Culture, Corporations, Politics and the Interconnectedness of All Things

I have written another rather lengthy essay as a follow-up and response to the Chloe Veltman piece and the response at The Guardian. Would love to chat with Andrew Taylor who wrote  this great article on artful manager about new forms of organization somewhere between profit/non-profit.

Since my essay is pretty long and involved, you can read the article  in its entirety here, after the jump, or download the PDF here.

Culture, Corporations, Politics

and the Interconnectedness of All Things

An article in the March 12 edition of the NY Times discusses the tabloid media coverage of corporate malfeasance and excess, saying in part:

“The tabloid media, of course, have always peered into the excesses of the rich and famous with a mix of puritan disapproval and voyeurism. But these outlets and other news organizations are now recording troubling uses of taxpayer money at country clubs, private airports and glamorous retreats and, in so doing, explicitly tapping into a fierce populist anger at corporate America, and even pressuring Congress to hold companies accountable.”

What is interesting is that our always-on, information-rich, instant-awareness, internet-driven, hypermedia culture may have finally reached a point where it can exert enough pressure and social stigma to force corporations – and governments- into an era of increased transparency and public accountability.

The March 13 edition of  “NOW On PBS” with David Brancaccio features an in-depth interview with Kenneth Rogoff, Harvard economics professor and former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. Rogoff provides great insight into the current global financial crisis, he discusses the prevailing attitudes that led to this situation and identifies some instances where world financial institutions have not evolved to reflect the new global reality. He concludes by saying that  this economic crisis will  lead to more government regulation of banking with demands for greater transparency. He also says – as have others – that this is going to be a long and protracted recovery as the ripples work their way around the globe. But at the same time we are being presented with an opportunity to restructure, re-prioritize and rebuild our financial institutions in a way that (and these are my words) promotes sustainability. The point being, that just as good banks bring down bad banks in the U.S., so too in the world at large.

I was having a chat with a Republican acquaintance of mine the other day who said, “Well, if Obama taxes the rich and eliminates all these tax deductions for charitable giving, there won’t be any arts!”  Setting aside the argument over whether art requires subsidy to exist at all, I asked her, “So if the wealthy didn’t get tax breaks they wouldn’t give to charity?”  This was after a cordial but impassioned exchange over the state of popular culture, the failures of the education system, the decline of civility and other social ills which this person lamented yet felt no compulsion to solve.

And isn’t that the heart of the problem? That the societal values promulgated by passionate Bush-style free-marketers are such that the more fortunate would stop giving if they didn’t get tax breaks? For all the talk of values, morals and “culture wars” there has been a fundamental breakdown of the idea of the civil society. Surely this rapacious “me-first”-ism is a product not only of 30 years of rampant, unsupervised free-market philosophy but of the institutions that educate the leaders of corporate America. Maybe it is time for a change?

Now more than ever, in a globalized and globalizing world where the domino effect of failing economies has imperiled millions and millions of the world’s citizens, mustn’t we be mindful of the interconnectedness of all things? Not in some hippie-dippie New Age pseudo-spiritual way but in a practical “a butterfly flaps its wings” kind of way. 

So when I say thatthe arts in general (and theater most of all) are clinging to an anti-corporate “us vs. them” mentality that is both self-defeating and largely irrelevant in this day and age” this is not an apology for corporations or the rapacious corporate culture and unfettered greed characterized by the excesses of the Bush era. It is an acknowledgement that, like it or not, corporations are here to stay; they are global, they are deeply entwined in government and are the engines of the global economy; they employ millions of people and as such we must engage with them, not attempt to exist in opposition.  We need to find ways to assert the interconnectedness of public life, private life, government, culture and business in a way that will incentivize corporations to modify their behavior.

If the arts want to have meaning and relevance, we have to start actively engaging in the great discussions of our time. If you want a list of topics that are really, really important, download The National Intelligence Council’s report on its 2025 project, “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World” or check out their equally important  report on “Disruptive Civil Technologies“. (Just try and wrap your head around the disruptive potential of  the emerging”Internet of Things”!!!)

These are the ideas we, as artists, need to be dealing with – what will be the implications of demographic change on daily life? What will be the implications on the world at large? Families, economies, identities, government, power, war, culture clashes? How can we anticipate shifts in the global society and proactively shape aesthetic and cultural values to reflect interconnectedness, interdependence, mutual understanding, tolerance and cooperation?

The artistic imagination is extraordinarily powerful. It is similar to, but different than, the academic or scientific imagination. Working in concert – like Hermes (Inspiration) and Apollo (Structure) – these imaginations can develop solutions. Working apart the system becomes unbalanced.

In many ways this means getting back to basics: what is the purpose of government, what is the role of the citizen, what is the function of arts and culture in a democratic society? Next, extrapolate. In the new world we must redefine which resources are public and which are private, what is the responsibility of corporations – many of whom benefit from privileged access to public resources – to the society that enables them to function? And how do we reassess our own role as citizens? If democratic government exists “by the consent of the governed” – and government oversees corporations (and citizens end up owning corporations because of government bailouts!) then what are our responsibilities to ourselves and the economic and cultural well-being of our nation at large?

[A random, connected, but slightly tangential thought about the phrase “too big to fail.” It is interesting that a discrete financial or corporate entity can be perceived as “too big to fail” for fear of a domino effect, yet a more diffuse but significantly larger entity – the middle class – has not only been allowed to fail but has been actively dismantled over the past 30 years. How do citizens and people outside the corporate world re-aggregate themselves into discrete entities that can be perceived as “too big to fail.”?] 

Making art in the age of interconnectedness means a concerted effort on the part of art-makers, curators, administrators and other creative professionals to move the culture discussion to the middle of public discourse. Let’s start by taking a look at ye olde Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. —Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government….

Government by the consent of the governed, organized in such form as most likely to effect SAFETY and HAPPINESS. Hmmm. Now, according to wikipedia:

The fundamental purpose of government is the maintenance of basic security and public order — without which individuals cannot attempt to find happiness.[20] The philosopher Thomas Hobbes figured that people, as rational animals, saw submission to a government dominated by a sovereign as preferable to anarchy.[21][22]

People in a community create and submit to government for the purpose of establishing for themselves, safety and public order.[23][22][24][25]

And one more etymological indulgence for my inner word-geek: the origins of the word “govern” are from 1250–1300; ME <OF gouverner <L  gubernāre – to steer (a ship).< Gk kybernân – to steer.

Do you see what I’m getting at here? These are big ideas. We should be wrestling with them. We should be holding our government accountable and using it as a way to better our interest as citizens in a civil society. If corporations are going to reap the benefits of a civil society built from our labor, resourcefulness and tax dollars, then we should have a dialogue about how to improve the relationship so that it is mutually beneficial. And so we are empowered with a degree of control over our own lives, not at the whims of huge corporate monoliths. And we can look to our old pal The Internets for new models of power structures, increased transparency, government, accountability, information-sharing, knowledge growth and creating social equality regardless of physical place.

Okay so what does this have to do with the arts, with cultural production and new models for public/private partnerships?  I will give a very, very  basic overview. I have a much more detailed version that I will gladly share with anyone who wants to allocate resources for a pilot program or introduce me to policy makers, urban planners and entrepreneurs who are interested in strategic cultural innovation. Or introduce me to someone at Google, because I actually think that these ideas are aligned with both their for-profit mission of “organizing all the world’s information” and their non-profit mission “to use the power of information and technology to address the global challenges of our age.”

Basically our models of public/private partnership are still based on the Industrial Age – bricks and mortar, public works, buildings, commerce and industry. While this is still a vital piece of the puzzle, we are now in the Information Age where intellectual property, knowledge, research, “content” and information in all its manifestations is of increasing importance, possibly even overtaking the material exchange of goods as an engine of commerce. 

In my earlier article I spoke of re-envisioning the cultural production model through consolidating resources and creating multidisciplinary cultural “civic centers” with centralized, highly professional, experienced, well-paid administrators. These civic centers would support and present the work of many different artists and companies, in different disciplines, of different sizes, scales and ambitions. The work would be presented in juxtaposition – symphony next to avant-garde New Music, next to theater next to installation and visual art – taken from Skramstad’s idea of the contemporary museum. (The origin of the word “museum” coming from the Greek meaning “house of the Muses”!)

Each cultural center would be an ongoing “Center for Arts and Ideas” – public laboratories for experiential cultural exploration and visioning.  

You may ask how this is different than Lincoln Center or the Kennedy Center or any number of multidisciplinary spaces conceived of -and run as- cultural civic centers?

First, my vision differs in terms of scale. These centers should be smaller and more accessible, more permeable, more transparent and more nimble. They shouldn’t dominate or destroy a neighborhood, they should fit into the neighborhood proportionally with a sense of scale. They should not be imposing edifices but welcoming open spaces. They should not be architectural expressions of power and privilege, they should be beautiful, sculptural architectural expressions of the power of inspiration, imagination, creativity and curiosity. I am reminded of the wonderful quote on the outside of the Brooklyn Public Library: “Here are enshrined the longing of great hearts and noble things that tower above the tide, the magic word that winged wonder starts, the garnered wisdom that has never died;”  The Brooklyn PUBLIC Library. (Thank you Ben Franklin for creating The Library Company in 1731 and being the founding father of public libraries in America.)

Ingersoll Building; photo by Irving I. Herzberg (1958)

Ingersoll Building; photo by Irving I. Herzberg (1958)

Second, my vision differs in perspective. While I still advocate for excellence in the arts  (I am vehemently NOT suggesting that these centers are primarily about “community arts” endeavors or merely providing “arts enrichment” experiences to the general populace) I think that these cultural civic centers should be more “open source” and less “top down.”  I see these as “physicalized information nexuses”, like an ancient agora for the information age. Its like a server – a node on the global information network where ideas (“memes”) are embodied in real-time and replicated, mutating as they move through the network, returning to the point of origin recognizable but changed.  (Like “Track Changes” in a Word document or Miles Davis’ rendition of “Surrey with the Fringe On Top.”)  The creative director (as opposed to administrative director) of one of these institutions is not meant to be absolute arbiter of taste but wise, informed, knowledgeable, circumspect, facilitator, negotiator and guide.

Third, my vision differs significantly in the funding and revenue generating model. If we look at a multidisciplinary cultural civic center as an ongoing laboratory for the investigation of arts + ideas; aren’t we really talking about applied research and the creation of information, content and intellectual property? If that is the case, then why not look at the public/private partnership as an investment in creative innovation?  Why not look at it as an open-source content development lab that invests private/public money in commonly-held creative capital for the greater societal good – with the idea that at least SOME of the created content can be monetized? Thinking is good for its own sake. Fostering creativity and innovation are good for reinforcing the cultural values needed to sustain a capable workforce in a global information economy. And if every fifth project becomes a revenue-generating media product, that is significant ROI. 

And finally there is the curatorial/commissioning piece.

It is kind of amazing and not a little bit sad that so few people in the arts + culture sector seem to have little if any awareness of things like TED or the Aspen Ideas Festival. Of course, its understandable. These things are only available, usually, to the wealthiest people with privilege and access. I mean, I’ve never been invited or had the resources to attend, either. That being said, if you compare the program for the recent National Performing Arts Convention in Denver with something like TED or Aspen Ideas or the conversations one imagines they have at Herb Allen’s Sun Valley Media Conference you can see why the arts “don’t get no respect” as Rodney Dangerfield might say.  If we aren’t engendering more substantial conversations in the arts+culture sector or trying to have a place at the table where corporate and media innovators are having big conversations, then we are reinforcing our own irrelevance and making it all the more difficult to justify funding.

So I propose introducing an ideas-based curatorial model for contemporary arts commissioning which brings innovators from the cultural field together with innovators in other sectors. Entrepreneurs, urban planners, demographers, scientists, academics, media professionals, trend analysts, statisticians and others can bring a “report from the field” and, through presentations, panels discussions, moderated conversations and  small working groups they can identify issues and ideas that should be addressed in the public sphere. Cultural curators, having a knowledge of the field, will know who is exploring what – time, language, movement, etc. – or whose work would be particularly suited to a specific investigation, and begin a project development process. The process would build artist (or company), non-artist and dramaturg project teams/collaborations. Even for those artists/groups exploring existing bodies of work – early music, for example – it would be possible to creating artist/non-artist investigative teams that would help facilitate public engagement with the performance and research, working to discover unexpected and heretofore unexamined correlations between the work and contemporary experience.

This is not meant to reduce the creative agency of the artist – artists are free to explore what they wish, how they wish. It is that freedom that often creates innovation, surprise and novelty (in its widest sense). But this system will allow the possibility of matching artist investigations with synergistic public/private initiatives and provide them, ideally, with resources that would have previously been unavailable.

By bringing non-arts partners into the curatorial discussion and deepening the dialogue, the connection between art, culture & commerce is made tangible in a new way. No longer are the arts soliciting funds on vague notions of obligatory philanthropy or  the statistics of culture as economic engine. These ideas are relevant but indirect. In order for the entrepreneurial/corporate world to really see the value in arts+culture they need to be educated to see its value in the creation of intellectual property. What’s more, by bringing corporations into the artistic discussion we are, in some degree, creating an access point for meaningful public engagement with the corporate world, not merely servitude. One might imagine this as setting the stage for greater transparency and creating a framework for citizen-driven corporate reform.

As stated in my previous essay, corporations either directly or indirectly, already fund most of the arts + culture in America. But the argument we’ve made to justify the funding doesn’t hold water. This generation of entrepreneurs, many of whom may not have been educated in the arts or haven’t been inculcated with the sense of philanthropic obligation of earlier generations, needs a new reason to invest in arts + culture. The more we can do to raise awareness of – and change the conversation around – the value of arts + culture, the more likely we are to revitalize the funding base and the field itself.

This may seem a bit unrealistic or naive, and I’ll accept that. However, luxury brands have been curating and commissioning arts + culture for a long time; look at  Benetton, Mont Blanc, Rolex, Movado and Chanel, for example. But this is all mostly at the high end of the spectrum and it is not necessarily placed front and center in the larger conversation about the role of the arts in shaping our visions of society and culture-writ-large.

Instead of lamenting the ongoing challenges of arts funding in America, let’s change the conversation. Instead of rallying against the forces of globalization, capitalism and corporations let’s engage them.  Let’s create a compelling vision of the tangible benefits of supporting innovation, creativity and imagination through the arts + culture. Let’s challenge ourselves, as cultural professionals, to enter into the vast global conversation in meaningful ways, take a place at the table and assert ourselves as a vital and necessary colleague in the shaping of the future.  Culture is: 

The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.

Culture is how we represent ourselves to ourselves and art is the pure research of culture. It is where we write our history and imagine our future, it is the generator of and repository for collective memory, orienting us in space and time, as we hurtle inevitably into the unknown.


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