The Field of Cultural Production – Pacoima

I recently re-read Pierre Bourdieu’s influential essay “The Field of Cultural Production.” Just before, I had spent 36 hours in Pacoima (a northeast LA neighborhood) consulting on an arts incubator project there. The latter helped me to understand – and understand the limitations of – the former.

Bourdieu is a French sociologist and philosopher (I am neither) who developed a theory of the “field of cultural production” based on the positions and dispositions of the actors (or agents) who are the producers, consumers, and gatekeepers of culture. He applied his theoretical constructs of “the field” and “the habitus” well beyond the artistic and cultural realm, often writing about power relationships and social positioning in societies writ large. According to Bourdieu, the artistic field is contained within the field of power, in a dominated position in that field (at its negative pole) which is itself situated at the dominant (+) pole of the field of class relations, as illustrated below.

field of cultural producyion

This seems true when discussing artistic agents who are actually in a dominant class position, where the field of cultural production is situated within the field of power, as are the actors in the French literary field that Bourdieu studied in the development of his theory. Within that field, cultural capital and economic capital are literally polar: the poet creating “art for arts sake” for little or no audience is at the opposite end of the field from the bourgeois dramatist producing boulevard theatre for a mass audience. I find this polarity to be, quite literally, two-dimensional and therefore limiting (more on that later), but reproduce Bourdieu’s diagram here:

Bourdieus French literary field

However, what happens when cultural production is not in that dominant position in the field of power? This seems to be the situation in Pacoima, where an amazing 20-year-old grass roots economic justice organization, Pacoima Beautiful, is working with the LA Department of Cultural Affairs to create an incubator for its local arts and culture and the artists who live and work there. I was privileged to be part of a panel convened by Urban Land Institute-LA to advise Pacoima Beautiful on the launch of the incubator program. Neither Pacoima Beautiful, nor its native culture producers, from muralists whose work created an open-air museum to folklorico dancers to the poets supported by Tia Chucha Press, fit neatly into Bourdieu’s field of cultural production. The field of cultural production in Pacoima sits largely outside the field of cultural production of greater LA, which, if we include LA’s extensive media industry, extends significantly closer toward the positive pole of the field of power and is further separated from Pacoima in Bourdieu’s field of class relations. The small overlap on the field map below represents Sony Pictures, a potential partner in a youth workforce development initiative in the arts incubator.

 

field of cultural production Pacoima

Bourdieu’s theory suggests that there is a constant movement of agents in the field from position to position across it, but it is not clear that an entire field, like the field of cultural production of a culturally rich but economically distressed community like Pacoima can move, at least not solely through the work of its own agents. And when it moves, in part through the actions of an organization like Urban Land Institute or the planners, developers, and investors who are ULI’s members or others, how do the very real people working in that field, the people we interviewed in order to make our recommendations, keep from falling off of it in the throes of gentrification? If an article in today’s LA Times is an indication, they will need to start answering that question now.

ULI panel Pacoima

The panel convened by Urban Land Institute-LA to assist Pacoima Beautiful and LA Department of Cultural Affairs in arts incubator planning, in front of murals adjacent to Pacoima City Hall

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Novelty, Uniqueness, Originality

My work on An Ouroboros: Art, Money, and Entrepreneurial Action continues, sometimes at a pace of one or two paragraphs a day. Framing paragraphs are important, so this one took a while; it is the first of the fourth essay in the developing collection: “Novelty.”

“Creativity,” according to Mihaly Csizkzentmihalyi and others, “involves the production of novelty.”[i] When that novelty – the creativity – is deployed in a way that makes lasting change (i.e., “impact”) the novelty can be an “innovation.” The product of the generative work of the artist, whether in the studio, on the stage, or in collaboration with the community, is by its nature unique. But that uniqueness on its own is not enough to make it an innovation. To use a common social science term, it is necessary, but not sufficient. Economist Richard Caves, in his influential 2000 study of the “creative industries,” defined uniqueness as one of six characteristics of the sector. Yet, as Walter Benjamin points out in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” “In principle a work of art has always been reproducible.[ii]” There is a tension between what art fundamentally is, a unique work that expresses symbolic meaning, and the reproduction of that work. Yet, there are artists who harness reproducibility as a way to produce an innovation (a creative idea that has impact), enact entrepreneurship (connect work with audience through a mediating structure) and make the money they need to feed their art, enacting the ouroboros of art and money. But, reproduction also feeds the capitalist urge to exploit the labor of the artist for financial gain, albeit sometimes to the benefit of organizations that themselves support artists or are part of the cultural fabric of a city. Like everything else about the relationship between art, money, and entrepreneurial action, this notion of novelty is complicated.

marilyn pixelated

[i] Csizkzentmihalyi (1996). Creativity: The psychology of discovery and invention, p. 113.

[ii] Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in Arendt (ed,; Zorn trans; 1968) Illuminations, p. 219.

 

 

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The Morning after Charlottesville

The morning after Charlottesville I woke up thinking about my father. He endured an anti-Semitic beating during basic training at Fort Dix before shipping out to Europe to fight the Nazi expansion into Brussels and France. Wounded twice, he came back with a Purple Heart and an Oak Leaf, but missing a body part. Decades later, when I was a young child, I was noodling around in an old cabinet in the basement of our suburban home and found a Nazi armband. He wouldn’t tell me anything about how he came by it, but he must have disposed of it because I never saw it again, even after helping him move twice and packing up his belongings for donation after he died.

Despite his experience as a victim of anti-Semitism and a soldier against Nazism, my father was not a particularly tolerant person. He lived most of his life in middle class secularly Jewish neighborhoods working in an industry where there were lots of other middle class secular Jews. He knew plenty of people who were not like him, but he didn’t engage with these “others” socially. A few years before he died, we went to an Arizona Dbacks game together. The pregame announcements were delivered in both English and Spanish. “That’s awful,” my father said. Shocked, I asked him what he meant. “Why should they be making announcements in Spanish?” he replied. I explained – or tried to explain – that the nearby border was just a line in the sand, that people were speaking Spanish – and indigenous languages – in this area long before anyone spoke English, and that in all likelihood 1/3 of the people in the stadium had Spanish as a first language, so shouldn’t they be able to understand where the emergency exits are? By way of follow-up a few days later, I shared a statistic with him that indicated that a majority of Americans of all races have never invited a person of another race into their homes (a more recent report indicates that 40% of White Americans do not have any friends of another racial identity) and that never once had their been someone of another race in our home when I was growing up. A lifelong Democrat, he got defensive about his liberal/moderate bona fides, and reminded me that our Black mailman came over for coffee. In turn, I reminded him that the only reason he did was because he was buying our car. (I was quite young, but remember that the car was white and had fins.)

engagement photo

Five years after WWII, my father met my mother.

My father’s brand of social liberalism – and perhaps it is endemic of his generation – was to tolerate others as long as we all kept to our own groups. It’s not really a surprising perspective since he was raised by a woman who had fled Ukrainian pogroms with her parents and huddled with others who were like them in self-defense. My generation and especially my children’s are much more mobile. We move fluidly from region to region and neighborhood to neighborhood. I am very much in a religious minority in my current neighborhood; there are more Muslims and Hindus in my kids’ high school than there are Ashkenazi Jews. Despite his faults, my father and the men of his generation fought and died so that the Muslims, Hindus, and Jews in my neighborhood could live peacefully among its Christian majority. Now a few – and I hope it is only a few – of their children and grandchildren have somehow gotten it into their heads that that isn’t such a good idea, that justice and equity for all somehow diminishes their very manhood.

My world view is different from my father’s not only because he fought in a war and I didn’t, but because I have lived in different places, places where public schools aren’t closed in observance of Jewish holidays, where Spanish is spoken in public gathering spaces, and where my children were taunted on the playground for their ethnicity.

But on this morning after Charlottesville, I am not thinking about what divides us, but what unites us. What unites us is not religion (religion is a dividing line), not race (race is a divisive social construct), and certainly not geography. What unites us is that we are all human, with the capacity for love (and, unfortunately, its opposite). How can we build love in our communities? How can we understand what it means to be human? For the biological answer, we have science, but for the spiritual one, we have art. Art questions, art explores, art answers, art loves.

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Arts Entrepreneurial Mindset

[I continue to develop essays on art, innovation, entrepreneurship, and money as part of my book project. Here are a couple of paragraphs from this morning’s writing:]

The independent self-determined mindset, the sense of one’s own responsibility and accountability toward career is born, in part, from necessity in the scarce environment, thus making the artist and others “subjects” (to use Foucault’s term) of neoliberal governmentality. But independence and self-determination are not solely reactions to given conditions; they go to the root of the motivations of the artist to make work that has impact despite the given conditions, not because of them. Even Abraham Maslow, in his famous A Theory of Human Motivation published in 1943 recognized the unique case of the artist, making work self-determinately: “There are other, apparently innately creative people in whom the drive to creativeness seems to be more important than any other counter determinant. Their creativeness might appear not as self-actualization released by basic satisfaction, but in spite of lack of basic satisfaction”

In The Artist as Culture Producer, a collection of short essays by artists about how they sustain their artistic practice, artist Alison Wong discusses the mindset necessary for entrepreneurial action as “an artist’s mind, with a focus on doing and making.” Another characteristic mindset that emerges from a review of the artists’ essays is a proclivity for seizing unexpected opportunities. One archetypical story, from Austin Thomas, begins, ”One day, while riding the elevator to my studio, I ran into…” From what was quite literally an elevator pitch, Thomas made several thousands of dollars in sales and, “invested that money back into my work,” enacting the ouroboros of arts entrepreneurial action. Ouroboros with text

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Porchfest

An earlier post introduced my observation of a Mariachi band playing in the backyard of a home in a rural western Washington town and the direct connection being made between the musicians and the celebrants, dancing and enjoying their community. Arts entrepreneurship is concerned with that essence of the relationship between artist and audience, between the art that is created and its intended community. The action of entrepreneurship occurs when the artist identifies their public and discovers or creates an opportunity to connect their art with that public through an appropriate mediating structure. But for the artist to truly be entrepreneurial requires them to also create that mediating structure, not merely make use of a structure designed and created by others. This distinction was clarified for me when I attended a “porchfest,” a community music festival in which local residents donate their porches so musicians, most from the local community or surrounding region, can perform on them for an audience of community members.

The connection between performer and audience is as direct here as was the Mariachi band’s in western Washington, but the porchfest artists do not create the mediating structure. The work of connecting the audience to the festival is done by a pre-existing community organization, a historic preservation district, or even the local municipality. A few of the performing groups are more entrepreneurial than others, using the porchfest opportunity as a resource, setting up a point-of-sale operation for professionally produced recordings, thus controlling their means of distribution. Most, however, would not consider themselves professional musicians, let alone entrepreneurial artists. But on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, listening to everything from blues to bluegrass, most people weren’t thinking about “mediating structures”; they were just enjoying the music and the company of neighbors.

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A Humane Framework for Assessment

NOTE: This post was written for Animating Democracy’s Excellence and Equity in Arts for Change Blog Salon July 24-28, 2017. You can also find it there.

I was honored that Animating Democracy chose to debut the new Aesthetic Perspectives: Attributes of Excellence in Arts for Change at the recent Pave Biennial Symposium on Entrepreneurship and the Arts, and doubly honored to be invited to contribute to this blog salon. The latter gave me the incentive I needed to review the entire compendium as well as several of the companion guides. Aesthetic Perspectives is described as “a guide for description rather than a scorecard.” This is an apt explanation; it provides a framework for use by an evaluator rather than a rubric for evaluation itself. As such, there are aspects of Aesthetic Perspectives that are particularly useful or important and a few elements that raise some questions for me.

 

First, what I love:

  1. Equity is a core value
  2. Process is as important as product
  3. Agency is with the creator rather than the evaluator
  4. By defining aesthetics as “how creative expression stimulates our senses, moves us, and makes meaning in the world” the framework avoids the challenges of the Eurocentric approach of many arts evaluation processes.

Then some questions:

  1. Why apply these frameworks only to “art for change?” Couldn’t/shouldn’t the same framework be equitably applied across all of art-making?
  2. Will funders and policy makers buy into the kinds of qualitative assessments that are likely to result from using Aesthetic Perspectives to design an evaluation plan?
  3. Why is “beauty” (a word often included in definitions of “aesthetics”) missing from the list of 11 attributes, especially if the creator rather than the beholder can define it? (Perhaps I answer this question myself in #4 above.)

By coincidence, I reviewed Aesthetic Perspectives on the very same day I read a critique of the Australian/UK Culture Counts initiative. The two initiatives appear to be polar opposites. Culture Counts is “a digital evaluation platform for measuring cultural impact.” The first of its principles is to “standardise the definitions of indefinite terms like ‘quality’ so as to create a common descriptive language.” But, as Aesthetic Perspectives co-author John Borstel’s frequent collaborator Liz Lerman recently said to me, “naming is not a neutral act.” So, where Culture Counts attempts to standardize language, Aesthetic Perspectives provides a menu of language to chose from. In doing so, the creator, the audience, the funder, and the evaluator have a tool to observe from a more appropriate distance, or, as Andrew Taylor recently wrote, “We must learn to step back far enough to see, without ego, what’s before us, but not so far that we lose our human and humane response.”

Although Aesthetic Perspectives may not include the “standardization” some traditionalists (especially in the policy space) may desire, it does seem to provide a humane framework for assessing not only art for change, but creative practice writ large.

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A Short Story of Cultural Bifurcation

I include this short story of cultural bifurcation in one of the essays in An Ouroboros: Art, Money, and Entrepreneurial Action.

IMG_1860

In 2014, I traveled to a small rural town in western Washington State to observe an arts incubator that had been launched there in conjunction with an adaptive reuse real estate enterprise. On my second night, after spending a full day with the founder and several loft residents and incubator clients, attending an opening in the gallery space, and eating a communal meal with the mostly Seattle-based artists who were visiting for the opening, I heard Mariachi music playing as I walked back to my cabin. Half a block away, there was a large party in the backyard of a home. A fully costumed Mariachi band was playing and people were dancing. I later asked the city’s mayor to comment on the contrast between the two parties and whether or not there was a connection between the cultural events I observed at the warehouse and the backyard. “Not really,” he responded. He continued, “No, they have their own culture*.” This bifurcation of culture, between Euro-centric “benchmark” events and non-Eurocentric but equally ethnically specific cultural production is another feature of the given conditions encountered by the entrepreneurial artist.

In the rural Washington backyard, there are no observable market forces at work. There is a direct connection between the musicians and the celebrants, dancing and enjoying their community. Arts entrepreneurship is concerned with that essence of the relationship between artist and audience, between the art that is created and its intended community. The action of entrepreneurship occurs when the artist identifies their public and discovers or creates an opportunity to connect their art with that public.

*[I make no comment here on the divisive and potentially racist implications of this statement, but may do so later]

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