Volume 2:Does The Lightbulb Want To Be Changed?

Chapter 4: The Story, "Story" and the Ides of Iraq

William_Cleveland_Photo Stories can be fun, or frolic or amuse.
But, they are also nimble, tricky, malevolent, and …
well, you fill in the blank… 

Some say, “If you own the story
then you hold the power.” 
Others say, “Defining the story” is defining the future 
and that subjugation is story killing.

What we do know is that every
individual, every family, every community
is defined by their stories.

And, If we don’t tell our stories

we lose our dignity,
our humanity,
our souls,
as in South Africa, under Apartheid;
as in the Yugolslavia, with Milosivic;
as in Cambodia, during the Khmer Rouge times

as in Iran

These particular stories teach us that
tyranny is story subjugation driven by fear. 
Here’s how it works:
1.    Keep them from telling the story.
2.    Ignore the story.
3.    Control the story by altering or editing it.
4.    Romanticize the story
5.    Simplify the story,
6.    Trivialize the story
7.    Buy, then sell the story
8.    Kill the story

9.    Kill the story teller

But, you know, these stories do not die.
They morph and mutate
like love, like friendship,
like the blackberry canes and kudzu
that swarm the land and climb our fences

And you all know that story about friends and fences.
Good fences do make good neighbors …and…
good stories too.
And, of course, when those good stories migrate and join
at the intersection of self interest and common ground
no matter how stifled, those tall tale siblings
become democracy zygotes

Yes, Democracy is the art of collective story making.
Democracy says:
“Here is the story to this point—Let’s decide together what’s next.” 

What we call “the arts” are the tools humans use to craft stories. 

Words, music, movement, symbols, color, metaphors,
they all get into the act.

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Chapter 3: Art is a temporary condition

MilenkocroppedThe traditional Balinese had no word for art because doing something poorly was not an option: every task was completed with the care and excellence we demand from our art.  As we explore the role of the arts, cultural policies and funding, we often leave out this very basic notion: all things deserve to be done well.  Whatever else art may mean to different people, at its core is the notion that human acts can be elegant in their expression, beautiful in form, resonant in relationship to people, materials, and community, and magical in their capacity to connect the part to the whole, whether that part is a brushstroke in a painting, a word in a poem, a piece of stone in a wall, or a single note in a concert. In art, small, attentive steps combine to make an excellent whole.  The process and end result are inseparable; integrity in each step leads to good work.

Because it is simpler to do this work in small doses rather than throughout our entire lives, we humans invented art to remind us how our lives should be.  And soon afterwards, we started to forget that art is about everything and made it into something separate and special.  We pointed at something and called it art, and in the same moment, without saying it, we relegated the rest to not-art.  What was originally meant to roam free, to be a part of everything, was now set apart.  We accepted the notion that while art is exceptional; the rest of the world is not and can therefore become polluted and ugly, violent and wasteful.  So, slowly, art has become a collective counterpoint to the madness of a modern world that glorifies planned obsolescence.  The uglier our doings, the more we repent by putting up another art museum or pubic art project.  (“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” “Build a small museum and three public artworks.  Do public art every year. Repeat the museum bit every twenty years. Your sins shall be forgiven.”)  Museums—our artistic zoos—will preserve valuable artifacts done with utmost care, but they will not replace what we are destroying through our careless everyday activities.

These were the thoughts that were running through my mind in the late 60’s and early 70’s, when I was a young avant-garde artist in my native Slovenia, a member of a now quite famous (in Slovenia, at least) group OHO.  We involved many non-artists in our works, asking them to contribute their own creativity.  Our projects were often enacted in public places and in natural landscapes.  Documentations of the events were exhibited in galleries and museums, at first throughout Yugoslavia (Slovenia was then a republic), and later on in other countries.  In 1970, I was one of two members of our group to travel to the USA on the invitation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where we presented in the international Information Show.  I had a chance to meet well known American artists and inquired about their work and success. That experience both inspired and vaccinated me from following the established artist’s path to success.   I was inspired by the grand schemes of artists like Christo who was planning monumental installations and selling numerous drawings and sketches to finance the plan.  I made friends with Walter de Maria who filled a valley in the Southwest with hundreds of metal rods to attract lightning.  The sheer audacity of their projects was impressive, as was their business savvy.  I liked them very much and was initially inclined to follow their path.  What vaccinated me, however, was a growing suspicion that that path would take me away from my deeper desire to push art into life. 

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Chapter 2: Seizing the Reins

Alice.ussf I agree with Maryo Gard (3/14/09), there is a false distinction between mainstream nonprofit arts organizations and informal groups that operate for profit or an artist collective that comes together to explore a shared interest or cause. While money is one distinction that separates them, I believe the second is service.  If they don’t deliver on their mission and provide needed services they cannot continue to operate since running on a deficit, spending money they don’t have, isn’t an option.  
The bottom-line is constantly informed by what their public wants and needs.  They have to listen to their audiences to survive.

Even in the best of times artists and arts organizations face challenges with funding and attracting audiences.  In the face of massive cuts during the 80’s that started at the National Endowment for the Arts and resonated through every state and local arts council conservatism swept through the arts and support for the individual artists dried up completely. Today the struggle continues as organizations attempt to balance budgets that refuse to balance. 

But this isn’t a competition, right.  Everyone is having a difficult time surviving this economic down turn that hasn’t hit bottom yet. Like Maryo said “we need to embrace the chaos and take a new look at ourselves”.  That said I want to champion the cause of the individual artists, who doesn’t have to embrace the chaos because they live it. I want to argue for a return to providing artists-initiated grants, money in the pockets of individual artists so they can make art that serves their community, however they define them.  For me the core of the ”Arts” is the individual artist.

As a collective community, we cannot know what is ahead, but we do know that a society without art is a truly bankrupt society.  We know that it is art that makes us human and in these times we need art even more than ever.  But, just as we used the arts to help students make new discoveries in learning, I want to advocate for art that lays bear our social relations to each other, to history and to the possibility of change. 

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Chapter 1: Does The Lightbulb Want To Be Changed?

Maryo 11-05 b A couple of days ago, the New York Times said that unemployment has now passed 8%, and that many of the now-vacant jobs won't be back, as the nature of jobs will have changed by the time this recession is over.

I wonder what this means for the existing non-profit arts and culture groups. Certainly I've seen the same predictions that everyone has, predictions ranging from 10% to 30% of today's non-profits closing their doors. I've been talking to people who are saying, “the nonprofit groups in trouble are those who think that if they just try harder and work more efficiently, everything will be OK.” (Puts me in mind of Boxer, the strong and loyal draft horse in Orwell's “Animal Farm.”) Then they mention “the new paradigm.”

I wonder about the elements of that new paradigm. I know what I hope it will include...

... things like eliminating the often-false distinctions between today's non-profits, for-profits, and “unincorporated” groups ... seems to me there's gotta be a way to focus on what groups are trying to do, rather than on how they are organized.

... things like eliminating the moribund distinctions among “high/fine” arts, “community” arts, “pop” arts, “folk” arts ... some of the most exciting work is being made at the intersections, or when one form simply helps itself to the morés of another form.

...things like maybe – dare I breathe it? - getting rid of a number of arts facilities, with their insatiable appetite for maintenance and overhead money, that may, who knows, actually be holding back arts participation, rather than furthering it. (I'm remembering that in Wisconsin during the Depression and the '30's, community arts activity exploded: there was a surge of locally-written “home talent” plays presented at county fairs, a surge of county-level music festivals, an artist-in-residence in the College of Agriculture, participatory art and music on the educational radio station - “Let's Draw!” and “Let's Sing!”. Just doing it, not buying it. So... success would be the number of people participating, and the meaning in their lives, not the number of organizations surviving, right?

Still, these hopes are pretty vague. And I phrased them in terms of what things won't be, rather than what they will be, didn't I? I'll recognize changes when I see 'em, but what does “a new paradigm” mean in planning terms?

I do see instances where these murky “hopes” of mine are already the reality. There are a lot of exciting artists' collectives and youth activities and small, entrepreneurial for-profits whose participants may have never experienced the “old way of doing business” so they aren't held back by the past. Most of us staff and board of arts organizations know that we need to embrace the chaos and take a new look at ourselves, but - what does that mean in terms of the day-to-day? So we tend to do what we know, and “work harder, work more efficiently.” I see foundations deciding that they won't fund arts and culture in favor of funding in life-and-death arenas, and I think, these foundations are even more behind-the-times than some of their constituents.

I'm remembering Ruby Lerner talking about diversity at a conference, years ago, and she said something like, “For a lot of groups, getting diversity on the board means attracting people who may dress differently or who may look different from us, but who think the same way that we do, so that the basic nature of the organization can remain the same. “

Put another way, “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?” “Only one, but the lightbulb has to want to be changed.”

“To be changed” is passive, of course, and we must be active. We say we embrace change. That's a fine first step. 

But what in the name of heaven does that mean?  And what do we do next?