From Reformation to Aggregation

cameron_4c_picTwo years ago, when Ben Cameron of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation delivered the keynote address at the Second Biennial Pave Symposium on Entrepreneurship and the Arts, and in his Ted talk of 2010, he spoke of the arts being in a period of reformation.  Last night, in a speech sponsored by the Piper Trust delivered to a choir of Phoenix area arts advocates, he echoed those comments and went a step further to offer a strategy for artists and arts organization to navigate this new terrain: aggregation.  First, what does he mean by “reformation?” Cameron draws an analog between the sixteenth century religious Reformation, in which reformers sought to remove the middleman between worshipers and God, and the current state of the arts in which arts consumers can choose to be participants in creative arts experiences without the need of a middleman (a professional arts organization).  With so much creative activity happening and then being distributed via youtube, sold via etsy, and funded via kickstarter, what are professional artists to do?

Cameron offered “aggregation” as a strategy for artists and arts organizations to come together, to pool resources, and speak with a louder voice.  His idea of aggregation extends beyond the arts, however, to artists and arts organizations aggregating with like-minded civic organizations to advance not only an arts agenda, but a civic agenda. In an opinion piece in the Arizona Republic published prior to his visit, Cameron wrote of the strength of both the extrinsic values of the arts (economic and educational benefits) and the intrinsic (inspiration, delight, joy) saying, “It is time to combine these extrinsic and intrinsic arguments, to let go of an arts agenda and seize a new civic agenda…the arts encourage us to come together with people whose beliefs and lives may be different from our own, to listen deeply, and to celebrate the things that bind us together instead of retreating behind the things that drive us apart…supporting the arts defines the kind of community in which we wish to live.”  By aggregating both with and against “type,” the arts can and should play a significant part in building the kinds of communities in which people live healthy, vibrant, meaningful lives.

The public talk and the opinion piece that preceded it set the stage nicely for our THIRD biennial Pave symposium: Entrepreneurship, the Arts, and Creative Placemaking. Creative placemaking was defined in an NEA whitepaper by this year’s keynote speaker, Ann Markusen, as a movement that “animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.” The concept of the civic agenda is present in this definition and will be the focus of a workshop on “Civic Practice” being led by theatre artist Michael Rohd.  To register, click here.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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6 Responses to From Reformation to Aggregation

  1. Thank you for posting, Linda! I resonante with the qoute, “supporting the arts defines the kind of community in which we wish to live”.

  2. As artists and arts organization move forward we need to question who will speak for and advocate support for the anarchist and the radical, the politically affrontive and those critical of the economic system.
Arts policy and funding sources now all demand the language of inclusion, diversity, engagement, and now aggregation. Artists are more and more expected and require to be good citizens and make positive contributions. But along with supporting the artist who works with prison inmates to explore their creativity who will support the artist who is working to tear down the prison walls of the new Jim Crow system? And while we find the funds to support the artist who works with youth gangs to channel violence into art who will champion the artist who wants to make art works that expose the hypocrisy of our gun control system? The political attack by the conservative right against the NEA Four in 1990 was not as much about societies morals as it was about artistic control. Since then we have seen the role of artist, molded by policy language, deteriorate from one of cultural visionary to that of a economic ally and social problem solver. 
How can we expect society to move forward, to be exposed to unknown realms if we no longer support the radical?

    • Richard, this is an excellent point, and it does seem to get lost or overshadowed by this urging toward community and aggregation.

      I simply love that the initial problem was phrased in terms of religious history! That the walls of convention and institutional authority have been torn down in something of an artistic Reformation has been a huge step forward, in my opinion. But as important as usurping the priestly class has been it still seems reasonable that folks would want their art to serve community interests and for similarity of purpose and agenda to inform a sense of aggregation. The human animal is still a social animal somewhere deep inside…..

      So maybe we need to respect BOTH aggregation and fracturing? Perhaps we can see ourselves realistically somewhere withing the extremes of these tensions? That its not winner takes all, but that there IS something important in our diversity and irreverence, but also that there is something equally important in our common humanity, our sense of community, and our occasional (albeit often only provisional and contingent) agreement? We can’t let either side of the argument throw the baby out with the bathwater just to make a point!

      It seems that the art Reformation succeeded so thoroughly that there is this understandable backlash of conservativism in those who feel they’ve lost something or who self-indulgently long for the ‘days of old’. But I’m not sure that the ideals of community and aggregation necessarily imply authoritarian or reactionary dogmatism. I see that as our sense of community expands to be more inclusive than exclusive we also tend to appreciate the values of multiculturalism and pluralism more. Our new sense of community and aggregation can and should be nondenominational. Isn’t that at least potentially inclusive of the visionary iconoclast you espouse?

      What occurs to me is that because the arts are so fractured and wildly irreconcilable, we only get to talk about them in extraneous terms. Rather than talking about the individual disharmonious arts themselves, in their full-blown diversity and multiplicity, we reference them extrinsically through issues like ‘economic impact’ and ‘political or social relevance’. And we look at ‘big data’ and statistics rather than nuance and motivation within the multifarious arts themselves….. With the blossoming divergence of art practice and notions of professionalism is it any wonder that getting a handle on ‘art’ has so often resorted to economic models and statistical means? That the only way some folks can make sense of ‘the arts’ is under the rubric of extrinsic values? And that, therefor, things like community aggregation at least give us a glimpse of what it means to be ‘the arts’?

      What I’d like to see more of, in addition to nondenominationalism, is qualitative insight into the variety of arts practice. ‘The arts’ may simply end up as what Wittgenstein referred to as an ‘odd-job’ term, and that they are connected not so much by an essential character as by ‘family resemblances’. And if this makes the study difficult, perhaps it is also ultimately necessary….

      • Carter,
        I disagree with Ben Cameron’s notion of a democratized art reformation, which he expressed in his 2011 PAVE keynote address, and also with your suggestion that “folks would want their art to serve community interest.” There is no evidence that people are in the streets demanding art that serves the community nor that by simply putting one’s YouTube video online makes it art. These are top down, art organization industry concepts being sold as popular, community driven demands. 
There are two important art organization industry ideas to take note of in Cameron’s talk. The first is his opinion that participation is the new market for his industry to pursue. He says in his address, “And while the market for traditional arts attendance is falling the market for participation is exploding….as the market shifts from consumption to participation.” I don’t think that is completely true, rather he wants to believe that is a solution for his industries problems.

        The second disturbing idea he champions is a quote from the art organization consultant Alan Brown who says, “ If the arts are to be relevant and gain an audience a new breed of artists will need to be cultivated.” He goes on to say that this need breed must be more open to criticism, willing to collaborate and share their process.
        This ideology removes the artists from the leading role as the creator of cultural production and replaces that role with one of a social problem solver and employee of the art organization. The artist now becomes someone cultivated and willing to work to sustain not primarily themselves, not their art form, but the art organization. Funding and support goes to those artists willing to conform to Alan Brown’s cultivated artist who can make work that draws people into the organization’s needed ticket sales. Instead of art organizations existing to support artists, the artist now needs to provide the right type of popular work that will support the finances of the art organization. Thats a bad thing.

        • Richard, it seems you are suggesting that artists’ place as leaders in the “role as the creator of cultural production” has zero to do with having their art “serve community interest.” You seem to be imagining a world where ‘community’ and ‘culture’ are mutually exclusive. I’m not sure how many Anthropologists (for instance) would see it that way…..

          Maybe you don’t know people who are interested in cultural production serving community interests? And you cite “no evidence that people are in the streets demanding art that serves the community” when clearly I’m in the street and clearly I’m demanding it. I’m puzzled that you would state things so strongly when clearly there are countless people in the world who don’t share your opinions….. I’d rather like to think that there was SOME truth to your position and SOME truth to other people’s positions than that either you are entirely right and these other’s are entirely wrong, or even that they are right and you wrong…..

          You seem to have very definite ideas about what counts as ‘art’ and who counts as ‘artists’. And you are entitled to your opinion. You could call things “strawberries” that other people called “bananas”. That’s up to you. But the peculiarity of your grammar doesn’t mean you and no one else has access to an underlying metaphysical reality. You say that most youtube videos are not art, and that’s fine. I can understand why you’d think that. But just because it makes sense in this limited comparison with other things we take to be ‘real’ art doesn’t mean we have uncovered a new scientific truth. Rather, for the purpose of certain comparisons we have discovered that it makes sense to say that these things according to these criteria are art, and that others lacking them are not. Its not a metaphysical truth…..

          But I’d also like to point out that the boundaries of what counts as ‘art’ are often vague and often open to interpretation. We describe things as ‘art’ using more than just these few criteria. And things described as art may have little or nothing in common when plucked from this continuum. What makes a child’s drawing children’s ‘art’ and outsider art also ‘art’? The same things? A primitive basket from an ancient culture and a Brancusi sculpture? A poem and a symphony?……. There is no underlying essence that connects all these things, much less a “leading role as the creator of cultural production”….. Just how historically contingent a description is THAT? Just how culturally provisional is it?

          You seem hung up on the idea that it is only ever all or nothing. And sure, if art ONLY existed to feed the popular consumption that would guarantee an art industry’s finances, then I’d agree this was a ‘bad’ thing. But clearly it already does in some cases, and clearly it does not in others. And maybe instead of throwing the opposition’s baby out with the bathwater we could admit that there is room for ALL of it. No one’s baby need be thrown out, and maybe only a cup or two of the bathwater….

          What you identify as a “top down” industry agenda may be that in specific cases, but once again, its not all or nothing. You take the ‘Reformation’ idea to be entirely prescriptive rather than at all descriptive. And as prescription alone I could see why it would upset some folks. People invested in a particular way of seeing the world would get understandably nervous when asked to hand the keys to the temple over to the barbarians at the gates….. But denying the descriptive insight of this idea only seems like wishful thinking. And you can’t have it both ways. If you are worried about the prescription, then as soon as it has been accepted by even one person it has also become descriptive. The reality has changed. Its not “no one” and its no longer “no evidence”…..

          But most of the barbarians are not asking everyone to change. Maybe not even you, your galleries, or your patrons. Just some people. Maybe only themselves….. Just enough change that the industry isn’t only protecting the establishment and certain instances of its sanctified production. Maybe just enough that the high opinion the priests have for themselves is expanded to include respect for others who don’t share their values. And if you are not a pluralist, don’t be surprised that the ‘truths’ you speak are only of limited value to others…. The more we close our minds to contradiction and difference the more things may look like metaphysically hard truths. But is that more the product of delusion than insight? I, at least, wonder….

          Canonical art practices have such a calcified institutionalization that often those looking from within the walls don’t recognize the practices of those on the other side of convention. They don’t want to recognize other values. What these others are doing “CAN’T be art”….. And if anything were bad for ‘the arts’ I’d surely say it was that attitude. Isn’t it even a bit hypocritical to claim avant-garde rule breaking as a virtue and NOT throw the doors open to popular interpretation of arts practice? Is it not inconsistent to reserve the role of leading cultural expression to only the anointed ‘artists’? The reason the Reformation idea appeals to so many is that EVERYONE is now a leader. And if it doesn’t appeal to you personally, just what are you protecting….?

          Of course, we all want to have our cake and eat it too….. Who else is hungry?

          • lindaessig says:

            Carter: While I agree with much of your commentary, I want to caution against using an ad hominem approach. Although I tend to disagree with Richard, you are both welcome to comment here and in other loci in the blogosphere as long as your foci are on issues and not individuals.

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