Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Cultural Healing and the De-Priviatization of the Imagination

John Reeves, who runs Lawrence, Kansas's nonprofit arts space, the Lawrence Percolator, was kind enough to email me about the efforts of writer, social activist, and consultant Arlene Goldbard, whose blog has been focused recently on the notion that a sustainable economic recovery demands what she terms a "cultural recovery" project:
[A] project to build and sustain a coalition of artists, cultural organizations and their allies in other realms of social action, education and organizing. They would join to promote the democratic interest in culture, including democratic cultural policies and substantial public investment in community development, education and community service through the arts. Its centerpiece would be [not up yet], an online center for information and organizing. While it would be home to a full range of initiatives to bring attention and resources to culture’s mobilizing power, its first targeted initiative would be a campaign to create a substantial, sustained public-sector investment in community service programs employing artists and cultural organizations as part of national recovery, WPA2.

We have just released a discussion paper that lays out the need, the idea and how it would unfold if indeed its birth is viable. We are asking people to read and consider the paper, and if they feel so moved, to lend their voices as endorsers of the idea, taking part in its implementation. Click here and follow the link to download the discussion paper. And let me know what you think!

As I have been pondering the need for cultural recovery, I’ve had that slightly unnerving experience of seeing it everywhere, but not knowing if others do too—”The Emperor’s New Clothes” in reverse. Just reading the paper becomes a little uncanny. Yesterday’s New York Times included two page-16 stories: one about college students unlocking the mysteries of their own families by collecting oral histories of their parents’ immigration, learning through stories what they’d never before understood; and another about unemployed workers using their time to make art.

Last week, Arlene pointed her readers to an article in The Nation by Jeff Chang on "The Creativity Stimulus." I have to admit to being somewhat allergic to the rallying cries for group efforts when it comes to creativity, knowing how utterly individual most creative types generally are (images of cats being herded come to mind), but I was intrigued by this idea that Chang noted:
For decades, the de facto policy has been to confuse the culture industry with the source of creativity and largely to abandon the production, promotion, distribution and enjoyment of arts and culture to the dictates of the boom/bust marketplace. The result has been the spread of "lifestyle economies" that are merely new forms of monoculturalism and the rise of an environment increasingly antithetical to creativity. A wave of deregulation in the culture industry has consolidated distribution channels and destroyed local scenes, locked away sources of inspiration behind fences of "rights management" and copyright and favored a "blockbuster or die" approach that raises barriers to entry and creates diseconomies of scale. Call it the privatization of the imagination.
Even as I recognize the truth in this, however, I'm not quite sure what the long-term potential here is. Goldbard and Chang both seem to feel that it takes a grass roots movement approach --Chang: "Creativity can be a powerful form of organizing communities from the bottom up."

We've seen some impressive efforts in this approach recently, none the least of which is 21st Century Plowshare, whose Bed-Stuy Meadow project was exactly the sort of idea Chang and Goldbard say is the key. The New York Times explains:

When a woman set down a vision for her Brooklyn neighborhood on her blog last month, she did not know how popular it would become.

“The goal is to sow wildflower seeds on every single patch of abandoned soil,” Deborah Fisher, an artist who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, wrote on March 7.

“I want there to be so many wildflowers on the streets that the summer of 2009 is remembered very fondly by every single resident of the neighborhood. I want the continuity of the Meadow to be so strong that Google Earth is compelled to rephotograph Bed-Stuy.”

Her words, scattered to the blogosphere, fell on fertile soil, capturing the imagination of readers, about 75 of whom showed up on a rainy Saturday to take part in the Bed-Stuy Meadow project.

They planted wildflower seeds in every patch of untended land they could find — tree pits, cracks in sidewalks, bare patches around boarded-up brownstones and vacant lots — over a three-mile area.
You can learn more about the project here and here.

As Goldbard suggests, a centralized information source, such as, seems to be the best way to make the most of such efforts. I hate to admit that I think adding a celebrity to the mix would help it grow even faster, but I do.

Labels: arts funding, cultural priorities


Blogger George said...

Five Stars to wildflowers in Bed-Sty, what a great idea.

WPA2 is more of the same. Why spend almost a billion dollars on a new bureaucratic agency? Why not just expand the funding to the NEA-NEH?

What about the workers at GM, Ford and Chrysler who find themselves out of work because of the recession, do they get a WPA2 too?

Why is it that project comparisons are made with the depression era WPA? Those were different times, with a population 1/3 of todays and half of them on the farm. This is a different world that I doubt will succumb to the old methods.

Contrary to Ms Goldbard's suggestion, consumer confidence responds to cash, the current stimulus is working and the CC index has turned around. Further, it appears that the US economy is turning around and that we are probably in the trough of the recession which should be over this time next year. The art market will lag the recovery but the worst of it was last winter.

Everybody should plant wildflowers.

captcha was "unjob"

4/29/2009 10:34:00 AM  
Blogger JOhn said...

Clarification: John Reeves is simply a board member of the Lawrence Percolator. Nobody truly runs the space.

Imagine more artists employed to make a difference in our communities, and not corporations trying to make a buck. (Did that sound terribly crunchy?)

The idea that, for lack of a better comparison or term, a WPA today would equate to the WPA of the past oversimplifies Arlene's knowledge of the original WPA and the culturel recovery project she is envisioning. Give it a read.

Yes. Plant wildflowers.

4/29/2009 09:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The intital letter says absolutely nothing about goals or why this would help America and the world. It doesn't ask opinions about what direction it should go in, but goes one to beg for funding and financing projects. Again, its all about money.

There is no creativity in the arts machine. It is monolithic, defensive in outlook, reactive to its own desires, and emotionally disconected from anything even remotely resembling passion. Or improving the spiritual and emotional lives of humanity.

In other words, it is just more of the same, a sham, the imperial clothing being lowered over the eyes of the tax paying public. It has no substance yet continuously looks to be fed. You will get your nourishment when you actually do something worthwhile for humanity, not to your individual vices and pleasures, therapy and weakness.

In other words children. NO. I know no one has bothered to ever say that to you, but there it is. The adults say no, now go do something productive and stop whining.

4/29/2009 09:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...


the swine flu reaching grade 5 musn't be great for the economy:
what do you think?

I know I was supposed to go to New York soon and am waiting to see how the situation evolves. I may sound exaggerating but I generally catch flus easily and ahead of everyone. Last winter I had some sort of labirintitis flu that lasted 2 months. I never mentioned it but it was hell. Hell! ;-) I couldn't do a thing but read blogs.

Cedric C

4/29/2009 10:07:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

John said, "Imagine more artists employed to make a difference in our communities."

Well, I imagine it might be like it was for the WPA FAP artists. First, you'll have to get yourself on a list of federally approved artists - so make sure you're liked by at least one person who has connections in high places. Second (if you do get on the list), you'll have to submit a proposal that shows how you would carry out a project that the federal arts agency (not you) came up with. Third, you'll almost certainly have to alter your proposal to suit the tastes of the bureaucrats running the federal arts agency. Fourth, you'll even more certainly have to alter your proposal yet again - perhaps even abandon it altogether - to suit the tastes of a few big shots in the city or town where the project is located.

Be careful what you wish for.

Now, before anyone asks, the answer is yes: I'm skeptical of schemes for democratizing the arts. The system we have now for advancing the visual arts - the private gallery system - didn't just fall out of the sky. It developed as the best way to both (A.) make money for those in the business of art, and (B.) preserve the creative autonomy of artists. I admit I like both of those aims.

4/29/2009 10:53:00 PM  
Blogger George said...


FWIW, I read the pdf before commenting.

I like the idea of grassroots, community based artistic endeavors. Funding can be local, private sector and/or tap NEA/NEH funds.

What's presented to us is a duplication of efforts which can be covered by the NEA/NEH without starting a new government funded bureaucracy. The whole pollyanna idea comes across as an another 'bailout grab' being "feel good" marketed by an academic who knows how to write grants. (and promote a book) I'm afraid it's dead in the water before it even starts.

4/29/2009 11:14:00 PM  
Blogger George said...


I've had some bug the last flu days, so I've been paying attention to the swine flu news. It is hard to tell how serious a threat it really is given the present information. The financial markets, hiccuped on the news but then surged higher -- this indicates to me the economy is beginning to recover and the flu is not seen as an immediate negative.

However, if it gets worse then all bets are off. A full blown pandemic would have a death toll in the millions and severe financial consequences. In all likelihood I suspect it will less severe initially allowing the drug companies a chance to find the correct vaccine.

Assuming that it doesn't get out of control then the economy will continue on its current path. Contrary to current opinion, there is not going to be a 1929 style depression, as noted earlier, the worst of the recession is behind us. What this means for the art market is that sales and auction prices will begin to stabilize but at a lower annual dollar volume. The financial crisis is being solved using measures which are potentially inflationary -- this should be positive for art.

4/29/2009 11:14:00 PM  
Blogger Julie Sadler said...

I went to follow up and read more on Deborah Fishers little project, and I remembered I had seen her blog b4 via a link here on your blog. While following your link, I found it leads to her old blog, and not her current one. Looks like u need an update!

I love using the link list you have provided, regardless. So really, how petty is this comment!!!

4/30/2009 10:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Richard said...

History often shows us what little seeds germinated into something important. The difficult things is we often miss seeing those seeds in the present time.

"Anonymous", aka Brian Sherwin who commands the controls at has a bone to pick with the modern art world. He doesn't like it and he wants it to change. And here he seems to even poo-pooing the little guy for potential abuse of "taxpayers money".

The question is what does he suggest it be replaced with. On his blog he has stated that he feels 40-50% of the America public has been under served even disenfranchised by the current system. He suggest that the NY art world is censoring artists that want to present a more , how shall we say, "fair and balanced" art.. ...

"How many pro-life themed exhibits have you seen in NYC, LA, or major museums throughout the country? How many politically themed art exhibits have you seen that point out the flaws of Democrat politicians? How many exhibits have you seen that are honestly supportive of service men and women who make our freedom of expression possible in the first place? Where are those ideas? ...........

Those are dangerous little seeds.

5/09/2009 07:27:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

The only reaction I would have to the representation of such ideas would be a groan - the same reaction I have to the representation of the opposite ideas.

5/09/2009 11:51:00 AM  

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