Art and Politics – A Long and Glorious History

In the February 11, 2015 issue of the Wall Street Journal, James Panero bemoaned the rise of protests aimed at Mariinsky Theatre (based in St. Petersburg) conductor Valery Gergiev and his silence regarding Putin’s anti-gay policies and the Russian incursion into Crimea. Panero made some bold statements. “Current events have now claimed a front seat on the culture, and it is time to stop them at the gate” he said, and declared that “a banner today may be a weapon tomorrow.” He also noted that “Protesters shouting down concertgoers; musicians silenced by hecklers; agitators taking the stages of our performances. All this represents a new turn in the relationship between arts and politics.” Apparently these sort of disruptions make Mr. Panero uncomfortable. He declares that concert houses need to do more to keep the audience “safe.” Really? Since when is good art safe? And I know he is referring to physical safety, but bear with me. Artists have long been among the voices of political dissent. Long before the civil rights protest songs of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, and the plays of Czech writer and politician Vaclav Havel in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, artists have been outspoken challengers of inequality and oppression. Commedia D’ellarte, with its roots in Greek and Roman comedies, at its core highlighted the foolishness of the powerful in society while underscoring the cleverness of the less powerful, lower class. It is right that audiences should expect more from art and artists than entertainment. And it is right that the artists should be called out when they disappoint. Artists have a unique relationship with their audience. A relationship that includes an unspoken pact that we will join the them in the journey; that we will pay attention to the story we are being told. We expect artists to challenge us, and to share with us truth and beauty. Good art is political. It is not safe. Art critic and philosopher Boris Groys said “Art has its own power in the world, and is as much a force in the power play of global politics today as it once was in the arena of cold war politics.”

Audience disruptions of performances are not, in fact, a new thing. From the disruption of the radical and experimental theatre of the Weimar Republic, the audience reaction to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, or the more recent heckling of Bill Cosby, audiences have long considered it a right to voice their frustration with art and artists in the moment, whether the issue is quality, offensive material, idealogical clashes, or alleged criminal behavior. That is what makes art so exciting, we get to respond immediately. Convention says we politely wait for the opportunity to applaud, but God help us if we feel so restrained as to not react in the moment when compelled. So, no Mr. Panero, we should not stop current events from claiming its “front seat on the culture.” In fact, we should demand and expect it. I want artists to take a stand, to examine and comment on culture and politics, to challenge oppression, and to earn my trust in doing so. I also expect the audience to respond in kind; to be joyful, appalled, shocked, amused, enraged, and spurred into action, even if that means an immediate response. And if that artist has somehow lost the trust and confidence of the audience, if they have failed to fulfill the expectations of an artist and leader, I want the person next to me to leap onto stage and call them out. I am fine with the expectation that a prominent artist be held accountable for ignoring oppression or glossing over the truth. I would hope that I have the conviction to rise as well and join in the dissent. A concert hall, a theatre, a book of poetry, none of this should be a safe place free from scrutiny of politics and society. Of course the physical safety of an audience is paramount and appropriate precautions should be taken. But it is a long journey from “banner” to “weapon,” and we should never expect the world of art be free from political discourse. Thankfully, despite Mr. Panero’s call, I am fairly certain culture, politics, and dissent will always have a place in the concert hall and beyond.

 

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Arts Across the Curriculum

Recently, and unfortunately, the President of the United States chose to make a disparaging comment about jobs for those who studied Art History in his remarks on “Opportunity for All and Skills for American Workers” on January 30th.  It is mildly understandable, as our economy continues to recover that the President is looking to highlight some practical avenues and approaches to shore up that recovery, but come on, did he really need to bash the arts?  In fact, research has show that those who chose to major in the arts are generally satisfied with their their careers, at least when it comes to meaning and satisfaction.  Of course, those same folks will readily tell you, and the same research showed, that they are not satisfied with their income.  Shocking!

But the arts, and arts content at universities is so much more than majoring or minoring in art history, theatre, music, dance, painting, or some other creative discipline to pursue a career in that field.  More and more colleges and universities are finding creative and pedagogically beneficial ways to integrate the arts into a-typical curriculum and courses, not necessarily for the sake of art itself, but to enhance the learning in that particular field.  I am fine with that, in fact, I encourage it. I think any exposure to or participation in the arts is great.

I want to share with you how a few faculty at BU are integrating arts content across the curriculum in some really interesting ways.  Not everyone will pursue the arts as a career, but at BU we believe that  “Artistic engagement brings immeasurable value to our social and academic development, impacting not only the way we perceive the world but how we approach so many disciplines, from the sciences to the humanities,”says Jean Morrison, University Provost and Chief Academic Officer.  I want to make it clear, I take no credit for this work.  My office, the BU Arts Initiative, is here to support this work where we can, and raise awareness within the university so that others are encouraged to consider possibilities within their field, not just for the sake of the arts, but because we truly believe that study of and participation in the arts enhances ones overall education, regardless of your chosen field of study.  In some of these cases, our office did provide grant funds to assist integrating arts content.  Consider these examples.

Faculty at our Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine are employing visual thinking strategies in training their first year students to build their observational and critical thinking skills. Through this approach every dental student attends the local museum and has the opportunity to practice critical observation skills through art.

An occupational therapy faculty member at the Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Services uses a photography assignment to explore issues of health.  Students must take and submit for discussion and participation in a contest, images of participation and health as viewed in three categories, How We Work, How We Live, and How We Play.  The faculty member notes that the photography assignment, “allows students to use a creative medium to depict the power of participation in society as a bridge to health for people, regardless of age or ability.”

Jazz2 At the BU School of Management, if you take Organizational Behavior, and you will, you will inevitably end up seeing and talking about jazz, theatre, and dance.   The lead faculty member, who happens to be married to a visual artist, uses these tools to discuss issues of collaboration, improvisation, and teamwork, skills that he notes CEOs today are looking for.

Each year thousands of students take mandatory writing courses in the College of Arts and Sciences.  For several hundred of those, all their writing assignments are about local art.  Through a program called Arts Now, writing faculty select local art (theatre, jazz, poetry, and museums) and all writing and research assignments are designed around those experiences.  Not only are students learning critical writing skills, but they also have the opportunity to explore some fantastic local art in the process.

And finally, just this past Friday (1/31/14), 12 Phd students in the sciences participated in a day long workshop that included improvisational theatre training.  The training was not to turn them into performers, but to enhance their ability to read an audience and communicate their message effectively with that audience.  The improv games help them understand body language, promote active listening, and provide a more clear and concise message to their chosen audience.

These are just some of the ways that arts skills and content are being used to train students in non-arts fields.   I am fortunate to be at an institution that is working diligently to share these methods, and explore possible new ways to enhance all areas of study through thoughtful, structured arts content.  What is happening at your institution?  Please share in the comments!

Arts Organizations – Do Everything You Can to Engage College and High School Students

bendoverbackwardsI’ll say it right out front.  Arts organizations, you should be bending over backward to get college and high school students in your doors;  but not just in your doors, you should be welcoming, engaging, and educating them.  In 2012, the National Endowment for the arts released it’s report How a Nation Engages with Art – Highlights from the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.  One doesn’t need NEA data to tell us the audience for the arts is aging or shrinking (that is in there too).  Just look around the next time you attend an event.  But, for the sake of scientific back up, let’s look at their numbers for participation for 18-24 year old individuals.  For classical music, it is the 2nd lowest age range, for musical theatre – second lowest – after 75+, non-musical theatre – lowest (an abysmal 6.3%), and art museum or gallery, second lowest after 75+.

I don’t want to be too dramatic, OK, maybe I do.  But to me, the survival of the arts in our society is dependent on arts organizations rethinking their approach to young audiences.  Here are my suggestions.

  • Stop thinking of them as a revenue source, just do whatever you can to get them in the door; even if it means not charging them a cent. Find a way. Consider it an investment.
  • Start thinking of them as your future patrons, donors, and board members; as well as potential continued members of the community in which you operate.
  • Don’t just get them in the door. Welcome them. Be hospitable. Create an environment in which people their age want to be.
  • Embrace their unique qualities. They are curious. They want inside information and access. They use social media like crazy. They travel in packs. They are socially conscious; have tons of time commitments, but, they love a good reason to gather socially. Give them what they want, especially when it comes to social media.  Create space for that, and I don’t mean in the furthest darkest corner of your auditorium or facility.
  • Educate them.  Provide pre-show and post show talks regularly (conversations, not lectures), pre-show gatherings with artists, really good program notes; whatever it takes. Give them the knowledge and experience to be educated arts participants.
  • Build relationships with those who can help you gain access to them.  I am talking about me and people like me, or student activities staff, or residential life staff, faculty, and others like us on a college campus.  We want more than anything for our students to have an amazing college experience and that includes their engagement with the community. In a high school, use the PTA, the Principal’s office, teachers, tutors, you get the idea.
  • Consider your product and the packaging.  It better be great – remember they are social media experts.  And, you need to tell them what they are getting and why they should come.  Persuade them, don’t just assume they will come because they “should”. It also better be palatable. Seriously, who has the time for a three hour concert or show anymore, let alone a college or high school student?
  • Try not to separate them from your regular constituency.  There is so much value in an inter-generational arts experience.
  • And finally, track them!  If you get them in your door, get their information somehow.  You can’t invite them back otherwise.

Who is an artist?

I am catching up on some reading related to my field.  This morning I started working through two books, The Arts in Higher Education, a report by the American Association of Higher Education done in 1968.  Yup 1968.  More on that later perhaps.  The other is Howard Singerman’s Art Subjects – Making Artists in the American University, published in 1999.  I was struck by a line early in Singerman’s book, page four to be exact.  Singerman is reviewing the training he received during his MFA in sculpture program.  He notes that he did not get some of the traditional training in carving, casting, or modeling, but that for him “The problem of being an artist occupied the center.  The question I posed to my teachers” he writes, “and that they posed to me again and again was not how to sculpt or paint, but what to do as an artist, and as ‘my work’.” Sadly he continues, “Perhaps this is where my program failed me – after all, I am not an artist;”  What!? I confess, I haven’t yet read the rest of the book.  Perhaps he explains himself more, but from the looks of it, he continues by launching into an exploration of “what constitutes training as an artist now”.  I hope he explores his own identity as an artist later in the book.  I would look forward to reading that.  But that comment, “I am not an artist” made me think about how our students identify themselves when they enter college, and when they leave, and where “artist” might fit into that identity.

Pablo Picasso is quoted as saying “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”  I am particularly interested in the part of growing up that includes higher education.  What happens or can happen during post secondary education that leads one to believe or state that they are or are not an artist?  Art is defined by a great many things by different people: skill, technique, passion, the ability to speak to society (or parts of it), to express the human condition, and more.  If you read my blog, or make note of certain trends in higher education, you know that more and more colleges and universities are recognizing the role of the arts and creativity in the basic education of their students, understanding that participation and engagement in the arts supports the academic, social, and emotional development of each student.  Investments are being made in staff, programs, courses, and facilities.  Are these investments meant to help people “remain artists” as Picasso notes?  Perhaps.  Perhaps part of the intent is to redefine who is an artist.

For decades I have enjoyed pushing the boundaries on issues of identity, in personal conversations and in academic work.  I am particularly curious about how one defines themselves upon entering, during, and leaving college.  Higher education professionals often talk about educating and supporting the whole student; so why not work to help them develop the capacity to consciously think of themselves as greater than their selected major or intended future career.  Even I find myself searching for the appropriate word to describe myself to people I meet. I usually default to something about my vocation, so I say “administrator”.  But the fact is, I am an artist.  However, as adults we seem to have this need to define ourselves as simply as possible, by the thing that pays our bills; by what we do.  I would suggest that trend starts in college.  Prior to that, how often did we get those kinds of questions.  It was assumed, I was, for the most part, simply a high school student*.  In part, because I hadn’t “done” anything yet.  Rarely did anyone expect me to define myself in any particular way beyond that, aside from perhaps familial relationships.  I was in fact an actor, a singer, and a musician by the time I was 18.  As far as the visual arts, the best I could do was decent copies of those cartoons in the back of TV Guide.  Remember those?  None of that of course paid my bills.  But neither did my job at the grocery store.

It shouldn’t be that difficult to encourage students, regardless of their major, to not just occasionally indulge the artist within them, but to embrace and nourish that artist.  I want people to keep doing their art, whatever that is, during college, so that when they are asked what they “do” at any point in their life, art can be a part of their answer.  Interestingly, I think am posing virtually the same question that Singerman had posed to him, “what does it mean to be an artist?”.  But, if someone like Singerman who has an advanced degree in art, won’t describe himself as an artist, is there any chance that I can help convince the engineering major, the student studying physical therapy, or the one in business management to identify in any way as an artist? I intend to find out!

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* In the interest of brevity, I chose not to delve into the deeper issues of identity including gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.  I in no way intend to belittle the relevance of these layers of identity and their discovery throughout ones life.  My focus in this piece is on identity based on things we have trained in, studied, and do.

Creativity and Failure

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with a top level academic officer who asked me “how do we infuse creativity into the undergraduate curriculum?”  I was a tad embarrassed that I wasn’t more articulate in my response.  So I went back to  Steven J. Tepper, who in 2004 published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that people in my field are still talking about.  Tepper’s The Creative Campus: Who’s No. 1? calls for a campus “creativity index”, an index that “ranks colleges by the extent to which they foster creativity.”  Tepper defines creativity as “those activities that involve the application intellectual energies to the production of new ways of solving problems (as in science and mathematics) or of expressing ideas (as in art).” He continues, “Creativity is not simply about self expression.  It is about producing something new (or combining olde elements in new ways) to advance a particular field or add to the storehouse of knowledge.”  Tepper goes on to posit that there are several “structural conditions for creativity” including: collaboration, diversity – cross-cultural exchange, interdisciplinary exchange, time and resources, and an environment that tolerates – even encourages failure.  That last one is where my recent conversation stalled.  How do we create an environment in undergraduate education that encourages failure?  Students come to our campuses to succeed.  They work hard and set goals for success, not failure.  I find this idea particularly challenging at an elite university.  We are all invested success of our students.  Their success is a reflection of our success.  We are frequently reminded of this, if not subtly from top level administration, often bluntly from parents.  It is my – and my colleagues – job to ensure student success.  I even have a friend and colleague at another university whose title is Director of Student Success.  One need only look around to know that the culture and expectation of success permeates society as well as our university.

What would it look like to encourage failure?  Certainly we have to rethink, or reposition the idea of grades.  What would it look like to evaluate a student’s process, not their product?  Would they accept that as sufficient learning? What do courses look like that have no end result in mind, no correct answer, no finite result, but instead encourage and celebrate discovery and the exchange of ideas even if we find they don’t “work”?  I know those courses exist, though they seem to be the exception rather than the norm, particularly in undergraduate education.

Encouraging failure, or redefining success in education means examining our philosophy of education.  In Democracy and Education, 1916, Philosopher John Dewey get’s to the heart of an educational system that might just create an atmosphere that allows for failure by focusing on the educative process of communication.  We learn by exchanging ideas and perspectives unique to us and our individual experience within a community.  Dewey says,  “Not only is social life identical with communication, but all communication (and hence all genuine social life) is educative. To be a recipient of a communication is to have an enlarged and changed experience….The experience has to be formulated in order to be communicated. The formulate requires getting outside of it, seeing it as another would see it, considering what points of contact it has with the life of another so that it may be got into such form that he can appreciate its meaning. Except in dealing with commonplaces and catch phrases one has to assimilate, imaginatively, something of another’s experience in order to tell him intelligently of one’s own experience. All communication is like art. It may be fairly said, therefore, that any social arrangement that remains vitally social, or vitally shared, is educative to those who participate in it. Only when it becomes cast in a mold and runs in a routine way does it lose its educative power.” Democracy in Education, 1916.

I have an answer now for the question, “How do we infuse creativity into the undergraduate curriculum?”  We change the whole thing!  We can do that, right?

Justifying Arts Programs on Campus

Last month I had the pleasure of joining some fantastic colleagues from across the country at the University of Michigan for the annual meeting of Arts Administrators in Higher Education (AAHE).  I am proud to be a member of this organization and am constantly impressed at the creative ways in which my colleagues accomplish their goals.  Most of our jobs are very different.  The thing that unifies us is a core mission of engaging  students in the arts.  Most of us are under resourced, including staff, finances, and facilities.  Because of that, we frequently find ourselves brainstorming ways to justify or bolster support for our programs.  In fact, at most meetings we include a session with a “top administrator” usually with the stated or unstated goal of finding out what convinces them to invest resources and to what extent they value the arts.  We want to learn their language to be able to effectively frame our argument, and we generally learn a great deal; though I would posit that we are learning more about that particular administrator than we are about how to “justify” our own programs.  Lately, I have found that I can better serve my programs by improving my ability to articulate our own particular story and value at Penn.

One thing that a number of AAHE members have in common is a recent or renewed focus on assessment.  That focus offers us a unique opportunity gather data that tells our story, from our perspective.  In developing an effective assessment tool, we have to construct clear goals, objectives and learning outcomes for our programs.  I have found it particularly useful to be able to articulate what specifically our programs offer Penn students in relation to the mission of the University. I have grown to greatly appreciate the clarity.  Here are the goals of my program – University Life Arts Initiatives – “Our programs offer creative outlets, leadership opportunities, career training and social activity through workshops, performances and service opportunities that allow students to experience, create, and manage the arts.”  Going through this process of clarifying goals and learning outcomes (along with having a few years under my belt) has revealed a few other things that I have found useful in this ongoing dialogue of defending or lobbying for arts programs.  Some might seem obvious, but here you go.

  • There is a demand for our programs  –  Whether we formally provide resources or not, our students will create.  They will dance, sing, draw, act, write and sculpt, and they will find ways to do it.  They will organize and plan and find resources.  They will do this because their artistic life is important to them, regardless of their career plans.  It behooves us to work to support that creative and entrepreneurial spirit when possible.
  • Students are our best advocates – Frequently student voices are more readily heard than those of us lower to mid-level administrators (a sometimes harsh reality).  Student government leaders, class presidents and student coalition leaders have regular meetings with Presidents and Provosts.  Working with students interested in the arts to develop reasonable, clear talking points that they can share with other student leaders has been very effective.
  • We have partners everywhere – We all know that collaborative programs aren’t always the easiest to manage, but when faculty and fellow staff (housing, alumni relations, student affairs, advising, admissions and more) recognize how our programs fit the educational mission of the university and add value to their programs, they are more than willing to advocate and defend.
  • Bullet Train – There is a great deal of talk these days about creativity (Google it), particularly in the realm of education.  Don’t we all want to produce creative thinkers?  And while there are many ways to foster creativity, to quote one of those colleagues from AAHE, Debra Mexicotte (she may be quoting someone else) “The arts are a bullet train to creativity.”

Thankfully, other people are recognizing the value of arts programs on campus.  In the last several months the Mellon Foundation has granted millions of dollars to a variety of universities (MIT, UNC, UMICH to name a few) to research, enhance and expand the role of the arts on their campuses, particularly across the curriculum.  I hope to not find myself feeling again, like I must “justify” arts programs at Penn.  I would much rather be well positioned to participate in the kind of big picture thinking that the Mellon Foundation is supporting.

Validation, Sort of…

Finally, some validation! At 43, I can rest assured that my career choice is legitimate, at least in financial measures. Let me clarify, not my financial measures, but the financial measures of our collective nonprofit arts community. You see, recently Americans for the Arts published Arts & Economic Prosperity IV a “national study of the nonprofit arts and culture industry’s impact on the economy”. The study, a regular feature in my Facebook feed and emails for the last several days, is based on 2010 data (the latest available) that found “nationally our industry generated $135.2 billion of economic activity–$61.1 billion by the nation’s nonprofit arts and culture organizations in addition to $74.1 billion in event-related expenditures by their audiences. This economic activity supports 4.1 million full-time jobs. Our industry also generates $22.3 billion in revenue to local, state and federal governments each year–a yield well beyond their collective $4 billion in arts allocations.” Thank goodness people finally understand my contribution to society! Phew.

If I sound a little snarky, I apologize. First, let me acknowledge Americans for the Arts is a fantastic organization. We need them to do this work, and we need these numbers. But I think we need more. I worry that we aren’t properly framing our argument. Perhaps it is the fact that because I work in education, I have the opportunity, almost daily, to see the college students I work with build leadership skills, think more creatively, build empathy and grow in their experience and understanding of the world through our programs. Shouldn’t we also, just as boldly be making the case for those personal and social benefits of participation (making and/or consuming) in the arts? I know that economics is the language that government officials speak. But shouldn’t we also assume that they, their loved ones and family members are likely also to be arts and culture participants? Let’s make sure voters and officials alike know that participation in the arts develops leadership, empathy, self-confidence, a sense of belonging and more. Children who participate in the arts show improved academic achievement, win more awards, are more likely to perform community service, and show improved spacial reasoning, conditional reasoning and creative thinking. In short, participation in the arts at any age develops more confident, engaged, creative and self-aware citizens. Together, the economic impact partnered with the personal and social impact of the arts seem to me to be a more significant argument. I am certainly not the first, or only one to make this case. Thankfully, in 2012 we have more data on both sides of the argument to back up what, for decades, perhaps centuries, many have known. The arts make us better people.