Many thanks to my fellow bloggers for providing abundant inspiration! The big questions of cultural policy are so vital and matter so much, yet they are seldom publicly discussed even by the people who care most. Who are we as a people? What do we want to remembered for, our vast creativity, or our prodigious ability to punish? How are our answers reflected in the way we do (or don’t) nurture community cultural life?
I was moved by Eboni Senai Hawkins’ beautiful essay on making public space for art. “Dance demands a kinesthetic empathy, a way of experiencing art bodily simply by watching,” she wrote, remarking that “Such empathy has the potential to pierce the layers of urban existence and bring together Oakland’s diverse yet self-segregated neighborhoods.”
Some of the most powerful arguments for art’s public purpose are coming to us now from science, supporting that point. Neuroscientists have have found “mirror neurons” in the human brain. When we observe someone else (or imagine ourselves) experiencing a feeling or performing an action, these nerve cells are activated very much as if we had performed the same actions with our own bodies. Mirror neurons enable understanding of other people’s perceptions, actions, and feelings.
But while this ability to feel empathy is encoded in our physical beings, empathy does not automatically infuse our own life-choices, any more than possesssing the physical equipment for dancing or singing means we will actually do either. Moving from the latent capacity to the practice of compassion must be learned. When we sit in a darkened theater, opening our minds and hearts to stories very different from our own, the tears, laughter, or perplexity we feel activates our motor neurons, setting that learning in motion.
Kenji C. Liu’s essay on art as a human right asks powerfully important questions, such as this:
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?
I’m always amazed that the right to culture is rooted in the simplest language of Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” It seems so innocuous, but as has often been noted, the authors are unlikely to have understood what it would actually take to embody the right to participate freely. I think of the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, now incommunicado in detention in an undisclosed location. Imagine what would be required to grant him that right, and we begin to see the challenge.
I wish more US-based artists and advocates would become familiar with the remarkable policy statements the rest of the world is adopting. Read the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, for instance, and ponder why the U.S. has not signed it.
….Every African American cultural invention has been subsumed into the larger culture to a point where the source is no longer recognizable, and Oakland, as a traditional center of Black culture and one of a number of “Chocolate Cities” around the country is a petri dish for cultural change. Consider this—Yoshi’s produced a jazz compilation with no Black artists, later apologizing and calling it an oversight. The First Amendment and the Serenader, where the best live blues, jazz and R&B could be heard, are distant memories. Rap can be heard in every corner of the planet, but as a thoroughly co-opted artform, I find nothing redeeming in what’s been deemed commercially viable. No consideration was given to the importance and historical significance of the Lorraine Hansberry Theater when the Academy of Art, (ironically), evicted them from their long time home….
Morally, the challenge he raises brings to mind Martin Luther King’s statement, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
In policy terms, I think Randolph Belle has it right: we know in our bones that cultural meaning and cultural fabric are central to lived experience. No one can deny the significance of the examples he cited. Every city has a reservoir of such stories: long-established neighborhoods leveled to make way for sports stadiums or freeways or red-carpet performing arts centers, leaving untold human damage in their wake.
As a result of long and diligent pressure, environmental impact assessment is demanded when a city wants to remove older structures or build new ones. The underlying idea is that the well-being of plants, animals, and aquifers should be a consideration, not just dollars and cents. Imagine for a moment that Oakland and every public entity had to produce a cultural impact study, assessing the effect that proposed actions would have on social fabric and community cultural life. Imagine how different our cities could look today if this had been required—and heeded and enforced—in the heyday of “urban removal.”
Arlene Goldbard is a writer, speaker, consultant and cultural activist whose focus is the intersection of culture, politics and spirituality. Her blog and other writings may be downloaded from her Web site: www.arlenegoldbard.com. She was born in New York and grew up near San Francisco. Her most recent book, New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development was published by New Village Press in November 2006. She is also co-author of Community, Culture and Globalization, an international anthology published by the Rockefeller Foundation, Crossroads: Reflections on the Politics of Culture, and Clarity, a novel. Her essays have been published in In Motion Magazine, Art in America, Theatre, Tikkun, and many other journals. She has addressed many academic and community audiences in the U.S. and Europe, on topics ranging from the ethics of community arts practice to the development of integral organizations. She has provided advice and counsel to hundreds of community-based organizations, independent media groups, and public and private funders and policymakers including the Rockefeller Foundation, the Independent Television Service, Appalshop and dozens of others. She is currently writing a new book on art’s public purpose. She serves as President of the Board of Directors of The Shalom Center.
Don’t miss Reframing the Arts : Advocating for the Public Culture at Oakland Museum of California (OMCA)on Saturday, April 16! Register here.