Sunday, May 5, 2013

Interview with Arlene Goldbard on The Culture of Possibility - Part I

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

Arlene Goldbard is one of the nonprofit arts sector’s most insightful analysts and observers.  An artist, blogger, author, and consultant, she is keenly intelligent and a passionate visionary for what might be.  And, she writes beautifully and persuasively - an elegant wordsmith who intuitively knows how to communicate. For anyone who appreciates writing as both an art and a craft, reading her words is a sublime experience.  While I am more the skeptic and cynic, I know intuitively, from observation and from deep in my heart, that it is not the skeptics and cynics who change the world, but rather those like Arlene who can envision a better world, and ask simply “why not”?  She pushes everyone to think, and to move towards that better world.  While her two new just published (and complementary) books urge a monumental paradigm shift in how we approach life in America, she is a realist and fully understands how hard this will be.

Let me say at the outset that I loved both of these books and I strongly urge everyone who cares not just about the arts and culture, but the future of our country, to buy them and read them, and better yet, give them as gifts to people they know.  Is her vision a little “pie in the sky”.  Yes, probably.  But I urge people to read them with an eye - not to how impossible such a paradigm shift these books embrace might be, but with an openness to how such a change might just be possible.  That said, I, of course, don’t agree with her every contention, and I play a bit of the devil’s advocate in this interview and try to ask some of the questions other skeptics out there might have.

Note: Arlene has made available a 20% discount on either or both of her new books to readers of this blog.  Click here for The Culture of Possibility and here for The Wave - and enter Code:  76KPUKT8 for either.
Here is Arlene's website

The Interview:  Part I  (part II on Wednesday)

Barry:  You’ve just published two new books, The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists and the Future, which expands on your previously set forth theory that there is something dreadfully wrong with modern society and that we are on the cusp of a major paradigm change which (hopefully) will see art and culture take center stage as the antidote to the corporate fueled consumption mentality that has caused much of the problems. The second book - The Wave - is a novel set in the future that envisions what the world might be like if we succeed in moving art and culture to the forefront of our way of looking at our lives, and how that shift might have come about.

In The Culture of Possibility book, you provide several ways for the reader to distinguish between the old paradigm where “our collective priorities are shaped by a mechanistic worldview that privileges whatever can be numbered, measured and weighed. Within that paradigm macroeconomics, geopolitics and capital are valorized.” This view you label Datastan. The opposite paradigm, which you call the Republic of Stories, is a world in which “our deepest debates, our obsessions, our consolations and our most purely discretionary choices about where to deploy our resources and attention are conveyed through sound, image, and movement in the vocabulary of art. in which every story matters to the common good, in which everyone—and everything—has its story. In The Republic of Stories, nuance, particularity, imagination, and empathy are given their rightful places as capacities that enable essential knowledge about ourselves, the world, and our choices within it.

BTW - I thought each of the chapters of The Culture of Possibility would make a great blog as stand alone commentaries.

Let’s take these two books one at a time. Can you please expand on your thesis as contained in The Culture of Possibility and give my readers a thumbnail sketch of the content of the book and what you hope to accomplish with its publication?

Arlene:  I’m very interested in the concept of “paradigm shift”: when an old idea of the world can no longer say enough to encompass reality, it has to yield to a new idea that transcends the old and subsumes what can usefully be carried forward. The classic notion has a flat earth yielding to the image of a globe when ships sailing over the horizon didn’t drop off the edge. In a way, a paradigm shift is like an optical illusion: the exact same information has two different meanings, depending on how you perceive it.

My goal is to replace the old notion of art and culture as trivial—a ruffle on the social fabric, so to speak—with one that really does encompass their power and centrality as the crucible in which we forge identity, community, shared values, a sustainable future. As I’ve said many times, the way we shape our story shapes our lives. In The Culture of Possibility, I draw on knowledge from many different realms—medicine, commerce, spirituality, education, just to name a few—to illustrate a much larger story about art than the old paradigm recognizes. After a short section defining my terms and purpose, the book opens into two main sections. One offers 28 very short chapters that stand independently and will arm readers with a wide range of powerful arguments for recognizing—and investing in—art’s public purpose. The other is an essay on the culture of “Corporation Nation,” using the way it sees art and artists as an indicator species for social well-being, an ecological analogy that I find compelling.

Paying attention to the way many people read now, I wanted to make the book as user-friendly as possible. Its sections can be read in any order. Many of them are bite-sized. You can put The Culture of Possibility down and pick it up again without feeling that you’re losing the thread.

Barry:  One of the mainstays of your thesis is that Corporate Nation is the antithesis of the Republic of Stories - with the corporate model having sold us all a bill of goods in convincing people that monetization of everything - from relationships and politics to academia, education and even creativity itself - has resulted in obsessive consumption and commoditization, and that embracing art is a possible panacea for all that ails society.

When reading The Culture of Possibility I was struck by the conspicuous absence of any reference to that other dominant influence on the world - namely organized religion. What role does religion (not belief in God, but mankind’s attempt to organize that belief into structures and hierarchies) play as the handmaiden or counterpoint to Corporate Nation? Is there any relationship there, or do you think Big Religion has played no part in getting us into the mess we are in? For example, you cite the fact that America has more people in its prisons than any other country. But nearly half of those incarcerated were convicted of drug or drug related crimes. Indeed, nearly half the growth in the prison population in the past 20 years has been people convicted of drug related crimes. It can be argued that the ‘war on drugs’ (initiated by Nixon) was the result of Puritanical religious forces, and that were drugs decriminalized, the prison population (not to mention the court system) would be dramatically less clogged.

Do you think embracing art as the language of how we deal with the malaise of current life will also allow humanity to deal with the challenges of excess devout devotion to the point of unbridled zealotry of one religion over another? While the artificial construct that is modern religion seemingly exalts art, doesn’t it really quash the creative spirit? Is that not an enormous obstacle to the Republic Of Stories ever having a viable existence? You say:
“I hate to see citizens sitting blithely by while politicians fund the planet’s largest prison system, subsidies for Big Oil, a war industry that beggars imagination, and tax breaks for the wealthiest, then pretend to believe that we can’t afford decent education, healthcare, or the kind of cultural development investment that even the poorest nations typically make. The surrealism of that big lie and the evident ease with which so many people swallow it indicate a cultural crisis of epic proportions. Once again, the antidote is awareness, and awareness is grounded in empathy and imagination, the essence of art,”
How do we expand that awareness (beyond, of course, getting more people to read your book)?

Arlene:  It’s true that I don’t write much about organized religion, but I do write quite a bit about spirituality, especially concepts like The Golden Rule that seem to be part of the DNA of nearly all spiritual systems. For myself, I make a distinction between structures of authority (be they secular or religious) and powerful stories about the meaning of life, many of which are found in sacred texts. I would characterize the obstacle you’re referring to as blind faith, which doesn’t seem like a good idea to me whether it is faith in religion or in an ideology, or any other realm in which obedience substitutes for awareness, questioning, and self-determination.

One of the claims that I make for art is that it can promote deep questioning: art created with that intention asserts more than one way to see things. It cultivates imagination and empathy, which help us to see and feel what others see and feel. In many ways, it actualizes The Golden Rule. Engagement with those types of art really do expand awareness.

But I also advocate calling out the big lies rather than being cowed by authority and censoring ourselves. I think the shift will be enabled when people actually speak their truth forthrightly and freely, influencing others who are then inspired to do the same thing. I was impressed last year when Van Jones (who was kind enough to offer blurbs for both my books) exhorted us not to “adjust to absurdity.” I don’t think we should underestimate the power of maladjustment! Some spiritual practices cultivate that by training us to look without preconception; and some cultivate obedience. To me, the former is what art at its most powerful is all about. And regardless of heritage, I observe that a lot of people who are interest in culture most often worship at the “Church of Art,” where beauty and meaning are what save us.

Barry:  Another challenge that looms on the horizon as I read this book was that our problems with the corporate Datastan mentality and modus operandi is that it is now a global phenomenon. While America and even the larger Western world may arguably be (at least more) ready for the paradigm shift that you envision (though as you concede that may be a stretch for some), can the same be said of the rest of the world, and if the rest of the world isn’t anywhere near yet ready, can our attempt to make a paradigm shift really have any chance of success? Of course any “tipping point” has to have its genesis somewhere, but isn’t a global perspective necessary?

Arlene:  Absolutely. I chose to focus primarily on the U.S. because I know it best and because Corporation Nation is most strongly established here, which gives us much opportunity to call for change. The commercialization of absolutely everything is further along here. Many of its consequences are evident to people in other countries: if you look at the policies and actions of cultural ministries abroad, many have taken steps to avoid a complete cultural takeover by Hollywood. The downside of globalization is becoming increasingly evident. If we draw the line here, others are very likely to respond.

Barry:  I can sense that you will be falsely criticized for being overly optimistic in thinking the day of a change is soon at hand. I say falsely because in your very first mini chapter you state quite clearly that “It’s impossible to say with any certainty that (even ) if a large number of us expanded our vision, reframing our understanding of the public interest in culture,” (that) the epochal changes I (you) describe in the book and in The Wave will unfold.” You make a convincing case that the time may be at hand, but if the social model you call Datastan took “centuries to evolve” (your words). What makes you think it can be overturned and replaced anytime soon?

Arlene:  I’m sure you’re right, Barry. I’m up against a pervasive discouragement that makes people afraid to get their hopes up. That is sad. That kind of self-insulation against disappointment compels people to pre-disappoint themselves: they declare defeat without even playing the game. I tend not to think in terms of “overturning” and “replacing” the old order, because those words suggest a really arduous struggle where you have to dismantle whatever exists before significant change can come about. Just seeing new possibilities can activate a profound shift. In the heyday of the sixties civil rights movement a simple idea, “Black is beautiful,” went viral and encouraged people to question a whole social order based on the opposite proposition.

If we turn the conventional dismissal and trivialization of art and culture upside down, giving them their rightful place at the center of civil society, that can have a comparable impact. If people just stop accepting the orthodoxies of the paradigm I call Datastan—that nothing counts unless it can be counted and human beings ought to model their social arrangements on machines—that will release new energy and creativity for the many small life-choices that aggregate into a new world. In my other new book, The Wave, which shows a possible future if this happens, we still have hospitals, businesses, schools, and so on. But they are shaped by and infused with very different aims and understandings.

Barry:  You suggest there are “growing numbers of people who recognize that the old order is not working for most of us”. But is that number anywhere yet near big enough to presage a titanic attitudinal shift in people’s thinking; to reach the “tipping point”? You suggest a number of “what if” scenarios that might move us to that tipping point, but “what if” the forces against the changes are simply too great to yet overcome? When you say:

“The chief challenge facing those aligned with freedom, justice, and love in a society that denies these things their rightful value is to remember who we are. It is essential to pay attention to what we are consuming, to avoid inadvertently succumbing to tainted grain. That means discarding whatever says we are powerless or inconsequential in favor of whatever reminds us of our capacity for moral grandeur. It means remembering that none of us is immune to the prejudices and reactions that engender cruelty, to the pervasive temptations to place our own kind first, treating others as less than ourselves and using them as objects. It means being able to see the marks on own foreheads—and on others’—even when they are written in ink that seems invisible to so many of our fellow humans. These marks are signposts pointing to necessary change,”

--- how do we expand the circle of those that can do this to move enough people to the tipping point?

Arlene:  An underlying theme in some of your questions is “can it be done?” And of course, who knows? None of us can foretell the future. But I take a lot of comfort in surprising changes I’ve seen in my own lifetime: the fall of Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid, the election of an African American President, the increasing legalization of same-sex marriage, and so on. Some of these things seemed to come out of left field. The smart money said, “Nah, never happen.” And often, the smart money was wrong. I don’t know exactly how many people have to recognize the centrality of art and culture before a tipping-point is reached—I don’t think anyone knows that for certain. But not-knowing is a powerful ally, because it keeps you from falling for the propaganda that says, “Nah, never happen.” If you can’t absolutely know what will happen, why choose the disappointing plot-line for your story? It doesn’t make sense to give up on something you want just because you don’t have a guarantee that you’ll get it. Wanting has power in and of itself. I think we can expand the circle just by reminding people of that.

Barry:  Back to religion for a moment. If religion - which had (and arguably still has) a fair hold and sway over large blocs of people over time - failed in getting the Golden Rule actualized as an operating model (which you argue for), what is different about the arts and embracing the Republic of Stories model that might allow it to succeed? While organized religion certainly touts the Golden Rule as a way to approach life, at the same time, one of its great appeals is that it allows for people to ignore the rule and be forgiven for any and all lapses - great and small. How do we counter that?

Arlene:  I’m not sure The Golden Rule has failed as an operating model. As individuals, I think most of us apply it many times a day: we think about the other’s feelings, we extend ourselves in acts of kindness, we offer hospitality to strangers, and so on. How many artists contribute beauty and meaning to the world without much expectation of reward, out of a kind of grace? If you add up all the terrible stuff that makes the headlines, that bottom line will never equal the countless acts of grace and beauty performed each day. I seldom meet anyone who is purposely cruel or destructive, who doesn’t care who they hurt because they have an escape clause courtesy of organized religion. It’s not The Golden Rule but our institutions that have failed.

Our challenge is to spread The Golden Rule even further, so it permeates institutions. Art at its best cultivates empathy and imagination, which equal compassion. Indeed, it’s the objectification of other people that allows us to treat them as less than ourselves. And much of the work created by visual, performing, literary and other artists is precisely against objectification, telling highly particular stories that offer specific portals to empathy and imagination.

So I recommend, for instance, that money now deployed by public institutions to create and disseminate pamphlets that no one reads, hold public meetings no one attends, or make PSAs no one watches—those funds can be redeployed to employ artists to engage people with agencies’ work in a much deeper, more participatory way. When that happens—for instance, Forum Theater about childhood asthma based on real stories, with real opportunities to envision meaningful remedies—people actually experience the difference between the old order and the new path infused with art, engaging body, emotions, intellect, and spirit. Their experience is much more satisfying. People want to do it again, and that has an impact.

Barry:  In one of your chapters you talk about the power of “frames” and how the arts have failed to frame its issues as effectively as it might. You go on to lament and even share your anger with acceptance of the frame of inevitability that funding for wars means there can be no funding for the arts. But given your apt description of Datastan’s power in making us all believe there is nothing we can do, especially about things like war funding, what reframing might work? As you correctly (in my opinion) acknowledge the fact that even with all the wasteful funding for needless wars, there is still money that might be given to the arts instead of some pet project of politician’s big money supporters, wouldn’t pointing out that reality be a more effective frame than urging the populace to reject defense spending? You argue that the anti-government frame has been successfully exploited by the supporters of Datastan to keep the arts as seen as unworthy of support, and that we ought to use our “stories” frame to first change the cherished belief in anti-government. How would you frame the arts to be embraced by the public given the success of framing it as yet another example of government waste and excess?

Arlene:  In my other book, The Wave, I describe future public campaigns that use digital storytelling and other art forms to reframe public understanding of first education, and then climate change. In the education campaign, parents and teachers revolt against the test-driven corporate-style education policies that treat children like objects instead of recognizing a range of learning styles and methods, and enacting the need to cultivate the whole person. A key point is rejection of children’s education being shaped by people who never taught anything, and whose own children won’t be subjected to the results. It becomes a question of the right to shape one’s own story. This is already happening. The story that education activists are telling resonates strongly with parents, who naturally want school to be enlarging, exciting, and engaging for their kids—and know that “drill and kill” is the opposite, instilling boredom and a dislike of education. You reframe by finding a powerful new story that holds a deeper truth. In the anti-climate change campaign in The Wave, people use the idea of a “Victory Garden,” annexing a history of resilience, self-help, and participation in times of crisis. The songs, stories, and other testimonies of artists play a huge role in carrying the message.

When it comes to arts funding, I think we have to consider that the phrase “the arts” telegraphs a particular type of snobbery and distance. You ask people if they are “into the arts” and most say no, thinking of marble halls and red-velvet curtains, places they don’t feel at home. Then you ask if they take photos, play an instrument, dance, make YouTube videos, and so on, and they say yes, I love that. That gap is huge, and really easy to close with different language that considers how people really do express their creativity. If you do that, and also point out what we’re actually spending our money on—way more than two annual NEA budgets each day, seven days a week, on war, for instance—people begin to see their choices differently.

I don’t advocate abolishing defense spending. Every country needs some kind of defense—both the kind that comes with arms and the kind that comes with making friends in the world. But do we need to starve education, art, healing, and other social goods so that we can be arms merchant to the world, or create the largest prison population on the planet? Is that who we are? The right frames will pose those questions in a way that people can hear.

Barry:  A number of times you come back to three questions you believe we all ought to be asking:

  • Who are we as a people?
  • What do we stand for?
  • How do we want to be remembered?

Given the pressures of daily life and all that human beings must contend with, how do we encourage people to take the time to ask themselves these questions - not just once when they allow themselves a moment of introspection and reflection, but again and again until some answers emerge?

Arlene:  As much as many of us may be shy about playing this role, I think we have to model it. Artists and those who enable work in art and culture have to stand up and ask these core questions in the face of every public action that discredits who we really are. And every time we do, others will hear, be moved to reconsider even if only for a moment, and thus receive a little more encouragement to ask the same questions the next time. I collect aphorisms. Martin Luther King said, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” James Baldwin said, “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.” To which I can only say, Amen.

Barry:  You talk about the role the arts and culture played in the success of the front line fighters in the Arab Spring as an example of their power. Most experts agree that the jury is still out on whether or not the changes brought about by the Arab Spring are long term or transitory. How do you think art and culture can work to make change permanent and keep the Datastan masters from simply coming back in and filling a void after some initial movement towards change?

Arlene:  The jury is still out on American democracy too. Democracy is a dynamic process, always in a state of becoming, never complete. In this country, I think many of us go to sleep on our democratic responsibilities. I remember years ago meeting an exchange student from South Africa before the end of apartheid. “I’m puzzled,” he said. “In this country, you have all the freedoms we are fighting and dying for, but you don’t use them.” Democracy is vibrant and real when there are many opportunities to exercise the full cultural citizenship I describe in The Culture of Possibility:
"Cultural citizenship demands no papers. In a situation of true cultural citizenship, each of us—regardless of legal status—is able to experience meaningful belonging, participation, and mutual responsibility. In a situation of true cultural citizenship, people learn about each other’s heritages, respect each other’s contributions to community life and public discourse, feel welcome in their own cities and towns. In a situation of true cultural citizenship, it is understood that all of us together craft the story that supports our collective resilience and ability to thrive—or else we fall prey to competing stories of triumphal superiority and bitter scapegoating, and in the end, no one thrives."
Virtually all of the things I listed there can be enacted through creative expression and engagement with art. I think artists have a lot to do in both this country and North Africa to make democracy real. I hope we lead the way.

Barry:  There has been considerable discussion in our field of late as to the issue of equity - in funding and support specifically - raising questions of fairness and racism. You cite A 2011 National Endowment for The Arts (NEA) study reports that:
 “[T]he decline in the rate of childhood arts education among white children is relatively insignificant from 1982 to 2008, just five percent, while the declines in the rate among African American and Hispanic children are quite substantial — 49 percent for African American and 40 percent for Hispanic children. These statistics support the conclusion that almost the entire decline in childhood arts education between the 1982 and 2008 SPPAs was absorbed by African American and Hispanic children.”
Where does the fault lie for this deeply disturbing statistic, and what do we now do about it?

Arlene:  The fault is pretty well distributed, I think: a legacy of racial injustice written into law has left a residue of less-formalized but pervasive racial injustice, and it’s expressed in the unequal distribution of many social goods—health, economic security, safe food and water, and so on, not just education or cultural funding. I don’t see how to address it without acknowledgement and remedial action. I want to see the heads of cultural institutions, education leaders, and cultural policymakers stand up and admit to the inequity encoded in our institutions. I want to see them volunteer to share some of their privilege, and to advocate for a larger increase in funding where it is most needed, even if that means less for themselves.

And if that makes you or any of your readers laugh, I want you to consider the meaning of that laughter, which is that we are so used to prescribing for others conditions that we would not choose for ourselves, it seems absurd to imagine otherwise. I have often advocated The Golden Rule as a one-line public policy: if the children of policymakers and elites had to make do with the same education (or housing, or healthcare) as the children described in that report, who lost their opportunity for arts education, the level would go skyrocketing upward.

Part II on Wednesday.  

Have a great week

Don’t Quit