“I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.” – William Morris
William Morris was a late 19th century artist and socialist who divided art into two types – the type done by and for the people, or popular art, and its opposite, art tied to commerce or capitalism. He saw the latter as contradictory – the tying of something that gives life to something that destroys it.
There are others who have complementary views – Hannah Arendt drew a distinction between work and labor. Work was an activity done by humans to make a beautiful world, whereas labor tied one’s activities to mass production and profit-making.
In the late 1970s, the term cultural work was coined and had an explicitly anti-elitist and anti-capitalist view of art. Cultural workers saw the creation of culture as being a grassroots activity, capable of being done by all, without profit as its primary goal. In this sense the practice of art is democratization and self-determination.
In our current society, the value of an activity is tied to its present or potential economic value. This is implicit not only in the for-profit sector but in the non-profit sector as well, where funding is tied to measurability of outcomes. As funding for arts declines, we may try to measure artistic activities in order to argue, for example, that art too can also fit within an economic calculus, because it improves productivity. Yet funding for arts continues to disappear.
As artists know, creativity is not an entirely rational, measurable practice. One of art’s strengths is that it is a whole other way of understanding the world. Its value, so to speak, is that it offers a practice that is not automatically enmeshed in economic usefulness.
We can stand in that value. The ability to work together for a beautiful and just world while being free from economic calculus and quantifiable value is not in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but perhaps it should be. Would our cultural strategies and policies benefit if we framed this kind of “freed art” as a human right and necessary for true democracy, just like education and freedom?
Kenji C. Liu is a writer, cultural worker, and 1.5 generation immigrant from New Jersey currently residing in Oakland. He has an MA in Anthropology and Social Transformation from the California Institute of Integral Studies and has worn many hats: Asian American Studies instructor, graphic designer, meditation teacher, deejay, and diversity consultant leading workshops nationally. Kenji’s poetry chapbook You Left Without Your Shoes (Finishing Line Press, 2009) was nominated for a 2009 California Book Award. His writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appears in or is forthcoming from Tea Party Magazine (not related to the conservative movement), Kartika Review, Lantern Review, Kweli Journal, and the anthology Flick of My Tongue (Kearny Street Workshop, 2009). He is program director at the Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse which offers arts-based youth development and leadership training for San Francisco District 11 residents. Prior to this, Kenji coordinated the Oakland Word program at the Oakland Public Library, which offered free creative writing workshops to the general public.
Don’t miss Reframing the Arts : Advocating for the Public Culture at Oakland Museum of California (OMCA)
on Saturday, April 16! Register here.