Will the Arts Help Us Rediscover Shared Common Values?

Sculpture of a man thinking by Rodin.
Rodin's The Thinker

All of us struggle today with determining the best response to the changing facts of life around us and in our field. In many conversations, we hear regret and pessimism rather than see the adoption of the technological and other changes we are experiencing. While holding on to the known past even as it disappears is natural, we would be more effective and successful in so many ways if we adopted a proactive, forward-looking stance instead. In order to do this, however, one would have to know in which direction to head. This is a tall order, given that nobody can really say where we will be or how artists will practice in five or 10 years.

This lack of clarity about what the future will look like should not be an impediment to taking steps in areas where we know there is need. One area where we can now feel a tectonic shift is in how we value the arts and how we should position the arts as one of the underlying premises on which our culture was built. It is natural that we should feel uneasy around this question as changes roil every aspect of culture and cultural experience, not to mention every other sector of our economy and society. We hear and see daily the challenges to the middle class; we know the service economy supplanted our manufacturing economy and how this is rapidly changing now into an information economy; we know that technology is redefining and will continue to redefine every aspect of our lives.

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These changes are so great that many of our basic assumptions and guiding precepts as a society are being questioned. Along with the economic changes that are causing us to struggle, cultural shifts are also altering, or at the very least questioning, many of the underpinnings of our society that we have developed over the past 300 years. Some would argue that we have sown the seeds of our own destruction by successfully placing the individual and his or her agency and autonomy at the center of our social structure; arguing further that the increasing chaos in the West is the natural, inevitable result of policies and philosophies we have successfully implemented and adopted.

While there may be some truth in the notion that the ascendancy of the individual is the heart of the difficulty we face, it is more likely that there is really a different, though related, root cause.

In 1995, the late historian and writer Tony Judt quoted the British Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, in a prescient essay:

Without shared practices, common cultures, collective aspirations, ours is a world ‘which [has] lost its bearings and slid into instability and crisis.’

Author/historian Tony Judt
Author/historian Tony Judt

This source of volatility they identify has only really taken hold since World War II as the individual has ascended as the supreme arbiter of experience unrestrained by any counter-balancing considerations, and technological advancements gave more and more individuals the tools for economic and social independence. If it is true that the loss of shared values is at the heart of the tumult we see around us, I believe there are steps we can take to mitigate at least some of what is occurring and strengthen the cultural position of our sector.

Broadly, we have rejected common aesthetics and definitions of art; we have adopted more subjective, relativistic frameworks; and along the way, we have lost a sense of the value and relevance of art and culture. With the loss of a common basis of social acceptance and aspiration, we are left with economics as the only basis for assessing value. By freeing our sense of aesthetics from a process of comparison against established norms that evolved over time and by letting each individual artistic piece compete on its own for value, we have removed such consideration from a common experience, leaving Darwinian and market characteristics to work. While the commonalities of the past bound us together in assessing value and quality, those same commonalities were generally and historically exclusionary and inequitable, ignoring the experiences of those not part of the ordained powerful. The musical Hamilton very succinctly describes how this worked:

…you have no control; it depends on who lives, who dies,  who tells your story…

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Artists must proactively articulate value.[/pullquote]

Counter-intuitively, by rejecting a common narrative and set of cultural value-points, we have begun to address these inequities, but have also eliminated the common bases of value, which is, in fact, detrimental to our aspirations of inclusion, diversity, and acceptance in our society. The result, truly a loss, is the opposite of what we want: fragmentation and greater isolation between us. There is also an economic price we are paying — as audiences are more fragmented without common values, individual groups face greater challenges in developing the necessary scale of audience to sustain their work. This fragmentation is one of the reasons that large-scale value in the for-profit world has shifted from owning and selling content to providing access, which is scaling towards universal, while content-owners and creators struggle with content’s value being driven towards zero.

To all of us who work in the culture sector, it is cynical and anathema to believe that our different experiences and viewpoints are incompatible with one another, that we must choose from amongst them and therefore live with a fractured world in which no one is interested in and no one understands the experiences of anybody else. Throughout the world today, as the western narrative that drove development for hundreds of years is being increasingly rejected, and the instability and crisis predicted by Judt is materializing around us, we need a substitute narrative that will bind all of us together, as various narratives have bound their societies together throughout history. In the absence of such a unifying and equitable sociological narrative, one that describes the values we share and need, it will be much more difficult to articulate those values in a way that will resonate as widely as we desire.

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Until now, we have been through a period of consciousness-raising around the selective inclusion of privileged segments of our society. The result of this process is that our experiences are being valued according to the individual “values” of the person having and evaluating the experience, rather than by some common framework. This period of “identity assertion” has been critical and necessary in order for us to validate (and we must continue to validate) our multiple and diverse experiences, but using the lens of those experiences alone, we have also established an environment in which we judge each other by our tolerance for those experiences that we support and find comfortable. The result is a “balkanized” cultural environment—one lacking in commonality, and often one lacking in empathy. If we are to restore an environment built on the commonalities of our humanity and thus restore the important role that the cultural sector plays in our society, we need to expand the conversation, to promulgate and rely on common features and common values at the same time that we celebrate our diversity and individuality.

The challenge, therefore, for the cultural sector (and society at large), is to seek out or to articulate the common, collective values, practices and aspirations that underlie our multicultural experiences and backgrounds. By so doing, we can reestablish a common value for our sector, much like what existed in the golden age of the arts after World War II, when culture was positively seen as an avatar for all that was good in western society.

An open bank vault.
For a National Culture Bank

In my last post, I proposed creating a “national cultural bank” that could provide funds for investment in areas where systemic need in the sector can be identified. My proposal was an attempt to acknowledge fundamental shifts in the entirety of our cultural ecology and the necessity of supporting parts of the cultural environment that have need. The critical notion I was attempting to promulgate is that we must look at the sector in its entirety, holistically, to understand how to best and most proactively facilitate and sustain the arts and careers in those areas.

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To that idea I now add another, this one relating to the critical need to think about common values. We must go beyond identifying and validating each of our unique experiences and proactively describe the future through a set of common values we can adhere to. Let’s begin to use our “artistic” skills to draw a picture of the future, based on common values that we expect to see; put another way, let’s model our future and begin to inhabit it. I can’t tell you what it looks like, but I can tell you that without making an effort to address this, our future will continue to look increasingly irrelevant. Artists are by nature problem-solvers, so let’s solve this problem, articulating our common values in a way that would resonate everywhere — and in this way, make the arts central, once again, to our social milieu.