Monday, September 2, 2013

The Arts Anti Defamation League

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on......................"

Last month, Stephanie MIlling posted a blog on the Americans for the Arts Arts Blog site, sharing a story about a news article on protests against a retailer - The Children's Place - for selling a girls tee shirt that many considered sexist as suggesting young girls were not good in math.   As Stephanie noted:
The shirt said “my best subjects,” and featured checkboxes next to shopping, music, dance, and math. The boxes next to shopping, music, and dance contained checks while the box next to math was empty. While the controversy surrounding the shirt was motivated by individuals who viewed the shirt as sexist—and I am not denying that it was sexist–I was also bothered by the fact that it trivialized dance and music as core subject areas. By selling such a product, The Children’s Place and the t-shirt designer communicated that young women are intellectually inferior to their male peers and that studying the arts is equivalent to shopping.
This kind of defamation isn't new.  We are use to this.  We have lamented for years - decades now - the inaccurate portrait in the media and held by large blocs of people, that the arts are an unnecessary and non-essential frill; unimportant, trivial, and hardly worth serious consideration.

The dictionary defines "defame" as "to harm the reputation, as by slander or libel."  As a legal term, slander is difficult to prosecute because the definition is:  "a malicious, false and defamatory statement", and it is difficult to prove intentional maliciousness. Libel is limited to "defamation by written or printed words or any form other than spoken words or gestures." But defamation is accomplished even when slander and/or libel isn't involved.

Unquestionably, the arts are defamed on a regular basis.  There has developed over a long period of time the public mindset (manifested in the media coverage and the portrayal of the arts as fluff and as a pursuit of fringe people) that the arts are irrelevant, add little value other than as entertainment, and aren't really important to the fabric of society; and further that even if they aren't an unnecessary frill, they hardly rise on the pantheon of values that ought to be supported by society.) We all know that such thinking is simply, and categorically, untrue, false, and yes, defamatory.  Whether the intention is malicious or not.  The media is chock full of references to us as akin to the Children's Place tee shirt as on a par with such frivolous activities as 'shopping'.

Over time, hundreds of thousands of these images and stories have cemented a false image in the public mindset.  From words echoed by politicians in the halls of Congress and beyond, to the treatment of the arts by business, retailers, industry, and even serious educators (STEM not STEAM), the message is clear and relentless: the arts are at best a marginal human endeavor.   Sometimes these messages are sent by people who ought to know better, sometimes by people who use us to further an agenda, sometimes by people who fail to even try to understand what value we bring to society.  Defamation of the arts manifests itself in sundry ways - creating a pervasive mind set that partially explains reluctance to accept the arts as an essential core subject.  It has led parents who - with good intentions - try to convince their children to prepare for serious work and not pursue the arts as a career. The defamation is endemic and systemic.

Other groups facing religious or other kinds of bigotry, intolerance, marginalization or even outright hatred, have for a long time understood that it isn't in their interests to allow others to defame them publicly, and have taken proactive steps to identify those instances of defamation, and then to counter them.

The ADL - the Anti Defamation League, one of the oldest of these organizations, has as its original mission:
"To stop, by appeals to reason and conscience, and if necessary by appeals to law, the defamation of of the Jewish people."
This has been a continuing struggle over a long period of time, and while far from over, there is clear evidence these efforts have helped to stem the tide of ignorance, prejudice and bigotry.

GLADD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) has also operated for a long time describing its mission:
"GLAAD amplifies the voice of the LGBT community by empowering real people to share their stories, holding the media accountable for the words and images they present, and helping grassroots organizations communicate effectively. By ensuring that the stories of LGBT people are heard through the media, GLAAD promotes understanding, increases acceptance, and advances equality."
Their website says:
"GLAAD is leading the conversation for LGBT equality, and changing the culture. As the LGBT movement's communications epicenter, GLAAD is the principal organization that works directly with news media, entertainment media, cultural institutions and social media. Through the undeniable power of the media - whether it's your favorite TV show, telenovela or local newspaper - or even on the sports field or through an online petition with hundreds of thousands of signatures, GLAAD is there advancing the stories that need to be told and that make real change." 
Now I am not suggesting that defending the arts against defamation is exactly analogous to defending people who for far too long have been the target of hatred.  But I am suggesting that like those groups of people who early on recognized that they had to defend themselves against unfair, unreasonable, false portraits in the media and the public mindset, it is incumbent on the arts not to allow falsehoods about who we are to be perpetuated.  Action - to first identify, then counter the negative images, and to correct the falsehoods and erroneous portrayals using stories, education, facts, and even appeals to the legal system or such actions as boycotts, would ultimately help us as it has helped other groups.

The really important activity is in identifying those who would spread the falsehoods, create the stereotypes, and perpetuate the myths, and then confronting them  to say, in no uncertain terms; 'this is unacceptable'; and finally, to demand that those engaged in defamation cease and desist and correct their mistakes.

I think the time has come that the arts ought to establish its own ARTS ANTI DEFAMATION ALLIANCE in a formalized sense with the creation of a nonprofit whose sole objective would be to identify the falsehoods about the arts, educate those who spread the misinformation, and demand they stop.

While this would doubtless be a full time endeavor just to monitor, research and identify all the instances of those who defame us, and would likely take us a long, long time to change those behaviors, I think in the long run it would be of tremendous value and benefit for us to begin now to do so in earnest.

This doesn't have to be an unwieldy exercise.  It isn't rocket science.  It's legwork. A three person office, whose job would be to begin to organize the task of identifying those who defame us, aggregate materials in response, and make demands of those who consciously or unconsciously are harming us could be up and running within months of the decision to make it happen.  You make a start and you build on it overtime.  If the arts community would be supportive, by lending the power of our numbers, and perhaps even some minuscule individual contributions, this kind of effort could become self-supportive.

This could be jumpstarted by a relatively modest funding grant by a consortium of funders.   Over just a few years, I believe we could begin to see a dramatic shift in the way we are portrayed in American society.  Would such an organization struggle on launch? Of course, and I suspect both the ADL and GLADD struggled a little too at the start.  But over time, I think people in our field could see the value of fighting back and would be supportive of the effort. And the publicity of defending ourselves would, I believe, relatively quickly position us so that those who, without thinking, attack us, would think twice.  And how much would it cost relative to what we might gain by not -- finally -- having to always, always defend ourselves as having relevance, meaning and value?  I'll bet you could do this for a couple hundred thousand dollars, and then it could be self-supportive.  To me anyway, that seems like a really small investment for a potential huge return.  It would help us to spread our case stories, to rally those who support us - within our own universe, and in the wider public realm - and it would help to build a sense of community among ourselves centering on the belief that we are not impotent to stop all those things that are harming us.  It would support our advocacy and lobbying efforts, and perhaps even earn us more supporters and audiences.

We are in a titanic struggle for how we are perceived in society. The constant, relentless defamation of the arts insidiously works against all our good efforts.  We really can't afford to let that defamation continue unchallenged.

Or we can continue to do nothing but lament the inaccuracies of which we have so long been the brunt.  We can do something positive, or we can let the problem grow worse.  We can fund a couple more studies on something by brilliant minds that will go unread and languish in the nether world that is the domain of such studies, or we can use the money to actually try to do something. Because there is little doubt it will continue to get worse.   I think the time has come to fight back - in an organized and structured way.  Our past "hit and miss" approach of leaving the confrontation of those who marginalize and defame us to someone (somewhere) to pick up, hasn't worked.  Oh yes, when there is something so egregious as the recent New York Times Op Ed piece suggesting the arts, as a charity, was a bad charity choice, we will respond in a chorus.  But there are a hundred, nay tens of thousands such false ideas that work against us out there that, in the aggregate, are a lot more damaging than something so obvious.  The falsehoods, the lies, the mischaracterizations continue unabated.  Let's stop them now.  Let's at least try.  It is in all our interests to make this attempt.

BTW - the retailer in the story about the girls tee shirt above stopped selling it and apologized for offending people.  This kind of action works.  And remember, we have a very, very powerful bloc of people in our universe and even wider untapped support in the general public.  When is the last time you read about someone who maligned the arts, apologizing?  One good threatened boycott in the right situation could do wonders for our position.  We need to put those who would mischaracterize us on alert that we will no longer sit idly by and let those instances of defamation continue.  

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.


  1. THANK YOU Barry!

    I absolutely agree that one of our main issues is respect, and I agree that the parallels you draw are entirely justified. Your proposed remedy seems like an important step if the arts are to have a future that is not continually diminished and brushed aside by competing public interests and the nay sayers. Advocacy perhaps has to become activism. It may have to take a more abrasive, less limp, less polite form. It will have to speak truths that people may be uncomfortable with. Thanks for pointing this out!

    One other parallel I would draw might be that of the environment. Last month Createquity linked to an Australian blog post that made this connection. One of the points raised was that until recently 'Environmental value' was not something that was measured, but that now it is. We have changed how we think about the environment from merely the good of its utility to the environment being a good in itself. And I think Art too can benefit from this restructuring of public perception. In fact, I think it may be necessary.

    My sense is that for too long we have been arguing on art's behalf by way of its instrumental value, what it is good for, how relevant it is. Instead we will need to change the conversation to declaring that art, like the environment, is a good in itself. And art too is something that human life would not simply be poorer without, but would be impossible without..... That is the case we need to make.

    We simply need to teach people to respect the arts in the same sense that the public has increasingly come to respect the environment. As a cause. It needs to be protected. Protected as a good in and of itself. With all the spiky and smelly parts included. We can't argue the parts. The lack of respect starts at a level that is much deeper than that.

    As long as we only ask what art is good for, its value is inseparable from how that good can also be exploited or disputed. This seems to be our problem. And whatever this instrumental good is it is still not an adequate measure for our respect.... Respect seems to mean something different. Something to do with intrinsic value: The same values that support the notion of equality for the Lesbian and Gay community and which support the inalienable rights of members of the Jewish community. Respect starts when we acknowledge that these are legitimate ways for humans to express themselves. Identifying with it, understanding it, are beside the point. Its not a question of how relevant these things are in our own lives. The question is how relevant they are for human life.

    I'd love to hear the history of the environmental movement in this context. How was (and is) that struggle waged for the hearts and minds of the public? Perhaps there is something we can learn there. Advocacy may mean we need to learn to shimmy up our creative trees to save our artistic owls, chain ourselves to the defamatory bulldozers to save our institutions, and dart in front of huge political fishing vessels to prevent irrevocable harm being done. It may take an intervention or two, or several thousand, but who better to do that than artists? I ask you....

    Thanks for all you do, Barry! I think we are on the right track with this.

  2. Thank's for this, Barry. One of the many rewards of switching to arts admin from theatrical production two years ago is having access to data that refutes the arguments and disparaging remarks I've been hearing about my passions, and then my career, my whole life. There's nothing more rewarding than being able to point the Arts and Economic Impact Survey or stats about the effectiveness of arts education when I'm told that what I'm doing isn't valuable.

    Sadly, I think you're right. This attitude is going to continue become more prevalent in the near future. Take a look at the Gawker post about the New York Opera [] or any reddit post about the arts or arts education for evidence.

    This has inspired me to be more aggressive in my defense of the value of the arts. How do we make this organization a reality?