Sunday, September 28, 2014

Where is the Debate in the Arts

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

I use to watch all the Sunday morning political shows - Meet the Press, Face the Nation etc.  I quit tuning in to these television stalwarts when they became nothing more than platforms for the spin doctors of the two major parties.  Where they were once forums for real and lively debate on current issues, they devolved over time to talking heads like John McCain and Donna Brazille parroting pablum bullet points that never really say anything substantive.  Meet the Press, the ratings king and mainstay of all the Sunday morning shows, lost its cachet when Tim Russert passed away, and with his passing any hard, probative questioning was lost with him.  It's hard to really have a debate with someone else when neither you nor they actually say anything, and that's exactly what happened on these shows.  There is the illusion of a debate, but its mostly just saying the other side is wrong as a declarative statement.

Last year I did a blog on the Arts Spin Doctors - and wondered if we (in the arts) weren't also guilty (at times at least) of doing exactly what politicians have now adopted as their default modus operandi - namely, to spin the realities and facts of a situation or issue not just to one's best advantage, but to the point where there is really no substantive debate or discussion at all.

And I wonder now Where IS the Debate in the Arts?

Except for some of my fellow bloggers - who raise questions, and aren't averse or afraid to tackle real issues and debate some of the points by taking a stand - and in a couple of areas such as the research sub-sector - I don't see a lot of honest debate going on in our field - at least not public debate.  Maybe it's happening somewhere, but it isn't highly visible and readily apparent to me.  I wonder if that kind of challenging of assumptions and holding people accountable for their positions is going on out of the public window in our organizations - from funders to researchers to service groups to academia. I wonder if the kind of serious debate that is healthy for arriving at well thought out conclusions on which to base decision making is happening behind closed doors - because I don't see it happening much in our public arenas.  If it is happening in a robust fashion within the walls of organizations, there ought to be some way to share all that. It would, I think, be beneficial to us all.

 I suspect that when issues and responses are on the table across our universe, for the most part there are "discussions", but not really serious debates.  We seem to have long championed civility over heated debate, and the acceptable protocol is now for a refined approach to consideration of that which challenges us.  We don't necessarily take strong positions, we don't necessarily fight for deeply held beliefs, and we don't necessarily hold the feet of those who take contrary positions to the fire as it were. At our conferences, there are "presentations" - mostly of programs and the like that have already been launched and assumedly "vetted" first.  But "vetted" by whom and when - because there is no real debate about much of anything at these convenings.

Even the tools we use in our sessions are designed to minimize disagreement and foster blanket consensus.  We gather our ideas, write them down on easel pads and tape them to the walls, then "discuss" them rationally and logically so as to make nicey nicey with each other.   It's almost as though we have, ironically, (for the arts are arguably about passion) bred all emotion out of consideration of the issues with which we must deal.  We avoid confrontation as unseemly for our level of civilization, yet civilization itself is quite possibly a result of contentious disagreement.  We seem to fairly easily accept things as presented to us, and there are norms governing debate within our field that are almost sacrosanct, and there seems little challenge to that which is assumed to be "givens".

Is that healthy?  Shouldn't there be widespread open debate on all the major issues we face, rather than some kind of de facto ratification of what is put up as fait accompli?   Wouldn't a little actual real disagreement and spirited defense of strongly held beliefs serve us better?  What is wrong with the internal system our infrastructure has allowed, if there is so little public (at least within our own universe) debate and questioning of our decision making, of our strategies and approaches, of our blind acceptance of virtually every response to the important issues on our plate? Has real debate been systemically bred out of our approach to how we do things?  Is it reasonable to assume there is really the universal consensus on everything we do that the lack of real debate suggests?  And if we all do basically agree on everything - what does that say about us?  Why are our conferences nothing more than panel presentations where there is virtually no disagreement or debate on what is being presented?  Where are the hard questions and the healthy skepticism as to what is being presented?  Why aren't  we openly and vigorously challenging each other on a full range of positions taken?  After 15 years in this field, I know that there are lots of people with strong opinions and feelings about things and there is no way all of those people see things the same.

I'm not suggesting we be rude, nor combative and accusatorial, in our interactions with each other; certainly not contentious for its own sake. I am not suggesting we argue just for the sake of argument.  Nor am I suggesting there is no  disagreement or debate in our field. I am suggesting that there is too little questioning and debate that is open and transparent, and that the absence of real disagreement and strong, probative public debate is unhealthy for us.

Houston, we have a problem.  And it just might be possible that the problem is us.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit