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Chapter 5: How do you see the future?

Maryo 11-05 b I’ve avoided posting on this question, to be honest. How do I see the future: the future that could be, or my image of how I suspect the future will be?  Here I am, the constant optimist, having to ask whether, in fact, I just live in fantasyland.  I do not like to ask this.

In 1917, dramatist Alfred Arvold of the North Dakota Agricultural College imagined that the community center of the future would be a place where art, science, government, and recreation would all take place. In the Alumnae magazine he wrote:

A community center is a place, a neighborhood laboratory, so to speak, where people meet in their own way to analyze whatever interests they have in common and participate in such forms of recreation as are healthful and enjoyable.  The fundamental principle back of the community center is the democratization of all art so the … people can appreciate it, science so that they can use it, government so that they can take a part in it, and recreation so they can enjoy it.  In other words, its highest aim is to make the common interests the great interests.  To give a human expression in every locality to the significant meaning of these terms – “come let’s reason and play together” – is in reality the ultimate object of the community center.

At NDSU, Arvold refused a proffered start-of-the-art theater plant, saying that instead he wanted the farm boys and girls to learn how to create theater in barns, town halls, yards, and living rooms.  His drama students planted lilacs each year; Arvold  envisioned 80 miles of lilacs lining the road between Fargo and Grand Forks and he invented Lilac Days, complete with its own song, which he commissioned from a local composer - sheet music was distributed broadly throughout Fargo. He designed the “Lincoln Log Cabin” on the floor above the campus theater – replicating the interior of the dwelling where Abraham Lincoln was born; audiences were invited for a meal after the show, to converse about “whatever interests they [had] in common” and to chat about the show with the artists, whether Kirsten Flagstad, the Trapp Family, or local performers. 

The point was: Arvold was trying to show that beauty, the arts, conversation, a shared meal, democracy, inquiry and fun were all aspects of a good community, and he believed that to overly differentiate science, art, plants, recreation, discussion did more harm than good for the community. After almost 40 years as head of the theater department, his name is well-known in towns, homes and farms statewide, Arvold was let go in the early 1950’s, for he was not creating a “quality” theater program.

This story is not isolated. Art of people could clearly not be “real” art, right? Frederick Koch, a dramatist, whose frenzy to enable ordinary people to write plays about their lives and communities inspired hundreds of new plays and extraordinary devotion to the University of North Carolina by thousands of people statewide, was not replaced when he died; his successor was charged with creating a “quality” theater department whose measure of success would be the number of students placed in the New York theater.  Ditto with Alex Drummond of Cornell who saw no contradiction between training his students for the New York stage and offering his students as dramaturges for anyone in an upstate New York farm family who wanted to write and produce a play that offered meaning and insight into life in their community – Drummond  had little or no stature by the time he retired in the 1950’s and his work is unknown. 

Did you see Tim Robbins’ “Cradle Will Rock”?  Remember the scene in 1939 in which Rockefeller was longing to return form, nobility and beauty to Art as he wanted Art to be (as opposed to Diego Rivera’s idea of art)? At that same time, the Federal Theater – which, in part, asked people to think about the issues of the day - was considered seditious by many in Congress. Later, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hearings in the early 1950’s resulted in the blackballing of many exceptional artists – challenging, questioning, was not seen as the outworking of democracy, but rather, of sedition.  I myself saw people – including federal officials - walking out on Arlene Goldbard as recently as 20 years ago, during a talk in which she argued for the integrity of all cultures. Sedition again. 

Perhaps more seductively dangerous are those many instances when we seemingly find accord in a slogan – “the arts are for everyone!” but a little parsing reveals that some people are referring to allowing Everyman to be a spectator for the arts, where others are referring to Everyman actually making art and, uh oh, what will the consequences be to the arts if that happens?

So how do I see the future?  I envision a future in which our species recognizes that we are all “in it together,” that none of us can truly thrive unless all of us do, and that the blessing of creativity – which, yes, I believe to be innate – is the key.  Moving to synthesize all of the learning that we’ve accumulated in the last century in the interest of whole people and healthy communities.  Toward this end, I think about Arvold’s idea of the community center, Drummond’s students working with farmers, the Federal Theater…

Now, I see things happening that I applaud.  Arlene Goldbard is now a sought-after public speaker.  Places like the Maryland Institute of Arts are instituting community arts programs.  State arts agencies are giving grants for creative experimentation in community development – not only funding arts institutions and projects.  A body of research on the critical role that arts education plays in human development is emerging. I can point to many projects involving arts and gardens, arts and the local food movement, arts and veterans issues, arts and environmental action – and of course we have decades of arts and the demand for social justice.  I see the tools of the internet allowing more people to participate in the process of making and disseminating art.  I see more people – especially young people – inventing creative ways of living and working.  I cling to these things as “first steps” in the society that could be.

But.  There’s a difference between powerful programs and social change. Programs like Arvold’s or Koch’s or Drummond’s, or the Federal Theater surely make a difference in individual people’s lives.  But did they affect communities?  Did they affect social change?  Our cultural values run deep.  If programs, even movements, are to be part of real change, I think we have to ask:

·      Can we become engaged in our physical communities, as well as our e-communities, If we can’t figure out how to live decently with the person next door, if we can’t figure out how to discuss local land use issues? How on earth can we think about living in a changing America?  --- about living in a global world?   Can we take control of our physical communities?  To give our places away to a few people with a big stake in local outcomes, or to far-away corporate or state/federal government entities, is dangerous.

·      Can we transcend the cult of stardom?  (We even allow stars to sing our national anthem  - which ought to be the ultimate “people’s song” - for us at sports events!)

·      Can we reclaim critical thinking as a foundation of democracy? And demand education programs that inspire questioning and creative thinking in the name of democracy, not just the workforce of the future? 

·      Can we, indeed, start thinking about the implications and responsibilities of living in a democracy?

·      Can we start shifting the American Dream from a story about a quest for goods, money and power, to a story about achieving a meaningful life?  As resources dwindle and the population grows, it’s essential that this happen, or else competition will become even fiercer, and society even meaner.

·      Can we quit being so darn pure about the arts?  Our motives over the past 50 years have been admirable – we have said that the arts are “for” everyone. But there are elements of old-style charity in this attitude (ooops! I just made a typo, and typed “old-stale charity” – perhaps my fingers are smarter than my brain here!) Ah, but are we willing to let Everyman in on the process of making art? Setting standards? Defining new forms? Are we willing to recognize that creativity is a blessing, and not a commodity?  Are we willing to allow the arts to evolve?  Are we willing to recognize that, if the arts truly become a “commons”  rather than “private property,” we might have to re-examine our ideas about our society, our democracy, our selves?

I could go on, but you get the drift.  We have the brains and the resources to do this; but do we have the will?  

I envision the future as I want it to be.  Oh, how I want it to be!  But is it how I see it?  I don’t know.

Still, as TS Eliot said, “For us there is only the trying….”



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