This is the seventh part of a more extended series of updates (‘book’) about abundance and how our cultures’ legacy can shape a better tomorrow. If you’re new to this newsletter or missed an earlier update, here’s the index so far:
Art and culture. Culture and art. These words seem related. A careless definition of culture talks about the arts. A fuller one includes them among human habits, customs, ideas et al. Yet, they are not the same, are they?
I once worked for an entrepreneur who thought he was an artist. His art, he said, was not an artwork but the ideas he turned into companies. Impressionable as I was at the time, the idea intrigued me. In a life without art, it opened the door to becoming an artist still. Later, I learned about all the gatekeepers you need to bribe to call yourself an artist. I acknowledge and respect them. A business is not a work of art. Most art is not art. Culture is not art.
A few years ago, I taught a class of upcoming cultural professionals. Half of the students cared deeply about the technicalities of their future careers. Fully formed as technocrats, they wanted to take a deep dive into the broad question of what art is, what it means, what it enables, what may be done with it. The other half wanted to be artists. The cultural sector employs lots of one-day artists. Turned away by one of the gatekeepers, they turn to the next closest thing to the arts: the world of organized culture.
However, thinking of being a cultural professional as an artist is like thinking of university administrators as scientists. The latter makes while the earlier makes this possible, possibly.
So the question here is, why does organized culture, by and large, seem to be stuck at the threshold of the future? Our ideals, our potential, evident to us but always just out of reach. Five years in the future for the past twenty years, like flying cars and income equality. We’ve looked at the fault lines where global trends force cultural organizations to change. At the periphery, there is a tremor. But the center holds. I recently opened the pdf of a presentation I gave over a decade ago in Montréal: Museums in 2022. The trends I presented are still trends. The promising best practices, promising still. We’re stuck.
Consequently, while the arts are progressive, often, organized culture can be conservative. Science and administrator. Entrepreneur and manager. Maker and enabler.
Art and culture. Culture and art. If we manage to unravel their link, we may understand why a sector that basks in creativity and imagination, collaborates with the world’s most talented makers, and directly serves an often progressive or liberal audience finds it so hard to change, to be a force for social change. Why we’re stuck.
Art is an expression of creativity and imagination. Art reflects on or interacts with society. Art is always made by an artist. They are inseparable, even when the artist is unknown. Currently, in the year 2021, I’m happy to argue that only humans can make art. Animals can be creative, computers imaginative, but neither reflects on or interact with society in their expressions. Obviously, this may change if AI gets more complex. I’m not sure that I look forward to that moment. We may need a monopoly on art as much as a nation requires a monopoly on violence.
Art is part of culture, but not all of culture. Culture is the ideas, values, and practices people share and the expressions these inspire. Art is in the expressions and challenges the ideas, values, and practices. Art is a practice, and art is a method.
Organized culture almost exclusively focuses on art as a practice. Cultural professionals look at the body of the arts to tell stories about the world. This process is at times artistic, but not by default. Art as a method, contemporary and historically, is delegated to the education departments and public workshops.
There is a lively market for personal entrepreneurship workshops for employees. If you go through higher education, you’ll be forced to learn a scientific method — I still have APA nightmares. Yet if you work as a professional in a cultural organization that is not an artist-led collective, art is not typically a method you’re expected to know. PRINCE2 gets you further. Yet art as a method is what organizations need to reflect on or interact with society beyond the meme.
It is probably meaningful to reiterate that culture is not business. It is not politics or society, or economy. Culture is a separate and unique agreement about how we live and work together. Cultural organizations can learn a lot from businesses and the like, but not to the point of copying them. Our close association with the arts emphasizes an alternative: art. Art, contemporary, historical, as heritage, as a way to relate to people differently.
I have this dream of a workshop I’d love to do at a cultural conference once when I get a budget. It’s based on classes and experiences I’ve had myself. Participants join various actors (or real people) in this workshop in a parking lot or public square. Then, we go through a range of scenarios that a forward-thinking cultural professional may face in their career: Diffusing a heated community argument, learning from an angry mob, approaching a stranger on their turf. Also, we’ll practice crowd control, cross-cultural conversation, and constructive protesting. It ends with a faux charge of the riot police of an oppressive regime the workers have managed to offend with their socially engaged programming. Then we have a beer.
When I did parts of this workshop throughout my studies and career, I understood I was learning the method of community work.
The purpose of this workshop: to show that a more socially engaged cultural sector is not achieved with words alone: it needs practice. A practice. A method. I think art can be this method. Equally, it could be community work. The methods are alike; only the end result is different.
What does this method comprise of? A curious, outward orientation. Asking questions rather than giving answers. Trust in the unknown. Adaptability. Playfulness. More, for sure. There are countless great books on the topic if you can translate them from entrepreneurship to the cultural world. I’ve found Sennett and Rushkoff, and Manzini to inspire me. Still, others will prefer a guide on Deep Democracy or a collection of facilitation tricks.
Why are so many cultural organizations stuck? Because in choosing their method, they chose poorly. Surrounded by art and the legacy of tens of thousands of years of culture, they opted for something else.
Thanks for reading. Honestly, I’ve been a bit stuck myself this week. In between the longest to-do list of the year so far and the first proper hot temperatures (as well as four broken nights in a row), there’s a bit too much going on in my head. One week of good work will make all the difference, but then there’s a launch or presentation or milestone every other day for the coming months. Anyway, let me know your feedback; it always helps me stay focused on these updates, at least. Thanks!!!
Until next week,