In the introduction to Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America’s Cultural Life, former NEA chair and current interim Chair Bill Ivey writes about piano sales in 1909: 364,545, “an impressive total in a country with a population of less than 100 million.” By 1934, “sales had plunged to just over 34,000 instruments.” Yes, you read that correctly: over a 90% drop in sales in twenty-five years. What had happened? Phonographs, radios and movies. “Through much of the nineteenth century,” Ivey writes, “the piano had served as the nation’s archetypal cultural hearth, and images of a family sing or an informal after-dinner performance of a classical piece by a young music student were staples of American domesticity. Then, the ability to sing or play music and, for that matter, drawing and the writing and recitation of poetry were considered everyday skills, integrated into family life as thoroughly as sewing or the canning of autumn garden produce.”
Music education embraced this trend, “following the rush toward cultural consumption by shifting its attention away from teaching young people to make music, mostly through ensemble singing, toward an alternative that could best be described as the intelligent enjoyment of music — that is, what came to me known as music (or art for that matter) appreciation….Henceforth, the requirement to draw, sing, act, recite, play, or otherwise perform in the arts would be replaced by some form of consumption… If we think of our expressive life as divided between culture we create and culture we take in, the commoditization of art pumped up consumption — the taking in or art — while simultaneously undermining art making.”
Patrick Overton describes this shift as being from “art as process, citizen as participant” to “art as product, citizen as patron,” and he calls for a reversal of this trend. I agree wholeheartedly. The <100K Project is not about creating arts organizations to provide events for small and rural communities (a sort of artistic Wal-Mart), but rather to reinvigorate the DIY spirit that once permeated our society. The emphasis on buying our art and entertainment from “specialists” has led to dependence and passivity. It’s led to just about everybody giving up the creative process because “I can’t sing,” or “I can’t draw,” or “I can’t read out loud.” It has removed the personal element from the creative act, the “gift” (to use Lewis Hyde’s term) that makes something “special” (to use Ellen Dissanayake’s term). Instead, what we have is a transaction between strangers. If you are looking for evidence that we are uneasy with this transaction between strangers, one need look no further than the magazine stand in the supermarket checkout line, where we are bombarded with entire magazines devoted to making us feel as if we actually know the “celebrities” from whom we buy our art. We’ve never met Brad Pitt, but thanks to People magazine, we think we know him. It is a poor substitute.
Likewise, arts appreciation is a poor educational substitute for hands-on experience. In the first chapter of Engaging Arts, co-editor Steven Tepper examines the effects of demographics, educational level, geography, and hands-on arts education as they affect both arts attendance and arts participation. Of all of those factors, the most important by far for both attendance and participation is hands-on arts education. By far. And yet educators, myself included, continue to de-emphasize making art in favor of arts appreciation, arts literacy. And we’re upfront about this: we use as a one of the outcomes of these courses, which are ubiquitous throughout American universities, that students will be more likely to buy a ticket to an arts event. We are trying to create passive, dependent consumers, not creative citizens!
Why this is not only damaging to the arts (remember, experiential arts education increases attendance as well as participation) but to our society in general is described by Ivey: “Creativity, the handmaiden of hands-on arts participation, is now touted as the likely engine of America’s postindustrial,m postinformation economy. According to Daniel Pink, editor-at-large of Wired magazine [and author of A Whole New Mind], we are today entering a new age and a new economy, one that supercedes both the industrial age and the era of tech-enabled information. For Pink, leaders of the new economy will succeed through high concept and high touch, employing ‘the ability to create artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative, to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into a novel invention….” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman…agrees [in The World Is Flat], arguing that if one is to be a worker in the new global economy, you must ‘nurture your right-brain skills…’” Ivey concludes, “Old-fashioned, nineteenth century-style arts participation is a powerful incubator of creativity.”
If you have been following the reports coming from the National Endowment for the Arts, you will see data that seems to suggest that arts participation in the traditional, “benchmark” arts (classical music and jazz, theatre, dance, literature, visual art) is weakening, especially in the case of younger people. However, as Ivey writes, “If we center a new commitment to arts participation in everyday art making, creativity, and quality of life, we will not only restoire the lifelong pleasure of homemade art but will likely also seed a new generation of enthusiasts who will support America’s signature nonprofit cultural institutions well into the future.”
The <100K Project puts this commitment at the center of its mission. The leaders of the arts organizations that will be built must be interested not only in their own creative expression, but in facilitating and encouraging the creative expression of their fellow community-members, adults and children. This means a change inin the way these arts leaders are educated, creating a balance between development of their own artistic skills and development of the skills of faciltation and teaching. These leaders must make arts education a priority and not wait for the government to make a commitment to arts education in the schools — with No Child Left Behind, this has become increasingly unlikely (although President Obama seems to have a commitment to increasing arts education…but he has an awful lot on his plate at the moment). The future of the arts rests on our commitment to this part of our mission.