The year is almost over, friends, and I have yet to understand exactly what is happening. How about you?

I mean, sure, the COVID numbers, the unemployment figures, the police murders, the packed prisons — all of this can be quantified and at least on the level of sheer numbers, comprehended. But what boggles my mind is the vast cognitive dissonance between conventional wisdom and lived experience. How can it be bridged?

I have a slew of examples, but let’s focus on just one, the federal government. As endless historians have assured us, the framers of this nation’s government created a system of checks and balances designed to prevent the abuse of power. The separation of powers emerged in the 18th century as an Enlightenment idea, marked by the characteristic faith in rationality of that period. Logically, it makes sense. Just as a misguided congressional majority can be stopped by presidential veto from overturning foundational principles, a President can be stopped from behaving like mad King George III by Congress or the courts exercising their authority to prevent it. …



One thing we’ve been hearing a lot about since the quadruple pandemic hit is the hope that instead of trying to restore our civic and market systems to their former flawed and inequitable state, we should see this enforced pause as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make essential change. People see the opportunity to strengthen democracy, social inclusion, racial equity, economic security, environmental healing, and much more.

Amidst all the time-release news about President-Elect Biden’s Cabinet-secretary and department-head choices, there’s been barely a peep about culture. But sooner or later, Biden will make the appointments that put his stamp on federal cultural agencies. …


In my last essay, I used the civic frescoes of the 14th-century Sienese painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti as a starting-point for scrutinizing the culture of US politics as most appallingly revealed in our recent electoral process.

I’ve heard or read a great many analyses of the election, but there’s a key point most seem to be missing. I’m concerned that the we do electoral politics — perhaps even more than our substantive disagreements over candidates and policies — is worsening the disinformation, demonization, and polarization that have made our political life so often demoralizing and frightening.

We need to talk about how to repair that, how to get from Lorenzetti’s image of bad government in which Tyranny rules over a court of vice personified to his “Allegory of Good Government,” marked by prosperity, relationship, and celebration. …


I have no reason to believe artists are better or smarter than other people, but I know that artists are often skilled at helping others to see the world more clearly, at focusing awareness and attention. Skilled at perceiving patterns, seeing through the surface of things to deeper meanings, using the connections between things as expressed in the language of symbol, metaphor, and allegory — artists often reveal through depictions, writings, music, and movement what otherwise may be hard to discern.

The Sienese painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti is best-known for a series of six frescoes in that beautiful city’s Palazzo Pubblico, collectively titled the “Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government.” Lorenzetti died of plague in 1348, nearly seven centuries ago, but I often think of these works, visiting their images online to remind myself that civic virtues (and vices) have staying power. …


One more day to go, not to achieve heaven on earth, but to the relief of anticipating the Present White House Occupant’s exit.

For me, that’s also one day closer to the reality of a new WPA, a public service employment program to enlist all kinds of workers in rescuing the public good from the greedy villains who have all but liquidated it for their own profit.

Joe Biden’s platform contains some welcome ideas to bring healing and decent livelihood to the ailing body politic. But it doesn’t include the massive, innovative workforce plans that would come with a new WPA. When we have large-scale public service employment program, I foresee fossil-fuel workers taking part in the transition to clean energy, artists and cultural organizers helping to reweave social fabric after the pandemic, a new Conservation Corps repairing the damage done to public lands and waters — and much, much more. …


Over the last week or so, both my colleague Francois Matarasso in Europe and I have published excerpts from our dialogue about past public service employment programs in the US and UK. Yesterday, we discussed it all on Zoom with folks on both continents, and I want to share that conversation with you. Francois’ and my takes on the prospect of a new WPA are generally in agreement, as we stipulated. Other participants added important dimensions to the picture of possibility. Throughout this essay, I’ve drawn on their observations. You can hear them in full in the Zoom recording. …


(You can access the previous residencies here: on ethics and on the future of community arts.) Starting 29 September, we’re publishing excerpts from our dialogue on public service employment past, present, and future. Then on Tuesday, 6 October, we’ll host a free Zoom conversation about how to make a new WPA real. It will start at 10 am MDT/5 pm BST (9 am PDT, 11 am CDT, noon EDT — that should be enough to figure out the time if you’re in a different timezone). You need to register in advance for one of the up to 100 slots. When you do, Zoom will send a confirmation email with details. …


(You can access the previous residencies here: on ethics and on the future of community arts.) Starting 29 September, we’re publishing excerpts from our dialogue on public service employment past, present, and future. Then on Tuesday, 6 October, we’ll host a free Zoom conversation about how to make a new WPA real. It will start at 10 am MDT/5 pm BST (9 am PDT, 11 am CDT, noon EDT — that should be enough to figure out the time if you’re in a different timezone). You need to register in advance for one of the up to 100 slots. When you do, Zoom will send a confirmation email with details. …


(You can access the previous residencies here: on ethics and on the future of community arts.) Starting 29 September, we’re publishing excerpts from our dialogue on public service employment past, present, and future. Then on Tuesday, 6 October, we’ll host a free Zoom conversation about how to make a new WPA real. It will start at 10 am MDT/5 pm BST (9 am PDT, 11 am CDT, noon EDT — that should be enough to figure out the time if you’re in a different timezone). You need to register in advance for one of the up to 100 slots. When you do, Zoom will send a confirmation email with details. …

About

Arlene Goldbard

Writer, painter, speaker, consultant activist. Learn more about arlenegoldbard.com.

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