This has been a strange time in my little world: I’ve been traveling for work while my computer stayed home and lost its mind. I’m glad to say that sanity (i.e., memory, software, and general order) has been restored, and while I still have the sort of compulsive desire to tell the tale that afflicts survivors of accidents, I will spare you most of the saga.
What both journeys—mine and the computer’s—have given me is the opportunity to reflect on the workings of human minds, including my own. In particular, I’ve had a close-up look at the desire to believe, especially to believe the reassuring drone of those in authority.
Earlier this month, I gave a talk at Harvard that focused on some of the key ideas in The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & The Future. I focused especially on the way Corporation Nation has consigned artists to a trivial and undernourished social role, instead of understanding artists as an indicator species for social well-being akin to the role oysters play as bio-monitors for marine environments. I pointed out how arts advocacy has steadily failed (e.g., President Obama asked Congress for $146 million for the National Endowment for Arts [NEA] in the next budget, $8 million less than this year, when he should have requested $440 million just to equal the spending power the agency had 35 years ago). Yet advocates keep making the same weak arguments and pretending that losing a little less than anticipated constitutes victory. There’s an Emperor’s New Clothes flavor to the whole enterprise, a tacit agreement to adjust to absurdity and go along with the charade.
For a year and a half or so, I’ve been an advisor to a new and exciting project, the US Department of Arts and Culture, which is demonstrating the public cultural presence we need in this country by performing it. Watch Deputy Secretary Norman Beckett explain it in a video clip.
My role is Chief Policy Wonk, a title I love. Today, the USDAC launches a call for 12 Cultural Agents. Here’s how the press release described it: “This move signals an exciting new phase in the growth of the fledgling department. Drawn from a dozen different communities across the country, the twelve new Cultural Agents will embark on a process of training and community-building, culminating in the co-creation of ‘Imaginings.’ These arts-infused events will invite local participants to imagine and enact the world they wish to inhabit in 2034.” More information at the USDAC website: the deadline to apply to be in this first cohort of Cultural Agents is March 24th, and anyone can sign up anytime to join the USDAC mailing list, take the pledge as a Citizen Artist, and take part in other ways.
This locally based work is just part of the USDAC “sandwich.” On one side, grassroots organizing to engage and affect local communities in their own conscious cultural development; on the other side, a national vision of truly democratic cultural policy and intervention, fueling that local development and much more. In between, a vibrant national conversation about culture as the container for national and community renewal, about cultivating the imagination and empathy we need to create a future we want to inhabit.
In her concluding keynote for Staging Sustainability 2014, Adrienne Goehler exhorted conference attendees to support a “basic income grant” as a universal right. She put it succinctly: the current system forces overproduction in all realms, even art. The current system of grants for artists, inadequate in so many other ways, operates almost exclusively on a project basis, forcing artists who seek support to think in terms of novelty and output rather than allowing adequate time for work to evolve and emerge organically. As Adrienne said, sustainability needs deceleration. All of us need the leisure to rest, ruminate, imagine ways to throw off the chain of overproduction and overconsumption and rediscover a way of living in balance with each other and the life this planet supports.
“Guaranteed annual income,” “basic income grant,” and “guaranteed minimum income” (or six other ways of saying the same thing) describes a stipend available without a means test or other conditions to any and every person. There’s an international coalition – Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), which holds its 15th annual congress in Montreal this summer – organized around three simple principles defining a basic income:
it is being paid to individuals rather than households;
it is paid irrespective of any income from other sources;
it is paid without requiring the performance of any work or the willingness to accept a job if offered.
The phrase “basic income grant” struck me with a powerful resonance – two, in fact.
In my keynote for Staging Sustainability 2014, I was asked to define “sustainability.” “The implicit meaning of the term refers to its opposite,” I told the group. “We fear having damaged ecosystems so much that life on Earth will soon be unsustainable, so sustainability names our search for whatever can heal that damage and allow us to carry on.” But I have some problems with the word’s way of setting the bar too low, of putting a supreme value on continuation.
David Buckland of the Cape Farewell Foundation (which I wrote about in my previous blog) said that he preferred “resilience” and so do I, because it encompasses the thing we must now all do, learning from loss. But Adrienne Goehler, a impressive fellow speaker at the conference, wants to rescue “sustainability” from the various forms of abuse and dilution to which the term has been subjected. She understands it as “continuous renewal.” And I’m down with that, understanding that the process of renewal entails leaving behind whatever no longer serves our capacity to thrive as we carry whatever supports our well-being into the future.
In Conceptual Thoughts on Establishing a Fund for Aesthetics and Sustainability, published by the Heinrich Boll Stiftung and downloadable from their site, Adrienne preferences her mission this way:
I spent a chunk of last week in a very cold and snowy Toronto at Staging Sustainability 2014, a conference with the subtitle “People. Planet. Profit. Performance.” It was masterminded by Ian Garrett of the Center for Sustainable Practice in The Arts, who teaches at York University. The University was one of an impressive array of sponsors, reflecting the reality that many scientists took part side-by-side with artists and scholars.
In fact, I began to feel that we are beginning to bridge the gap that C.P. Snow—whose own life braided art and science—wrote about in his important 1959 lecture, The Two Cultures, beginning to achieve a common understanding and discourse. As Snow described the problem more than half a century ago (some of his observations are dated, happily, but sadly not the thrust, I think):
There have been plenty of days when I have spent the working hours with scientists and then gone off at night with some literary colleagues [...] I got occupied with the problem of what, long before I put it on paper, I christened to myself as the ‘two cultures.’ For constantly I felt I was moving among two groups—comparable in intelligence, identical in race, not grossly different in social origin, earning about the same incomes, who had almost ceased to communicate at all [...] By and large this is a problem of the entire West.
I’m extremely interested in the way that artists seem to be building—or perhaps the correct word is “living”—the bridge between these realms.
I used to love the original “Star Trek,” each episode a short course in cultural anthropology. The Enterprise traipsed through outer space, often stumbling across civilizations running on a distorted operating system that oppressed some inhabitants to benefit others. The distortions being colorfully different from our own, they were easy to spot. For instance, one planet made a holy book out of an account of Roaring Twenties organized crime, left behind by a prior visitor who’d transgressed the prime directive prohibiting cultural interventions that could influence the development of alien civilizations. In that episode, “A Piece of The Action,” the Iotian body politic was enslaved by mob bosses who used tommy guns to retain control of a terrified populace.
It’s official: we’re all living In Iotia now. In a just-released report entitled “Working for The Few,” Oxfam this week confirmed the colonization of Planet Earth by the forces of Midastan (named after the king whose lust for gold destroyed his life). The 85 wealthiest individuals now own as much as the 3.5 billion poorest (i.e., half of everyone), and little is being done to halt the occupation. A few highlights:
by: Arlene Goldbard on January 3rd, 2014 | Comments Off
I feel my artworks, to a great degree, they are desires that will never be fulfilled. But that doesn’t impact on what we do manage to do. Just as I feel that the great part of the demand for freedom lies in fighting for it, and not just in it being a goal. I feel that the process of striving is where value lies in life. In the process of living our life, whether it’s an artist’s, a theoretician’s or a philosopher’s, we’re doing something very difficult.
The Chinese government took away Ai Weiwei’s passport more than a thousand days ago. Each morning as he begins work in his Beijing studio, the artist places a bunch of fresh flowers in the basket of a bicycle chained outside. The bike belonged to a young German man working in China who was also arrested; upon release, before he returned to Germany, he arranged for it to be given to Ai, who has made it a symbol of freedom. Ai has said the flowers will stop when he gets his passport back.
This morning before I began to work, I listened to a meditation tape.The teacher’s soothing voice instructed the meditator to notice thoughts and feelings with interest but without effort, always returning awareness to “a natural state of ease and contentment.” The underlying idea is that ease and contentment are indeed our natural state, that resistance, discomfort, and anxiety are merely fleeting interruptions. If we can learn to experience them without attachment, we can remain at ease.
by: Arlene Goldbard on December 31st, 2013 | Comments Off
Many think that changes and reforms can take place in a short time. I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change. And this is the time of discernment. Sometimes discernment instead urges us to do precisely what you had at first thought you would do later.
What is worth discerning as 2013 draws to a close? It’s a little nuts to assess the tenor of a year on the day it ends. I get a mental image of a panel of fishes commenting on the nature of water as it rushes past: “Wet,” they say, nodding their silver heads sagely, “definitely wet.”
Still, on the cusp of 2014, I sense a sea-change in what Paulo Freire called our “thematic universe,” that stormy ocean of ideas and events in dialectical interaction that characterizes an epoch.In a thematic universe, no single idea or manifestation predominates. It’s the whole wriggling mass of ideas and their consequences that shape a moment: blind faith in fundamentalist religious dogma and its twin in overconfidence, the convictions that we’re nothing but chemicals and forces and that science will unmask all mysteries; rampant acquisition and exploitation and elective simplicity, living lightly; white supremacy and racial equality. The conjoined pairs that wriggle the most vigorously – including those I’ve mentioned – form the warp and weft of our era. But the tapestry is complex, many-colored, many-textured.
by: Arlene Goldbard on December 23rd, 2013 | Comments Off
Joseph Epstein is a conservative writer, mid-70s, who has spent much of his literary life pissing off readers with liberal or left values. His newest piece in the Wall Street Journal—“The Late, Great American WASP”—is a case in point, worshipping a bygone American WASP-ocracy that supposedly sacrificed the pleasures of mere domination in favor of power-wielding packaged with a sense of responsibility. While Epstein’s literary output has been polished to a smudgeless sheen, it still reeks of brownnosing, reminding me of the Francophone notion I borrowed for today’s title: nostalgie de la boue. Literally this is: nostalgia—homesickness—for the mud. It is meant to indicate an attraction to whatever is low, crude, degraded, to the romance of the wallow in our sensual nature without the trappings of civilization.
Why is Epstein so impelled to glorify a caste that could never include himself? He was born in Chicago, but if his parents weren’t born abroad, surely his grandparents immigrated here. He was brought up in a Jewish-American milieu he described a decade ago in an interview, seemingly completely unaware of his words’ embedded self-disgust:
[N]one of the positive stereotypes of Judaism adhere. We were not kids who had political idealism. Our parents did not talk about Trotsky and Stalin and the Party. I knew no one who took violin lessons. A few kids were forced to take piano and they hated every minute of it. We went to Hebrew school because were instructed to and we were bar mitzvahed. The only culture that was ever mentioned among the Jews of my parent’s generation was musical comedy. And you’d get these guys; these terrific brutes working in the scrap iron business and borax salesmen and they would go and sit there meekly with their wives and listening to Pajama Game. They’d come back and say “Gee we saw it in New York and the cast was better.” But there was no real culture. They were nice men, and I don’t mean to belittle them for not having culture. I’m glad to grow up without culture.
There’s been an art-blogworld swirl lately about need versus want. You can find a summary with links to relevant posts by half a dozen bloggers in this entry in Barry Hessenius’s blog.
In this context, I find the distinction nearly meaningless. Need how? To sustain life, we need air, water, nourishment, sleep, and shelter. To thrive, most of us need caring, connection, pleasure, meaning – the myriad things that account for the difference between mere survival and a life lived fully into our capacities. To keep up with the Joneses, one’s home needs a new car in the driveway or a new coat of paint. The further from survival’s necessities we get, the more we use the word need to signal intense wanting or intense obligation: I really need that pair of shoes; I really need to kiss you right now; I really need to wash my car; I really need to see the dentist. Sometimes want elides into need without noticing. The archetypal experience my young self shared with many other artists jumps an arc from the spark of awakening interest to the strong current of desire-drenched need: I needed to paint, and now I need to write.