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Dewey Square in Boston on October 15

On the topic of art and political activism (discussed in my earlier post here): Susana Viola Jacobson, consummate artist and critic, left the following response to that piece. Her thoughts were too good to not share.

Very thoughtful piece. I wrestled with this divide for years and finally realized that painting is generally not a very effective tool for the politics of change, though it has been at times. My painting definitely isn’t useful in that way.

But art too works very slowly and most often on a small audience. It does help people figure the meanings of things, of their lives, so in that sense helps them be more purposeful and clear about what they do and who they are. It reflects our best and worst manifestations as a species, even when it is primarily geared toward entertainment, as long as we look at it critically. It does require us to work to get more out of it than a past time.

I’ve often found topical art too short lived in its effect and in making a clear point. It challenges boundaries and can break them for the rest of us, but then it tends to quickly become out of date. I’m grateful to artists who throw the pointed spear and make the first breach but I’m also grateful to artists who come before and after those moments and provide places for us to ponder, contemplate, absorb and reflect within their work.

We need all of it.

A note about Susana Viola Jacobson: Formerly at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania where she was a professor of painting, Susana now lives in Salt Lake City Utah. We shared a loft together on the Lower East Side in the 70s.

“Diverse Evils and Accumulated Sorrows”, by Susana Viola Jacobson (on display at the Humbolt State University library)


October 15 march and protest in Boston

Aligning the work you do with the passions of your heart is not a given. My partner Dave worked for decades before he finally found a way to integrate his professional life with his personal desire to make the world a better place. (His organization, ReachScale, creates public/private partnerships to fund innovative social enterprises.)

But it isn’t so easy for me. I have not yet found a way to bring my political passions and my work as an artist into confluence.

I struggled with this discrepancy after 9/11. Other artists felt that same discomfort, and a number of thoughtful pieces appeared addressing that issue. If the work that emerges from your most authentic self is non-narrative, non-political, made by one person working alone, there just isn’t an easy alignment with ideology, at least not directly. So you do your work in one compartment of your life, and you advocate in another.

The Occupy movement has brought those bifurcated feelings to the surface for me again. This is a “finally!” moment for so many of us who were raised on believing in the power of bodies in the street and the impact of physical presence. This moment in time feels like a return to my roots. Like going home for a meal made by your mom—familiar and nourishing.

This showed up in Michael Kimmelman‘s piece in the New York Times, The Power of Place:

It so happens that near the start of the protest, when the police banned megaphones at Zuccotti Park, they obliged demonstrators to come up with an alternative. “Mic checks” became the consensus method of circulating announcements, spread through the crowd by people repeating, phrase by phrase, what a speaker had said to others around them, compelling everyone, as it were, to speak in one voice. It’s like the old game of telephone, and it is painstakingly slow.

“But so is democracy,” as Jay Gaussoin, a 46-year-old unemployed actor and carpenter, put it to me. “We’re so distracted these days, people have forgotten how to focus. But the ‘mic check’ demands not just that we listen to other people’s opinions but that we really hear what they’re saying because we have to repeat their words exactly.

“It requires an architecture of consciousness,” was Mr. Gaussoin’s apt phrase.

For me, living a few hundred miles from Zuccotti Park, it started with constant monitoring of the twitter feeds for #occupywallstreet, #ows, #occupyboston, #rootstrikers, #globalchange. Then Boston came on line. I expanded to helping out with donations and food. But on Saturday it moved out of virtual and into the visceral when I stood with thousands of others in downtown Boston to protest a dysfunctional world. How can you not want things to tilt towards a better direction, towards the creation of a world that is just, sustainable, good? How can you not be hopeful we can do better?

Designer Bruce Mau asked the same thing when he started the Massive Change movement several years ago. “I was troubled at the time by the mood of the day. What I saw was incredibly positive change, but the more I read [in the media], the more I saw people being convinced that the world is going to hell in a handcart.”

Then he found an extraordinary quote by the historian Arnold J. Toynbee:

The twentieth century will be chiefly remembered by future generations not as an era of political conflicts or technical inventions, but as an age in which human society dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective.

I have found comfort in that quote for years, and now another good sign is Steven Pinker‘s exhaustively researched and important new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Is it counterintuitive to believe a better world is possible?

Our perceptions are deceptive. 24/7 news coverage is skewed to the negative. How can anyone get the full picture?

Several years ago John Cage was asked this question in an interview with Laurie Anderson:

“Are things getting worse or are they getting better?”

His answer:

“Of course things are getting better. It is just that it is happening so s-l-o-w-l-y.”

So it’s Monday. Back to work. On both fronts.

Portrait of Eleanor Heartney. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Eleanor Heartney, art critic and author of Art & Today as well as monographs on Liza Lou, Kenneth Snelson and Roxy Paine among others, has written a short but hard hitting piece on artnet that asks many of the tough questions not being addressed in the current cultural dialogue: What is art’s relationship (and obligation?) to society? What is its role in the current economy? How can the meaning and “usefulness” of art be evaluated?

Here’s an example:

I again heard the statistics about the collateral money art events infuse into the surrounding community, the dollar value added by artists and art institutions, the degree to which local economies are stimulated by the arts. Taking the higher ground, others argued that we should try to make the case that art is valuable because it instills critical discourse and participatory thinking.

But is any of it really true? If states are looking to stimulate the local economy, wouldn’t an infrastructure project have more long term effect than commissioning artists to install more giant art projects? Can one honestly make the case that states in danger of bankruptcy should be funding art festivals or even art classes instead of police forces, school lunches or Medicaid?

Heartney goes on to acknowledge that encouraging discourse is a worthy goal, but is that art’s job? Is art really up to that task? The issues are intertwined and complex.

Meanwhile, the class divide within the art world…(to say nothing of the even greater class divide in society at large) is bigger than ever. I have always been struck by Clement Greenberg’s famous assertion in his 1939 essay Avant Garde and Kitsch that the avant-garde remains attached to the ruling class by “an umbilical cord of gold.” Today, as private patrons who have benefited from America’s trickle up (or should we say gush up) economic policies call the shots at museums, preside over a burgeoning art market and style themselves as the New Medicis, Greenberg’s dictum seems truer than ever, and sadly, no one dares to yank the chain.

These are issues that are political, complicated and difficult. But Heartney’s point of view rings true for me. We would be better served with more discussion along these lines.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

I just found a spunky rebuttal to the much-discussed article by the Times’ Robin Pogrebin about the recent era of museum overbuilding. Pogrebin’s article is referenced in yesterday’s post, and anyone who has read her piece should also read through Lee Rosenbaum’s article on CultureGrrl, Not Dead Yet: Museum Building Projects Are Alive and Kicking. (Rosenbaum has written a more detailed analysis of major omissions in Pogrebin’s piece in an earlier posting, also very interesting.)

Rosenbaum’s bottom line with expansion delays and other ongoing projects:

Museum expansion isn’t an evil to be avoided, as Robin’s article seems to suggest. It just needs to be done for the right reasons and with a secure financial underpinning. That means not only knowing in advance where the necessary construction money is coming from, but also amassing the endowment funds required to cover the increased operating costs of the expanded facility. If you don’t know where that money is coming from, you need to delay the project. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Showing a geographical bias, I was pleased to see Rosenbaum highlight U.K.-based Apollo magazine’s choice of Boston’s MFA director Malcolm Rogers as their Personality of the Year. “Among its many photos of its cover boy, the magazine features a shot of Rogers ‘amid construction of the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Visitor Center’—part of the major renovation and expansion (including a new American wing) designed by Norman Foster. The project successfully concluded its capital campaign in June 2008 (good timing), raising a whopping $504 million.”

The scheduled date for completion of the MFA project is the end of 2010.


Michelle Obama spoke at the ribbon cutting for the opening of the new American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “First Guns” as some like to call our beautifully appendaged wife of the Prez, is as gracious in her remarks here as she is in so many other settings. Face it, during the last eight years (and painful to admit, in the Clinton era as well) we forget how to put “gracious” and “support for the arts” in the same sentence. She’s so reliably intelligent and right on. Reading this can’t help but make you feel just a little bit better about things.

Here’s the text:

Good afternoon and thank you, Emily, for that introduction, and thank you for reminding me. You know, after 20-some-odd years of knowing a guy, you forget that your first date was at a museum. (Laughter.) But it was, and it was obviously wonderful; it worked.

So I am delighted to be here with you to celebrate American history through the arts. From the beginning of our nation, the inspired works of our artists and artisans have reflected the ingenuity, creativity, independence and beauty of this nation. It is the painter, the potter, the weaver, the silversmith, the architect, the designer whose work continues to create an identity for America that is respected and recognized around the world as distinctive and new.

The American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art captures this spirit in presenting a variety of American art forms and providing a link to history for us to learn from, appreciate and be inspired by.

Our future as an innovative country depends on ensuring that everyone has access to the arts and to cultural opportunity. Nearly 6 million people make their living in the non-profit arts industry, and arts and cultural activities contribute more than $160 billion to our economy every year. And trust me, I tried to do my part to add to that number.

The President included an additional $50 million in funding to the NEA in the stimulus package to preserve jobs in state arts agencies and regional arts organizations in order to keep them up and running during the economic downturn. (Applause.)

But the intersection of creativity and commerce is about more than economic stimulus, it’s also about who we are as people. The President and I want to ensure that all children have access to great works of art at museums like the one here. We want them to have access to great poets and musicians in theaters around the country, to arts education in their schools and community workshops.

We want all children who believe in their talent to see a way to create a future for themselves in the arts community, be it as a hobby or as a profession.

The arts are not just a nice thing to have or to do if there is free time or if one can afford it. Rather, paintings and poetry, music and fashion, design and dialogue, they all define who we are as a people and provide an account of our history for the next generation.

The President recently nominated renowned theater producer Rocco Landesman to chair the National Endowment for the Arts. Rocco’s entrepreneurial spirit and his commitment to being a bridge between the philanthropic, non-profit and commercial arts community will ensure that all types of art and creative expression are provided fertile ground to live and to grow.

And that’s what we hope to do at the White House, that’s what we’ve been trying to do at the White House. We’ve been trying to break down barriers that too often exist between major cultural establishments and the people in their immediate communities; to invite kids who are living inches away from the power and prestige and fortune and fame, we want to let those kids know that they belong here, too.

I want to applaud the Metropolitan Museum of Art for all the outreach that you do, for having kids like these here today to be involved in this and to experience this and to share this with us, because this is your place, too. So we’re very proud of the Met for the work that they’ve done.

So we are excited. Thank you for including me. And now we can get to the — we’re going to cut the ribbon now.

If this topic is worn thin for you, then pass by this posting. I continue to be heartened by the dialogue that has resulted from the arts funding discussion that was launched into the larger public consciousness during the Stimulus Bill process. I am heartened because I agree, with Greg Sandow (whose article in the Wall Street Journal I posted here a few days ago) that we need to do a better job at articulating the value and importance of this nebulous, oft misunderstood, easily undervalued and/or deaccessioned (as exemplified by Brandeis University’s now notorious decision to close the Rose Art Museum) thing called THE ARTS.

Here’s Sandow’s recent posting from his excellent blog, Sandow:

In my last post, about going viral, I mentioned a skeptical Wall Street Journal piece I’d written about stimulus money for the arts. It appeared last Wednesday, and of course grew out of my skeptical posts about the arts stimulus (here and here).

In it, I said much of what you might have read in the blog. The economic argument for giving stimulus money to the arts is shallow, and easy for non-arts organizations to trump. It’s hard to argue for money for the arts when money for crucial social programs — public health, for instance — is lacking. It’s hard, politically, to give stimulus money for arts organizations like the Metropolitan Opera, which seem to be swimming in money. (Even if they’re hurting financially.)

And then I ended with something about the pro-arts arguments I wish we’d make, which would be based on the intrinsic value of the arts (or better still, of art itself). And which — this is the hard part for many of us — would reflect a world in which popular culture already supplies some of the depth and meaning we credit (and often so ecstatically) the formal high arts for giving us.

Which brings me to a book I strongly recommend, and the challenge it gives us. The book is Bruce Springsteen’s America: The People Listening, A Poet Singing, by Robert Coles. Coles is a child psychiatrist, a Pulitzer Prize winner for a book called Children in Crisis, and for more than a generation one of the most humane voices in American writing. A very serious person, both in his own field, and nationally.

His Springsteen book is about why everyday Americans have loved Springsteen, and been educated and inspired by him. Encouraged by him. Taught about themselves by him. Caught in conversations — in their minds, but no less real for that — with him. With references to Walker Percy, a novelist who was moved by Springsteen, and by William Carlos Williams, the great poet, whom Coles knew, and who in the ’50s, living in New Jersey, felt how important, in that age, Frank Sinatra was. And who noted even then, prompted by his son, that Sinatra would have been even stronger if he’d been singing his own songs, his own thoughts, his own words, as Springsteen does.

This book does what arts advocates should do. We talk about the meaning of the arts, their depth, their transformative power. But most often I think we talk windily, in great generalities, without saying much about specific instances, specific things that we or others get from any work of art.

Coles does all that. Here’s book, more than 200 pages long, that tells how Springsteen brought depth, meaning, and transformation to many, many people. With the people talking about it in their own words.

That demonstrates, first of all, what I mean when I say that we in the arts have to acknowledge the artistic strength of popular culture. Whatever we think the arts do, popular culture does, too. (No, not all of it. But that’s an old debate, one most strongly carried on within popular culture itself.)

So we need to do for the arts what Coles does for Springsteen. Until we do, our advocacy, if you ask me, rings a little hollow. So let’s get to work. What depth, what meaning, what transformative urgency, did a production of Tosca at your local opera company have, in the words of people who attended it?

(And yes, I’m deliberately provocative by choosing that example. The question I’d love to provoke is: Do we really believe that everything that bears the label “art” has more artistic value than the best of popular culture? And if we do, can we demonstrate how this is true?)


Elatia Harris, commenter extraordinaire, left this as a response to a comment left to the post below. Thank you Elatia for your reliably insightful and sense-making point of view.

Re: Arts funding:

Much depends on whether you think art follows consumer taste or leads it. And on whether you would be happy for art to reflect culture rather than to stimulate it.

You have to consider how much poorer your life would be if an artist were not different from an entertainer. Maybe not poorer at all, if entertainment is the objective. If what you’re seeking is to beguile your hours, get a change of scene and a sense of relaxation, that’s no bad thing. The government funds the gratification of that aim if you can accomplish these things by going for a day in the park, and you fund it if you buy a ticket to the concert of a commercially successful band. (To say a band is commercially successful is not to slight it, only to emphasize that it’s available on the basis of a ticket, as artistically successful bands for which there is less consumer demand are not.)

If what you want is to immerse in a different reality that might or might not be gentle and fun, however, and to confront rather than escape yourself, taking away food for thought for many days or years — all of this in the company of strangers who are doing more or less the same — then you might want art, perhaps without knowing it. My view is that people want art without knowing it all the time, because we seek transformational as well as restorative experiences, and long to be knocked for a loop. This takes vision, however, and while everyone is responsive to vision not everyone has it.

Some artists do have it. Does this mean they function for the public good? If the answer is yes, then you posit one difference between a consumer, who funds her private idea of a good time, and a taxpayer, who needs to be concerned with the public good even when she doesn’t personally respond to certain artists. Art can reset the human imagination, temporarily turning a consumer into a person who strives and is illuminated. Entertainment can’t risk that, although it occasionally accomplishes it anyway.

You have no right to be entertained at the public expense — as we have seen, that results only in pitting lions against Christians, or perhaps in the creation of “The Yellow River Concerto.” But you have a right to art as you have a right to health care. It should be yours for the price of citizenship, yours like a day in the park.