The Arts and the State in Times of Crisis: The Prospect of a New WPA, Part 2. What Values Shape Our Thinking?

NOTE: I’m delighted to be once again cohosting a “virtual residency” with my friend and colleague Francois Matarasso on my blog and his. (You can access the previous residencies here: on ethics and on the future of community arts.) Starting yesterday, 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. Here’s the link to register.

Download our full dialogue formatted for the UK or for the US (if the links aren’t working, try a different browser or email me at arlenegoldbard@gmail.com and I’ll send you the PDF you want via email). Or if you prefer, you can read an excerpt each day at our blogs.

Here’s the second installment.

What Values Shape Our Thinking?

François: We both agree that whatever answers our societies come up with, they must be rooted in a universal approach. They can’t be for a special interest, whether that special interest group is artists or miners or farmers or whatever, because if you prioritise one special interest, you end up disadvantaging others. The other problem is that we live in an interdependent world, and I have yet to see a valid basis for determining that one human being is more valuable than another human being. Their actions can have different values. Some people’s work as an ecologist, or a surgeon, or a philosopher or a visionary leader may be exceptional and benefit many, but people themselves are of equal value. That’s what I meant when I wrote in A Restless Art that artists aren’t a special kind of people, they’re people who do a special kind of thing. We are faced with fundamental human challenges and solving the problems of only some people doesn’t help — it creates new divisions.

Arlene: I don’t disagree with anything you’re saying, but your reasons are more philosophical values-based. In US society, I have a really practical reason which trumps everything for me: I can’t imagine how to successfully get what we need passed into law just for artists. There’s not enough of us and we don’t have enough political power. From that perspective, reality forces universalism.

And to me, it’s right on time, because this is a good moment in the history of art and artists for people to recognize that that specialness was created in a certain historical context for certain reasons and is being lived out in an evolving historical context. It makes even less sense in some ways than it did before. Way back when I first started organising with artists, I would give this talk where my metaphor for the artist was Sleeping Beauty, because your social role was to repose beautifully and wait for the prince — the dealer or the funder or whoever — to give you the kiss that awakens you into life. It was a weird exchange system because you got to be gifted with all this specialness, but in exchange you had to be passive and patient. Maybe it’s timely for artists to finally recognise themselves as workers.

The second point goes to my own core social values: to understand social goods versus market-driven goods. Here in America, we have a front seat on the commercialization of absolutely everything — the privatisation of air and water and everything. We’re definitely the lead villains on that story, although obviously not the only ones. There’s been this constant erosion since the Reagan era. So now we’ve had 40 years of the idea that there aren’t any social goods at all. As we talk, Trump is allowing drilling in the Alaska wilderness, so there isn’t anything that can’t be a profit centre. The belief that we have a responsibility to nurture and support our commonwealth is practically gone here. I don’t understand how we’ll make any progress without reversing that. The wicked problems that we have in this country cannot be solved by profit-driven companies.

We have to raise this question of what are social goods. Yes, it goes to fundamentals like air and water and power, which are already privatised here, but it also goes to collective acts of culture-making and culture-bearing, which are essential to create a society out of a crowd. That takes me to a place where most of the cultural policy ideas I espouse are about watering the roots, like providing space and materials and training, for example, rather than purchasing finished works or even designating specific artists. Something like a WPA, which is public service employment, makes the point that labour can be a social good and calls on you to define when that’s true.

François: I agree with you on the fundamental issue about valuing social goods and rolling back from the privatisation of so much. One of my criticisms of the art world is that certain parts of it, including the publicly funded art world, got drawn into that neoliberal way of working in the last 40 years. Salaries went up hugely for curators, theatre directors and other cultural leaders, along with the profession’s self-image and expectations. Without romanticising, in the 1970s I think most people who worked in culture institutions had a different sense of public service.

The veneer, the rhetoric, the language of that remains, but it gets muddled up into some ideas that I find dangerous, including the idea that culture (always as defined by the person making the claim) is an intrinsic good. A lot of the arguments that I’ve heard since the pandemic hit — about why art needs protecting, why artists need protecting, why theatres, concert halls and orchestras need protecting — stand on this fundamental but not well thought-through idea that the European culture invented in the late 18th century is a good in itself.

But culture is a power. All culture expresses values — and those values can be oppressive, hostile, and toxic. In cultural terms, I think we are starting to move from a world in which art’s purpose was the production of cultural goods, to one where the production of cultural activity may be seen to be more valid, more interesting. That’s what I think it means when you say cultural experiences enable people to come together to become communities. But I don’t know how we can claim culture as a public good without perpetuating an unsustainable belief that culture is somehow in itself good. And that has often been oppressive because it says, you’re not good enough because you don’t have these tastes, this knowledge, this education.

Arlene: There’s no question that culture just is: it isn’t good, it isn’t bad. You know, when I’m talking about our commonwealth and social goods, I’m talking about things with some kind of social benefit. What I think we can say is good in the cultural realm is access, opportunity, and awareness. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to freely participate in culture and the arts. The social good is implementing that right, as UNESCO Director-General Rene Mahu said in 1970:

“It is not certain that the full significance of this text, proclaiming a new human right, the right to culture, was entirely appreciated at the time. If everyone, as an essential part of his dignity as a man [sic], has the right to share in the cultural heritage and cultural activities of the community — or rather of the different communities to which men belong (and that of course includes the ultimate community — mankind) — it follows that the authorities responsible for these communities have a duty, so far as their resources permit, to provide him with the means for such participation.”

When that right was articulated, we had no idea what it would take to make it real. And it still isn’t real, right? So that’s the social good: to provide the means and remove the impediments. And that takes a lot of money.

François: Yes, and for me, it connects with the capabilities approach — the 10 capabilities that Martha Nussbaum writes about in her book Creating Capabilities. They include life, bodily health and integrity, senses, imagination, and thought, play — and artistic speech is part of that in Nussbaum’s analysis. Still, though I share your vision of culture, we have to accept that it is values-driven; it’s not neutral. So much of art discourse pretends that art is a neutral good. We’re standing up for a set of values, rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the capabilities approach, that say it is a public good to enable people to fulfill their potential. As human beings, that’s the public good and culture has a has a powerful place in enabling people to fulfill their potential as individuals and as social, interdependent human beings.

Arlene: I buy that, but for me it’s not sufficient. It speaks first of the individual, and that is foundational. But the second level is that art nourishes culture, it creates the fabric of communication, interaction, celebration, and commemoration — all those things that make societies livable. Without them, there’d be a lot less reason to not just be the war of each against all. So culture incorporates individual capabilities, and can help create loving, just, and humane societies. Art doesn’t intrinsically do that because as you say, there’s Nazi art, but it can.

François: This is important, but it doesn’t often get acknowledged in the art world.

Arlene: There’s an inhibition, I think, a feeling of not wanting to poke the beast, not wanting to offend the powers-that-be in the art world by questioning their assumptions. There’s the hope that if you find just the right way to express yourself, resources will start flowing. That relates to the question of what defines success. What defines success for us is implicit in what we were saying about social benefit, right?

François: Yes, success in our terms implies responses that are universal, rather than specific to any sector such as the arts, and produce social benefit through common goods. And that respond to the environmental, political, economic, and social crises that threaten and divide us.

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

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