Going a little off course from the previous article, at the recommendation of one of my instructors this semester (Dana Gioia), I attended a meeting at the Sidney Hartman Polymath Institute this week where he hosted a cross-disciplinary roundtable discussion on the topic of the future of the arts. It was a fairly engaging evening with a lot of comments being made by a lot of talented students who seemed genuinely concerned with the current state of affairs in the American cultural landscape.
A few sound-bite insights that I got out of the meeting:
1) The real world is interdisciplinary in nature, since you’re always working and interacting with people from different backgrounds and skill sets. This particularly true for leadership roles.
2) Grad school teaches you to talk to only your own kind, making it very insular. (So what does that make me? Damn!)
3) The onus is now on artists to gain the ability to convey the importance of their work in such a way that the intelligent layman can understand.
4) The University of Southern California is in a similar stage in development with the city of Los Angeles itself — high levels of talent combined with a cultural movement that’s just in it’s beginning stages. We are, in other words, the underdog compared to ivy league schools but right now but the potential to create and shape the future of things to come is very much there.
Gioia did a lot of different things throughout his career, including the performing and composing of avant-garde music (and being the chairman of the NEA for a while), but his primary area of focus is poetry and writing. He mentioned something about the history of the novel that I thought was pretty interesting — that the revolutionary concept of the 20th century novel was that it allowed people to take the point of view of another person (often of differing race, class, gender, social circles, etc.) and see the world through their eyes. This, he argued, can lead to a more cohesive, more empathetic, and more tolerant world since it allows people to interact and understand with “the other” in a deeper, more meaningful way.
The idea above, having its roots in relativistic principals that were in development during the turn of the 20th century, definitely has had important impacts on our culture and the way we think about what it means to live in an “enlightened” society. But having seen these types of discussions go down in places elsewhere, these arguments tend to have difficulty convincing hard-line conservatives, especially in contexts where tough decisions need to be made. In military, law enforcement, or many leadership positions, sometimes you’re required to do things that block individuals’ needs and wants in the name of the “greater good”. (Justified or not.) This divide is usually where the debates and discussions about artistic practice start approaching a gridlock-like situation.
But there is another benefit to reading novels that often gets overlooked — the inclusion of additional perspectives contains the possibility of making people happier, more productive, and more socially cohesive in an overall sense. In today’s world, the idea of connecting productivity and art might seem implausible, since recent trends have caused the two things to segment themselves into strict categories of “work” and “play”. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way, and the potential for change seems to lie in the possibility of re-establishing these connections that were once lost.
In today’s world where unhappiness can lead to problems that have serious, tangible outcomes (loss of motivation in the workforce, random acts of violence), Gioia posed that novels could serve as an antidote to many of the social issues poised by our modern culture. When people have more than one way of looking at the world, they have an easier time recovering from negative or unexpected events in their lives through an understanding of how others have coped or dealt with their own problems and situations. Plot turns/twists, unexpected surprises, moments of redemption, developments in character and story — all of these give readers the power to understand and comprehend changes in society and in life, while simultaneously giving hope to the less fortunate that things can be made different from their current situation.
Burtrand Russell had said something similar in Conquest of Happiness, a book that he wrote as a response to the social-ills that he felt were indicative of the modern condition — in one chapter, he recommends that in order to be happy, people should develop multiple ways of “seeing themselves” so that they had something to “fall back on” in case one of their “characters” happens to fall of its face. When people only have one way of thinking about themselves, they are often driven to acts of fear and desperation, especially when it’s perceived that their identity or way of life is “under attack”. (These fears often play out in politics, hate-crimes, disruptive behaviors, etc.) Having multiple narratives in their minds, however, allows people to be more flexible, adaptive, and better reasoned in responses to the challenges and changes that occur in pluralistic and democratic societies. These skills will become more important as time goes on, as the the world starts to move toward a social consciousness that’s poised to be global in scale.
Artistic Narratives vs. Personal Stories
I’ve never met a person who hadn’t lead an interesting life in some kind of way, no matter who they are, where they’ve come from, or what their social standings in society might be. Unlike most people, however, artists go through all the trouble of teaching themselves how to create meaning from their life events, while finding the means and methods of articulating these ideas into a visible (or aural) format. The results of these endeavors often lead to what we might call “interest”, and in some cases becomes a valuable commodity within the society that it was created for. Artists are interesting because of their ability to articulate things that others can’t — not necessarily because they lead interesting lives in themselves.
Most people tend to share their stories of triumph (honors, awards), places where they’ve been, things that they’ve done, and the people that they’ve met, and so on. The general public tends to focus on the whats, whens, wheres, whos, and hows of their lives, but the artist’s task, like that of the philosopher, is to dig deeper into these events and go into the “whys”. The more successful ones are able to identify subjects that people resonate with, while providing new and insightful ways of “twisting” these stories toward an end where people are able to see themselves and the world a little bit differently than before. Within these practices lie the possibility of changing how people think, and as a result, changing how the world works.
Technology has greatly democratized this process in recent years, where anyone with an internet connection and basic technical skills can now “express themselves” as an artist or public figure. While there have been a lot of good things that have resulted from these developments, the problem with this scenario is that the rate of technological progress has far exceeded society’s ability to educate people about proper and effective methods of expression that might have a chance of connecting to someone outside of themselves. The popularization of this approach is the scenario that we see today — a sea of individual narratives written for the sake of vanity or self-interest, often with poor execution.
The public is bombarded by personal stories everywhere and all the time, and the inability to make sense of all of them ends up sounding like plain “noise” to them. The rise of noise music, developed in parallel with the advent of the internet, can be said to be an expression of what the cultural landscape has become as a result of technological change. As with most styles done in this style, the overarching message of these tracks/works is the expression that, amidst the incoherence of day-to-day life, the best people can hope for in this day and age are brief moments of sanity or silence here and there. (If at all.) Needless to say, the sentiment of these works are neither one of optimism or hope. For these reasons, artists (including that of Gioia) tend to be very skeptical of the cultural effects that the internet and technology has had on American society and the world at large.
Things don’t necessarily have to be this way, however.
There’s nothing inherent in technology that causes people to behave in certain ways, and it seems fairly absurd to hold tech companies responsible for events like mass-shootings and random acts of violence, which have now become the norm. But that may exactly be the problem: the tech industry has developed a reputation for its disinterest in politics and culture, and this apathy tends to dissuade its leaders from the notion that they might possibly play a role in shaping the ideas and actions of its users in the years to come. It’s logical — maybe even reasonable — for the industry to stay this way (especially if they’re making a lot of money), but the perception that the culture of Silicon Valley is largely indifferent to the needs of national-level issues have caused negative sentiments to arise within Washington and Hollywood, generating a rift between them.
This deflection of responsibility, however, may come to hurt the Valley in the long run. The effects of it won’t be immediately obvious, but negative opinions of the sector may manifest itself in the form of unfavorable political developments (SOPA, CISPA, etc.) and satirical portrayals of engineers created by Hollywood and other cultural institutions. Until these issues can be reconciled — if its leaders are even aware that this is happening — the industry is unlikely to gain the respect and support needed in order to take its involvement with society’s grand narratives to the next level. And at that point, how much money or jobs they’re generating won’t even matter, because these problems aren’t ones that can be fixed through economics or technological innovations.
Fortunately, companies like Google are starting to move in a different direction. They’ve started to show interest in the idea of curating and regulating their content to a certain degree, and the increased activity on their front page (games, artworks, etc.) indicate that there has been a shift in thinking amid their ranks. With Eric Schmidt also having become a board member of the New America Foundation, signs that the tech industry has become interested the political and cultural developments of its society have started to emerge. The disconnect that exists now is massive and deep, but it’s not without hope — and the advantage that the sector has over others is that it’s newness and ideals of inclusivity may bring new and fresh perspectives to the table that previously wasn’t possible.
It seems like in order for traditional arts organizations to improve its image and support from the public, it may take an urgency no less than the concerns of national security in order for it to gain the support it really needs. The fact that random acts of violence are often perpetuated by members of the educated and middle-to-upper classes (including that of Osama bin Laden) suggests that the social problems we face today require cultural, rather than purely economic, solutions. The indiscriminatory, seemingly random nature of these crimes should be of concern to everyone, and people (even those who possess great wealth and success) should see attempts at solving or remedying these issues as an investment in their own security and well-being.
Cohesive societies require less security, less paranoia, less stress, and less worries about things to come in the future. And it’s the arts — and only the arts — that can accomplish this task without the expensive task of monitoring society through the use of coercion and brute force. Perhaps it could be considered an cost-effective solution that has the added benefit of having a happier and more productive society. Either way, the creation of new narratives (small or large) are poised to become in greater demand in the near future, as the changes in society begin to unfold — will its leadership see the value in supporting these causes, and will they be informed enough to make effective curatorial decisions? Only time will tell.
Part 4, New Management: For real, this time!