Arts and Culture: If This Doesn’t Wake Up Establishment Arts, What Will?

What if — as I’ve recently written — the current pandemic is a “hinge moment” in history, offering the possibility of a break from the past? What if the actions taken in response to the pandemic, especially the things that we have repeatedly been told are impossible (such as radically cutting emissions) demonstrate that another world is indeed possible? What if the loud and powerful voices urging us back to the old way, the way that put them first, are plainly saying they care only for themselves and consider not only the rest of us but the planet dispensable, as I also wrote recently?

If these things are true, what must we do to make use of the moment, to push history’s swinging door toward equity, love, and justice?

What we cannot in good conscience do as the bodies pile up and the excuses mount is pretend that the old assumptions and rationales will save us, that all we need to do is refresh them with a little money and all will be well. Things are changing fast, and whatever the future holds, it will not be the old “normal.”

But that is exactly what establishment arts advocates are doing. It makes me sad, mad, and tired.

There have been white papers, calls, and commentaries from arts and culture alliances, mostly variations on the “we are all in this together” theme, most drawing on the tired rationale from economic impact, most calling on funders and policymakers to step up with more resources.

While #IMPOTUS and his minions evaded, postponed, and prevaricated, in most sectors, all kinds of private-sector organizations responded much more quickly to the pandemic, multiplying emergency funds and services. Mainstream arts associations and funders were no exception. They set up a slew of funds and programs such as Artist Relief, to make $5,000 grants to “artists facing dire financial emergencies,” and there are emergency initiatives from many national and regional funders.

It’s a good thing to call for investment in the people and organizations affected by COVID-19. Clearly, artists and arts organizations have been significantly affected, as almost every form of artistic creation is generated or completed by gathering in groups. How do you dance with social distancing? What do you do with a concert hall or arena when groups are prohibited from meeting? What happens to your livelihood if the gallery or community center showing your visual artwork is forced to close before your exhibit even opens? Organizations have been surveying artists and organizations to demonstrate massive negative economic impact for the pandemic.

But the argument, as usual, is being framed in the same old narrowly economistic terms, continuing the fiction that culture must be justified as a generator of capital in a society in which the only things that count are those that can be counted. I’ve written and spoken so much about this, I don’t know what to cite, but the point is developed at length in my book The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & The Future.

So let me settle for asking just one question. How is justifying arts expenditure as economic development working out as a strategy for increasing cultural funding in this country?

First, let’s stipulate that the conventional debate over public investment in the arts turns on sums of money so small that in other sectors economists would dismiss them as a “rounding error.” In constant dollars, the 1980 and 2019 NEA budgets were each $155 million. Tremendous energy was invested in adding a few million for 2019, but this year’s budget should have been more than $483 million just to equal the spending power of 1980. Since arts advocates decided to go with the strictly economistic story, we’ve lost fully two-thirds of the real value of the NEA budget. (It’s crazy to me that this is celebrated as a lobbying success every year, but that’s another topic. It’s kind of a Trumpian tactic, though: lose big and declare it a win.)

It’s not that we don’t have the money. The National Priorities Project calculates that the U.S. has spent more than $5 trillion on wars since 2001. That’s $32 million an hour, equal to nearly five annual NEA budgets a day, seven days a week. We have the money. We’re just not spending it to cultivate empathy, support creativity, add beauty and meaning to life.

So when I see the type of advocacy statement that is being circulated by establishment arts organizations right now, I shed angry tears. This one was endorsed by more than fifty national associations and service organizations. The argument in a nutshell:

As Congress and the Administration consider additional forms of COVID-19 federal assistance that may be targeted or widespread, we urge support for relief that will sustain the arts sector’s unique capacity to support the U.S. economy, uplift the human spirit, and provide lifelong learning. In the months to come, the American economy will need the arts and culture sector to deliver on its unique mission and also to catalyze economic activity in other devastated industries such as restaurants, hotels, travel, and tourism. In March 2020, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that the arts and culture workforce contributed $877.8 billion, or 4.5 percent, to the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2017. The arts sector is an economic engine that directly employs more than 5 million workers.Attendees at nonprofit arts events spend $31.47 per person, per event, (beyond the cost of admission) on items such as meals and parking — valuable commerce for local businesses and essential during times of economic recovery.

There’s a nice essay by Justin O’Connor, an Australian academic, making the rounds that puts this frame in context:

Over the last thirty years the primary policy justification for the cultural sector has become an economic one. Beginning with ‘arts impact’ studies in the 1980s, then its identification as ‘growth sector’ in the 1990s, culminating in its systematic integration as catalytic economic driver within a wider ‘creative economy’ — culture, in the form of the ‘creative industries’, sought to move itself away from the periphery of ‘the arts’ and towards the powerful centres of economic development and innovation….

Thirty years of chasing neoliberalism’s tail has left the established voices of the cultural sector mute. Their self-positioning as willing servants of culture as economic development, modesty ensured via the fig-leaf of ‘sustainability’, has left them unable to articulate anything like a critical purchase on the current global situation. Without this reckoning, avoiding Business as Usual will be impossible. If the ‘return of the state’ or the ‘social’ is to mean simply more funding for arts and culture (itself still a distant hope), then all this will simply continue unabated….

What could these mainstream arts advocates say and do in this moment rather than singing another chorus of “The arts sector is an economic engine?

Let’s look at what’s missing from their statements and actions to date. They have nothing to say about the underlying inequities the pandemic not only exposes but amplifies. Not a word about going to the root of cultural injustice or changing the systems that uphold and amplify privilege in the very way the sector is structured. Not a word about the way that culture-makers and culture-bearers have been hit hard in communities under stress, where culture isn’t just a way to generate dollars, it embodies the reasons for living and dying. We’re not all in it together in so many ways. Look at the impact on Indigenous communities; the impact on black communities; on unhoused people who cannot shelter at home because they lack homes; on the inmates of our cruel, dehumanizing prison system — and more.

They could address the inequities of their own executives drawing lavish salaries supported with bailout funds while lower-level staff face longterm insecurity. They could talk about the terrible inequities in the way relief is being distributed too; but there isn’t a word about that either.

The silence from the establishment arts when these truths should be ringing out from every corner is shameful. The part of the arts I am most connected to is community-based work, where a preponderance of artists have chosen to invest their gifts in the self-liberation and self-determination of marginalized people. I just spoke to a friend who does this work. He is thinking every day of the infirm, the aged, the ostracized who engage in making art with him and who aren’t able to log onto Zoom as an antidote to their forced isolation. Why aren’t the statements coming out of the mainstream arts talking about those people, the terrible cost to them of the pandemic, the need to together imagine what can be done under new conditions to use creativity to increase connection, to ensure many voices are heard, to help people exercise personal and social imagination and have a say in their own futures?

One person I asked suggested that it wouldn’t be possible to issue a unified statement on those grounds. That it is necessary to call for unity above all, and that inevitably means unity around the old arguments that already have a kind of consensus despite their utter failure to do what they claim. If that’s true — and it may well be — how sad. I’m all for unity, so long as it is grounded in encompassing truth and acknowledgement. But too often — long before the pandemic hit — the marginalized are asked to hush up in the name of unity, then ignored until the next call for unity comes around.

If that’s the unity that’s being asked, then there isn’t a shred of hope of using this time to make necessary changes toward treating cultures equitably; abandoning the self-serving hierarchies of taste that pollute the establishment arts; ensuring equal opportunity and access to all. We also need to recognize where remedial action is necessary to address past inequities grounded in colonization and other forms of oppression and discrimination, and to ensure that all future systems of support, regulation, research, and education put justice and equity at the center.

Where among the big arts and cultural associations and institutions is this truth being spoken?

If this is a hinge moment as I believe, then it is an opportunity to change the old normal for one that is more humane, generous, and just. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the institutional beneficiaries of the old system fail to call for the changes that would start to right its embedded wrongs — or even trouble to mention them. So not surprised, yes, but truly very sad, very angry.

How about you?

Can’t We Talk It Over” by Betty Carter. A live performance with real audience interaction!

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

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