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Context And Environment Matter

NPR recently teamed up with the TED people to present the TED Radio Hour which takes three TED talks on a similar theme to revisits them with the speakers. The one I heard run this weekend was about how our brains trick us and confuse us about what we value. It was the second segment with psychologist Paul Bloom which caught my attention because it deal with how so much of what we value about art depends on the context.

It started with the story about Joshua Bell playing in the subway station and no one paying him much mind or money, for that matter. When I talked about this experiment before, I mentioned that context and the environment played large roles in people’s enjoyment.

Bloom talked about the Dutch art dealer who was convicted of treason for selling Hermann Goring a Vermeer–until he confessed and proved the painting was a forgery–after which he was deemed a hero.

Bloom also spoke about Marla Olmstead who was painting works at 3 years old that people were paying tens of thousands of dollars for until 60 Minutes came to visit and it was discovered her father was prompting (and perhaps even helping) with the painting.

A common question was raised about each of these. If Joshua Bell is such a great performer which people pay great amounts of money to hear perform, why wasn’t his quality recognized as an anonymous performer in a D.C. subway? Why is it treasonous to sell a Nazi a real Vermeer but heroic to sell him a fake if you can’t tell the difference between the paintings? If you like the painting, why does it matter if a 3 year old or a 30 year old paints it?

The answer has to do with authenticity, the story which accompanies the experience and a willingness to receive. Classical music doesn’t have to be experienced in a formal performance hall or art in a museum gallery. There are successful programs that bring classical music and opera to bars.

But people go to those events expecting to listen to music. There are entirely different expectations and agendas as you move through a subway station which inhibits a person’s readiness to receive the experience.

Art like wine and food is more enjoyable and valuable when the authenticity of provenance is beyond question. You are buying the story as well as the physical object and that makes all the difference. According to Bloom, there are parts of the brain that light up when you believe you are drinking expensive wine that don’t light up when you believe you are drinking cheap wine even if it is the same wine. So it isn’t that you think it is better, you are actually having an entirely different experience.

The lesson for arts organizations and performers is to help your audience to that mindset. Whether you are in a formal performance space or not, there are things you must do in respect to the environment and interactions to help transition people toward the experience.

You could argue that flashmob performances don’t do that with their audiences and they are often well received. But I would say it isn’t the quality of the performance that people are necessarily responding to but the quality of the planning and execution that brought them the experience.

It is akin to crossing a stream and finding a diamond ring in the water. It is the enjoyment of finding an unexpected treasure that pleases. I think you would find people react just as delighted if an accomplished high school orchestra popped out of the woodwork as they would for the Philadelphia Orchestra revealing themselves in the same manner.

What I really appreciated was Bloom’s late addendum to his TED Talk. In the radio program he said the thing he didn’t emphasize enough in his TED Talk, and was pleased to be able to now, was that most people see it as a glitch or flaw that our perceptions and values can be manipulated by such factors. If we were perfect, these things wouldn’t sway us so easily.

Bloom’s view is that this “flexibility” actually allows us to experience more pleasure in life. He feels that taste can be developed through study and learning. The more you know, the more pleasure you can derive. So if you want to get more pleasure from wine or art, you need to do more than just expose yourself by drinking lots of wine and seeing lots of art, you need intentionally educate yourself.

That seems to align with the findings of the Knight Foundation’s Magic of Music report from six years ago which said exposure in the form of lecture/demos didn’t seem to have as long lasting impact on participation and attendance as participatory programs including instruction.

This, of course, reinforces the importance and sense of desperation to get art back into schools.

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Even Great Artists Need Recess

I may be beating a long dead horse here but last week the National Endowment for the Arts linked to a NY Times article from their Twitter account asking what people thought. The article in question was about how public schools in NYC were having arts classes during recess. I tweeted in response that I thought it was great, but that when I was a kid, I had art, music AND recess. The title of the article touts the school as being highly rated.

While I am happy these kids are getting some arts exposure, I wonder how it can really be seen as an improvement and a credit to their high rating that they had to do it during recess. It’s a shame that that the only time students can have the experience. It is with some chagrin that I tell the story of my first day in high school where I was trying to figure out when we would be allowed outside for recess. The memory of realizing I wouldn’t be having recess any more still causes a little ache.

I have to wonder, is there really so much more to learn these days that they have to squeeze arts classes and recess out? I know arts get cut for financial reasons, but if a school has the resources to offer it during recess, then they could offer classes as well, right? It has been 30 years since I was in elementary school, but I don’t think there have been that many developments in history, reading, mathematics and science in that time that can’t be covered in the course of all the elementary years of school.

If they have to spend so much additional time teaching and testing material for kids, that must mean those of us in the previous generations fell short of learning all that was required of us, correct? I quake in fear for what it will mean for me when these kids grow up and bring their superior knowledge capacity to bear, pushing me out of my job.

Okay, while it may indeed happen one day that my knowledge will be obsolete compared to younger people, I am fairly certain it won’t all hinge on the differences between what we learned in elementary school. In fact, I may retain my superiority over them simply because of the freedom of recess I enjoyed in elementary school.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan recently had a piece on the Creativity Post about this very topic. (my emphasis)

If you want children to do well in school, give them dedicated time to play, sing, dance, build something out of wood, or whatever their fancy. There is a myth that time spent in these activities is time better spent cramming in more information for all important high stakes tests. Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t work that way. We each have a finite amount of willpower and when this willpower is exhausted, carrots and sticks are not going to change this fact. Our brains need time for restoration and replenishment. Discover what kids are passionate about and set them free to pursue it. Let me repeat that, set them free. Do not overly structure their recess. Do not overly structure their play time. This is a time for them to recharge their batteries. In return, you will get a greater frequency of creative, curious, critically thinking youngsters. You will get attentive, engaged students.

There is a great NY Times magazine article on the science behind the finite nature of willpower. There is a shorter version of the information on NPR if you don’t have the willpower to read the article. 😉 (Though as you will learn, you might be able to get some will power by eating a cookie!)

The more I read about the importance of allowing kids free time, the more I appreciate that my elementary school emphasized self-directed learning. (Albeit under the withering gaze of nuns which I am sure counteracted some of the benefits the freedom afforded.)

It occurs to me that arts people shouldn’t just be advocating for arts in the schools, but the free time to explore and express it. I am sure artistic and creative people are well aware of examples from their own disciplines in which a strict teaching environment has had a stultifying effect on the development and joy of young students. The advocacy can’t simply be about providing arts education if it is bereft of an opportunity to play. If students choose to spend their free time peering down at a cell phone texting their friends, it may be in part because they were never provided the opportunity and encouragement to spend it any way else.

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Interconnected Fates

You may have heard that the police in Madison, WI are in sympathy with many of the union members who have gathered to protest their governor’s push to end collective bargaining rights for state workers. Over the weekend I heard an interview on NPR that mentioned both police and firefighters were turning out in support of the protest even though the governor wasn’t proposing to take away their right to collective bargaining because they figured it was only a matter of time. The fire fighter interviewed said they viewed it as an effort to divide and conquer.

Earlier this month Louise K. Stevens who writes the “Arts Market On..” blog made a similar observation regarding the need for the arts to advocate in areas outside of their immediate concern. (my emphasis)

No doubt that you have and will be getting emails and calls to action about this. But probably those calls are piecemeal, asking you for you to advocate for one or another of these line items while ignoring the whole, and that’s the problem. We a splintered sector that has never to date united around the concept of our culture, and now each splinter may be too small and too isolated from its compatriots to build a coalition to save federal support for any of the splinters.

We have a few weeks to save the half century-plus of infrastructure that modest as it may be demonstrates our public commitment to the breadth and majesty of our American culture, our shared story. If we stand splintered now, we may never get a chance to regroup. If we think that saving orchestras or contemporary dance is more important or that saving library funding and museum funding matters more than poetry, or that history and heritage and historic architecture should out trump theatre…well, how will it end?

Around the same time, Arlene Goldbard (h/t to Ian David Moss) wrote a three part series titled “Life Implicates Art” which while long, I think does the best job in summing up the challenges facing the arts and the wrong turns that have been made. Other bloggers, myself included, have touched upon these issues at times but her entries are timely in the context of all the movement nationally in Congress and state legislatures in regard to arts funding. (Also, every entry she makes has an embedded music video which is kind of a cool little hook.) Her ultimate conclusion, much like that of the firefighters in Wisconsin is that there is a high degree of interconnected interests among seemingly disparate groups.

In the first entry, she addresses the problem which is mostly that arts people think that the failure to secure funding is directly related to a failure to make a strong enough case for the arts when it is often more about politics rather than money. In some respect there is actually a weakness in the way a case for the arts is made. She notes, as I have pointed out a few times, that pretty much every industry can make a claim about the economic benefits of their activity. She notes, as most of us know, that with all the money spent on combat troops in the Mid-East, maintaining a nuclear arsenal and imprisoning a large portion of the population, the expenditures on the arts is pretty minuscule but there is not enough support for the arts nationally to make it politically difficult to make cuts there first.

In the second entry, she expounds upon the forces at work that determine politician priorities. She labels the arguments suggested by Americans for the Arts recent mail-in campaign to Congress as “so bloodless and soporific that I can’t imagine anyone actually reading all the way to the end of an op-ed based on them. Yet these have been the talking points for more than three decades. The result? The real value of the NEA budget has fallen by more than half. But hey, it’s all we’ve got, right?”

Instead she suggests a more strongly worded, speaking truth to power letter to all those who voted to support the recent extension of tax cuts to millionaires the revenue of which could cover the budgets of the NEA and NEH twice over.

Here’s an open letter along the lines I’d like to see circulating in every district represented by someone who voted for the recent extension of the Bush tax cuts:

Dear Senator/Representative:

Less than two months ago, you voted for tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. They reduce tax revenues by an amount equivalent to paying out twice the combined budgets of the National Endowments for The Arts and Humanities, every single day of the year. At a time when our nation’s polarization of wealth is extreme—the top 10% own 80% of all financial assets; and the top 1% own more than the bottom 90%—I am shocked to think you care more about the wealthiest political donors than the well-being of the rest of us.

By cutting arts funding and other social goods, you are making the rest of us pay for millionaire tax cuts. It is wrong to sacrifice our children’s access to music and art classes to save millionaires from paying their fair share. It is wrong to abandon artists who have dedicated their lives to working in schools, hospitals, senior centers, and other places where their skills of imagination, beauty, and meaning lift spirits, build community, and help people find resilience. It is wrong to defund creativity at a time when we it is precisely what we need to excel in science and business, to align our spirits with hope and recovery.

It is embarrassing to be the richest nation on earth with the highest incarceration rate, prison population, and expenditure on war, and the lowest public investment in creativity. You want us to believe that you’re concerned about the economy and taxpayers, but really? Tote up the tax breaks included for millionaires: you just put $225 billion of taxpayers’ well-being into the pockets of people who already have more money than they know how to spend.

This is a shame and a scandal, and I’m going to do everything I can to let my fellow voters know about it. Restoring arts funding would be a tiny gesture to show you actually care about what the rest of us want: it’s literally the least you can do. You were elected to serve everyone, not just big donors. Here’s your chance to prove it. Don’t let America down!


John/Jane Q. Public

In the third entry, she talks about reframing the arts. As you might imagine, the burden lays upon the arts community, especially in terms of expanding the definition of art beyond what is produced by non-profit arts organizations. There is an image of the arts as elitist that people who want to cut funding have evoked that many people in the arts chafe against because we know there aren’t people in black ties sipping champagne and making obscure literary references at our performances and exhibits. Except that there are some aspects of the elitist imagery we are responsible for perpetuating.

“It’s abstract, one step removed from things people really care about: many people who happily embrace words like music or movies, who sing or draw or love to dance, will respond negatively to the idea of “the arts”—Oh no, not me, you hear them say, I’m not into the arts. Ask that same person, “Do you like to dance?” or “Do you play an instrument?” and the answer will be “Yes,” with no evident awareness of contradiction.

That’s because they pick up on the exclusionary subtext. Many people who consider themselves part of “the arts” use that label to distinguish the work of subsidized organizations from commercial cultural industries and entertainments. An enormous industry generates multibillions each year from sales of music, movie tickets, video rentals, concert tickets, and the like; and enormous numbers take pleasure from making music, taking photographs, writing poems and songs, taking part in dance competitions and poetry slams, and so on.

Yet, except when they want to summon impressive figures about the scope of the cultural economy, mainstream arts advocates don’t mention any of this. There’s an embedded snobbery that presumes the superiority of nonprofit arts organizations and the work they support, a kneejerk dismissal of the rest. This discourse often has an air of unreality: I hear advocates saying that “the arts” are in decline, yet—to pick just one example—almost everyone I encounter integrates music into daily life, almost as a kind of medicine, self-prescribing the sounds and feelings that will support them through the day.”

Goldbard feels this can be reversed, of course, if efforts are made to change practice and national cultural policy. She derives hope from the fact that people are realizing that assessing value based on numbers doesn’t work in healthcare or education and that short term savings results in a long term cost. Care and education of the whole person today prevents more expensive problems down the road. Her suggested approach to employing the intrinsic value of the arts is no less holistic and intertwines with education, healthcare and commerce to bolster all these areas.

In an homage to Goldbard’s posting style, I embed the following video. It isn’t explicitly about art and many wouldn’t consider the singing to be art because it employs autotune, but that’s sort of Goldbard’s point.

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Death To Funding Arts Related Acromyns!

There are a lot of people calling for the end of federal funding of the arts this past week. Only it isn’t coming from politicians or groups opposed to having tax dollars devoted to the arts. It is coming from people within arts disciplines. Last week fellow Inside the Arts blogger Bill Eddins posted an entry calling for the end of the National Endowment of the Arts. Leonard Jacobs at the Clyde Fitch Report expanded on Eddins’ theme. On Friday the NPR show On The Media had an interview with the editor of, Nick Gillespie, who suggested ending funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) as a means of denying politicians a perennial bugbear needing to be slain.

Gillespie’s interview was in reaction to an editorial, Steve Coll wrote in the Washington Post suggesting the big networks like Fox News should be charged more to broadcast and the proceeds directed to the support of the CPB. Coll’s editorial was in response to one that South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint wrote calling for NPR to support itself.

Common to both Eddins and Gillespie was the idea that the funding support to individual arts organizations and broadcasters that trickled down from the NEA and CPB was such a small portion of the total funding, it might be better to lose the money altogether and be free of the recriminations and accusations about how poorly the money was being used. Nevermind that it is only about 42 cents per taxpayer, the perceived rate is so much greater and so ingrained in people consciousness that contradictory evidence finds no purchase.

Some who commented on Eddins’ post point out that the indirect impact of NEA funding actually provides more support than is immediately perceived. State art foundations pass along funding and may actually owe some of their continued existence to NEA funds as states cut back funding in that area more and more. I know that many in my state wonder if our foundation would still be in operation if not for administration of stimulus funding that necessitates it existence.

Gillespie felt that the cut in funding to radio stations wouldn’t impact them that much and they could either thrive without it or might find an increase in funding from other sources. I was a little skeptical at that since I wondered what sources have been holding their dollars back in reaction to federal funding.

For all the resistance part of me feels toward the idea of spurning federal funding, there is another part of me that wonders if the current situation isn’t a little like that faced by 20somethings living with their parents after graduating college. The support the parents provide isn’t a whole lot, but they keep complaining about the resources being diverted toward supporting their generally responsible adult children (as opposed to those slacker kids). Most of those bills they would have to pay even if you weren’t living in the house but they keep talk as if it is all due to you! At the same time, moving out and giving up that little support is pretty scary first step to take.

For some arts organizations, not receiving federal monies may actually open their programming up and embolden them. All that money flying around during political campaigns may end up directed their way as political action groups hire groups to paint murals and organize flash mobs to either support their view or embarrass the opposition. Though most arts groups’ aversion to being perceived as selling out might preclude that sort of thing. And of course this is based on the assumption that the dearth of funding from both public and private sources will make non profit status and the attendant restrictions on political activities less desirable to have.

Even if they aren’t engaged in politicking, knowing that they won’t have to rein in controversy could result in more experimental fare once people move past the “we can’t do that” mindset that the culture wars surrounding NEA funding has created. As the song says, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” That might result in the creation of things that will really scandalize politicians, only they won’t have a carrot or stick to wield any longer.

While money does equal access and control in the world of politics, it tends to be a little divisive in the arts scene -> who has it – who doesn’t = who has sold out – who does “pure art.” Maybe if there was more money available on a dependable basis this wouldn’t be the view. But right now the best thing to do to keep the arts community divided may be to give out a lot of money. Because in an environment where there is no money, the seeds of a unified vision seem to be sprouting.

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