boring. Why don’t we fix that?
Barry: Central to The Wave (and to the success of the paradigm shift) seems to be moving the primacy of “stories” to the forefront of our various silos – home, family, business and work, education, health care and so forth. Why? How do we make people understand that “stories” are core to that which we value most – individuality, family, community, and freedom?
Arlene: Stories are kind of the flavor of the year in business right now, interestingly enough. Forward-looking enterprises and commentators keep saying that focusing on metrics doesn’t actually drive success in terms of customers and dollars. They are counseling businesses to tell and listen to stories instead: actually engage with the customer as a whole person; actually join with your colleagues to craft a collective story of your work that encompasses and motivates them; and so on. Not all businesses are on board, of course, but many of the more nimble companies and companies in cutting-edge sectors are actualizing this knowledge.
Ironically, nonprofits and government are always behind when this kind of shift takes place. Their posture is defensive: they feel they have to keep justifying their existence, so they tend to stick with very conservative – that is, old-fashioned – methods. Right now, many are utterly obsessed with the quantification of value (getting more and more heavy-handed and prescriptive in their guidelines and putting people through pointless exercises such as constructing logic models that no one ever looks at again). The tacit assumption is that this will make them look “businesslike,” and that will somehow lead to respect and success. But really, it just makes them look like they are trying to impersonate businesspeople, which has the opposite effect.
But the pro bono publico sectors will catch up. I’m doing a lot of work right now with the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, the premiere and most innovative organization in storywork employing many arts methods and approaches. When I see what they accomplish by helping people tell and share their stories – foster kids, Asians and Pacific Islanders with HIV, Native Americans preserving cultural heritage, multi-generational groups of activists, people who care about a particular patch of land and the stories it holds – I see that it’s only a matter of time before everyone catches up with the deep truth that how we shape our stories shapes our lives. And we – artists and those who support work in art and culture – we know more about this power and how to achieve it than anyone. So when we do catch up, I am hoping for great things.
Barry: If you were a critic reviewing these two works, what would your review look like?
Arlene: Well, I’d hope that like you, I would say this is something new and worth considering whether I agree in every particular or not. Many of your questions to me in this interview were about implementation. If people want to talk about how it can be done, that implies they’d like it to be done. That is good news for me.