Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Research and Data Blogathon - Day #4

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

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Another resource on Big Data forwarded by Sandra Gibson.

Barry:  Question #4:  The NEA recently released How Art Works: The National Endowment for the Arts’ Five-Year Research Agenda with a System Map and Measurement Model. Please respond to this report considering the following:
       a)  What is excluded from the agenda?
       b)  What are the strengths and limitations of the agenda?
       c)  How will the agenda and the mapping system be helpful to the field?

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett:  Honestly I think it’s a extraordinarily ambitious and comprehensive project and document and it offers myriad different perspectives, approaches and arguments for the importance of the arts as both a social and economic engine, considering community, economy and quality of life.

That the NEA is taking such a serious and direct approach towards creating a gestalt for how art works and its wider implications speaks volumes for how far we have come in arts research.  Also, the NEA’s focus on the arts through this lens will send a strong signal to other research and policy bodies that this is an important topic.

Margaret Wyszomirski:  As an attempt to construct a system map this is a useful effort to spur discussion.  However since the primary purpose of the map seems to be to guide NEA research and to explain how prior agency research fits this proposed map, it is too narrowly focused if we are addressing the question of “what do we know about how the arts ecology works”.  The NEA is not the only—or even the primary-- source of research on this topic and for most of its history, it has conducted or sponsored little research on topics that did not have advocacy utility (this includes the participation research, the economic impact work.  It could be immensely helpful to the field if a set of literature reviews were conducted and circulated that not only reviewed individual components of this map but also discussed hoe we know what from what fields because perspective matters in uncovering basic assumptions.  In addition there are considerable gaps in how the report deals with arts infrastructure variables.  As someone who has done considerable academic work on a number of infrastructure variables, especially public policy and associations and professional networks, I know there is much that has been done that has not been noted in this report.  Finally, it seems to concentrate on the patterns and uses the variables identified to tell how where and when art is produced and consumed and by whom rather than explaining why those patterns occur and why certain variables produced the patterns that we can find.

Bryce Merrill:  I will begin with my concerns, but I will preface those remarks by saying that I find How Art Works (hereafter, “the report”) to be an important contribution to the field and a promising indicator of good things to come. Immediately, two strengths of the report stand out: 1) the expressed goal of the report to encourage arts research that is “theory-driven and pro-active” rather than “descriptive and reactive,” and 2) a vision of the arts as a “complete system” (5). The inextricable relationship of theory to research--whether theory drives research or is tested by it--is well established in serious research fields, but the arts field is not regularly reliant on theory building or testing. As well, the “systems” approach goes a long way toward undoing the analytical and organizational segmentation of art: the field has come to believe that the natural organization of art is by instrumental function, genre or style, organizational structure or sustainability model. These and many other ways of classifying the arts are abstractions and obscure the empirical connectedness of the arts. The systems map points to these connections and asks researchers to tell us more, not less, about them. Overall, the report is really good work from Sunil and his team.

I have two primary concerns about the Agenda.  The first reservation is substantive. I do not agree with the necessity or relevance of the inclusion of the “system component” labeled the “human impulse to create and express.” In the report, this primary system component is defined as “the basic drive for virtually all humans across all time to express themselves at some point, to make a creative mark” (12). The report is asking the reader to take it on face value that there is such an impulse--of all of the claims footnoted or substantiated by extant literature, this is not one of them. Or the report requires readers to humor the authors while they pay lip service to a popular sentiment regarding the innateness of creativity. I have no intention of stirring the debate of whether a human impulse to create exists, because I will likely come out on the unpopular side. However, the report could have a least included a perfunctory reference to Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia to lend a little bit of legitimate support. A more radical approach would have been to cite Karl Marx, whose theory of the innate human drive to create would have provided good intellectual, if bad political cover. Instead, reference to the creative impulse sits on the surface of the report like an homage or a preemptive strike. “Yes, creativity (but maybe not art) is a part of the human soul,” the report seems to say, “but let’s move past that and onto the serious business of research.” Come to think of it, maybe I completely agree with how the report handled this!

My second criticisms regards the process for creating the report. I have no doubt in the impossibility of including everyone who should have consulted in the creation of this report, but I am concerned that some very important perspectives are missing here. I recognize that Sunil invites “scholars, arts practitioners, and policy-makers” to engage with report and provide feedback, but I question the impact of post hoc reaction over formative contribution. I would also reject any claim that a literature review, no matter how substantial, constitutes consultation from academics in the field. I perceive the NEA to be pushing for a more academic approach to research, as evidenced by their recent co-convening with the Brookings Institute and Art Works grant awards for research. The report even argues that “some of the most compelling research [on the arts] has originated in non-arts specialities” (6). Yet there are some obvious academic players in the arts and related fields missing from the list of influential participants. Instead, myriad arts organizations are heavily represented among the participants. I see no participants among this group that do not belong at the proverbial table, but many who do belong I do not see listed. The answer to my concern is likely hidden in the diplomatic, bureaucratic, and logistical details of this report’s creation, but such an oversight bedevils an otherwise exemplary effort. I do hope that whatever feedback the agency has received from the public will be either integrated into future modifications of the report or responded to publicly.

One direct benefit of the field, if it is to be realized, is the report’s emphasis on the complex ways that the arts benefit individuals and societies. Beyond economic impact, the report theorizes individual and communal level health effects, psychological, and “quality of life” impacts, and even the admittedly difficult to categorize “capacity to innovate and express ideas.” This theory of diverse impacts should remind policy makers and arts advocates that the arts has more than one horn to toot and, more importantly, more than money to ask for in return for all that we do.

If the system map presented in the report is a theory of how art works, then it is a theory that needs to be tested. Given the complexity of the map, this testing will take a long time, much longer than the five-year expiration date of the NEA’s research agenda. Undoubtedly, the results of these tests of the system map will also require revisions; theory and research always exists in an ongoing reflexive relationship. The true value of this project will not be known for some time; in the meantime, we should take it as a sign of good things to come. Also worth watching is how the NEA funds research that does or does not follow the system map. I’ve temporarily shelved my project on the social construction of the human spirit until I see how all of this is going to shake out.

Randy Cohen:  During the release event for the How Art Works 5-Year Agenda, American University’s Andrew Taylor reminded us of George Box’s quote: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”  The arts system is a complex one.  As someone who has worked in the sector for decades, I find it multifaceted and not always intuitive.  Imagine what it must look like to those outside the arts who are used to measuring success by number of potholes filled, on-time flight departures, or widget sales.  The NEA systems map provides an excellent starting place to share the arts system’s complexity with people whose understanding stops at a reflection on the last exhibit they attended.  The NEA has been very effective in connecting with non-arts government agencies (e.g., HHS, NSF, or Transportation).  Having an OMB-approved research blueprint is a useful calling card as the agency continues to build those relationships.

The success of this effort will be measured over time.  If How Art Works is treated as a “living document”—one that is regularly revisited, used to provoke discourse, and added to over time—it will provide not just a research agenda, but a better understanding of the arts system.  That takes us one step closer to understanding how to make the arts thrive.  I would expect the map to change over time because the industry changes over time. As I listened to the presentation, I wondered what the systems map, with its stocks and flows, would have looked like 17,000 years ago when they were painting caves in Lascaux.  Would it have any complexity or share similarities?

. . .  I can imagine the ‘Human Impulse to Create and Express’ box would capture the moment that first bull was drawn . . . There were painters—probably many given the 2,000 images—and presumably torch-carrying admirers, so the ‘Arts Creation and Participation’ circle still belongs . . . Was there an apprenticeship program to facilitate branching out to new caves? There is your ‘Education & Training’ box (we can save the arts-integration-into-caveman-learning  vs.  arts-for-arts-sake debate till later) . . . Someone was in charge of pigment collection and fire-tending to keep the rocky canvas well lit, so the ‘Arts Infrastructure’ box stays . . . Safe to say that funding and patronage came later, but did those early societies risk their best artists on the most dangerous hunts? (“arts saves lives” even back then—content for the ‘Benefit of Art to Individuals’ box) . . . With all those artists and images, new jobs were spawned—among the first was undoubtedly The Art Critic.

I was surprised at how well the systems map helped me imagine even a caveman’s arts system.  Is there anything missing in the NEA report?  Sure. I would like to see more about money (who pays for the arts and where is it on the map?), international connections, and aesthetics.  Will the system be interpreted differently based on cultural differences?  Reflecting on George Box’s quote, certainly the model is not yet “right,” but I expect that these and others questions will be addressed as the document evolves, thus making this useful.

Sunil Iyengar:
a)  What is excluded from the agenda?

The system map at the the heart of the How Art Works document shows (on. p. 37) how the NEA's current, planned, and ongoing research projects track with various components (or "nodes") of the arts ecology that we think worth studying. Looking at the map, you'll notice that some nodes are left entirely bare. For example, we currently do not have a research project planned that would attempt to figure out how arts engagement can result in "new forms of self-expression" and new "outlets for creative expression"--both of which are tagged as secondary outcomes of arts participation. Nor do we have near-term plans to study "the human impulse to create and express," which operates outside the system, being its first cause, according to our map. Still, one can imagine using the resources of cultural anthropology (e.g., oral narratives and observational studies), coupled with neuroscience and psychology, to dymystify the concept.

b)  What are the strengths and limitations of the agenda?

Since I'm not in a position (yet) to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of our ongoing five-year agenda, I'll answer this question in terms of the system map itself. I'd say its strengths are precisely its weaknesses. From the How Art Works document: "The system map helps put long-standing controversies and disputes into a context that allows multiple perspectives to exist. It provides what Keats called 'negative capability' -- the ability to imagine the system without having to resolve apparently contradictory aspects." This noncommittal stance freed us to pursue the intellectual exercise of mapping the core components of the arts, its inputs, and outcomes. But to make the map meaningful in a real-world context, we need to assign definite values to the nodes and, as it were, run some simulations. Then we'll know whether the components and their relationships have been justly defined and situated.

c)  How will the agenda and the mapping system be helpful to the field?

Taking up my last answer, I"ll note that the real-world "simulations" to which I refer would need to occur repeatedly, in many different types of communities, involving many different types of art. Only then would we emerge with a single validated construct of the arts in American life. As I write this, however, you probably can infer that for all my talk about "the real world," what I'm describing is almost wholly ideal, as hermetic as a lab experiment. Which is why the best way the system map can "be helpful to the field" is by giving others a straw-man to relate to their own constructs of art, and where they see themselves within it. We'll have succeeded if the map can help to dispel confusion about which common variables go into making an arts ecosystem, and which definitional issues we need to resolve before we arrive at standard measures for those variables. And we'll have done more than succeed if the map enters the lexicon of arts managers, funders, and cultural policy-makers, as an illustration of their roles and levers within the system.

The final question tomorrow deals with the challenges to our research and data collection.

Thank you all.

Have a great day.

Don't Quit